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Witness Testimony of John Gonsalves, Homes for Our Troops, President and Founder

 

Chairwoman Sandlin and members of the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today about the Specially Adapted Housing (SAH) Grant provided by the Veterans Administration.

As the president and founder of the non-profit organization “Homes for Our Troops”, my organization and I provide specially adapted homes to our most severely injured veterans returning from the War on Terror. To date, we have provided specially adapted homes for 18 servicemen and their families, and we are in the process of providing specially adapted homes to 20 more, with our waiting list growing daily.

The services we provide are done at no cost to the veterans we serve, and the majority of the services provided thus far have been in the form of a newly constructed, specially adapted homes.

 Who We Serve

The veterans we serve are among the most severely injured in the War on Terror. Their injuries include amputations, paralysis, spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, blindness, and those with severe burns. Many have more than one of those injuries.  More often than not, they are young, with young families who previously lived in military or rented housing that was not adapted to meet their current needs.

Once separated from the service, the service person and his/her family are often left with substandard housing options that put a tremendous burden on the veteran’s recovery and his or her family. This burden can be too much for most families, and at this fragile time in their lives the veteran’s recovery can deteriorate, and his or her family can break apart.

The events that lead to these situations are unacceptable, and the burden that is felt by these veterans and their families should be shared by the American people and our government.

The SAH Grant provides a valuable service to our servicemen and women.  However, the value of that service is diminishing in the face of economic changes. Also, with medical advances on the battlefield and technological advances in the housing industry, the “Specially Adapted” portion of the grant title needs to be revisited to ensure that the true potential of “Specially Adapted” is realized.

The Changes We Would Recommend

As discussed more fully below, we respectfully recommend the following changes to the SAH Grant.

  1. Increase the amount of the grant to reflect higher home prices
  2. Remove the 50% requirement
  3. Redefine “special” adaptations and allow flexibility based on specific injuries
  4. Allow cost incurred on behalf of the veteran to qualify for the SAH Grant

Diminishing Value of the SAH Grant

Perhaps the best way to describe the greatest impact to the SAH Grant’s ability to help our severely injured veterans is to summarize the diminishing value that the grant contributes to the construction of a new home since the end of the Vietnam War.

Up until 30 years ago, the SAH grant was equal to 50% to almost 70% of the average new home sale price.  A grant for 50% of the home cost, combined with the relatively low cost of homes in the 1970’s, made a substantial difference in the ability of disabled servicemen and women to obtain a home suited to their disabilities.

However, since the late 1970’s the SAH grant has simply not kept pace with the increasing price of homes.  Page 3 provides historical information on the SAH grant and new home prices back to 1969, and shows that the grant as a percentage of  new home prices has decreased from a high of 69% in 1974 to just 17% in 2006.

The average new home price has increased about 6% per year over the last 30 years while the grant has increased only 2% per year.  If the $50,000 SAH Grant had grown at the same rate as home prices, the grant would now be $145,000, which would equal about 50% of the cost of a new home in 2006.

Inadequacy of the $50,000 limit of the SAH Grant

The cost of building a new home averaged $302,000 in 2006.  The homes needed by these veterans are more expensive than the average because they require adaptations and specialized construction that increases the cost as compared to a “basic” home.

Page 4 provides information on costs incurred by Homes for Our Troops to build new homes and to buy and adapt existing homes, along with the cost for an adaptation to a home already owned by the veteran.

We have averaged about $336,000 for the cost of building new homes that are fully specially adapted based on the veteran’s injuries and disabilities.  The cost for homes we have purchased and adapted have averaged somewhat less due to the fact that two of the three families happened to live in relatively low-cost areas of the country.

Limiting the grant to $50,000 means that, on average, these young men and women will need to borrow $280,000 to purchase a home that accommodates the handicaps caused by their severe injuries.  Few, if any, can qualify for a loan that size, and so they end up living with family members, in apartments that are inappropriate for their condition, in transitional housing and, in the worst cases, on the street.

We find that to be unacceptable given the physical, emotional and financial suffering that the veteran and his or her family has already experienced.

Homes for Our Troops
Historical Comparison

Specially Adapted Housing
vs.
Average New Home Sales Prices

This table takes each year there was a change in the SAH grant and compares it to the average new home sales price for that year.

Year

SAH Grant

Average New
Home Price

Grant as
% of Home

Grant
% Increase

Home Price
% Increase

1969

     12,000

           25,000

48%

---

---

1972

     18,000

           28,000

64%

50%

12%

1974

     25,000

           36,000

69%

39%

29%

1978

     30,000

           63,000

48%

20%

75%

1981

     33,000

           82,000

40%

10%

30%

1984

     35,000

           98,000

36%

6%

20%

1988

     38,000

        140,000

27%

9%

43%

1998

     43,000

        180,000

24%

13%

29%

2001

     48,000

        207,000

23%

12%

15%

2003

     50,000

        240,000

21%

4%

16%

2006

     50,000

        302,000

17%

0%

26%

% Increase from 1969 to 2006:

SAH Grant

317%

Home Price

1108%

The SAH Grant would need to be increased from $50,000 to $145,000 to maintain the same ratio of grant amount vs. home price that existed in 1969.  It would need to increase to nearly $200,000 to meet the 1974 high of 69%.

Note:  Home Price data was derived from US Census Bureau historical reports

Homes For Our Troops

Building Costs for Specially Adaptive Homes

Homes Built from the Ground Up
(See Note 1)

Connecticut

Louisiana

Massachusetts

Montana

Eastern
Pennsylvania

Western
Pennsylvania

Average

Labor & Materials - Purchased 71,000 272,000 83,000 94,000 13,000 161,000 116,000
Labor & Materials - Donated 165,000 62,000 168,000 154,000 227,000 48,000 137,000
   Total Labor and Materials 236,000 334,000 251,000 248,000 240,000 209,000 253,000
Land (purchased by HFOT or vet) 100,000 50,000 200,000 36,000 62,000 50,000 83,000
     Total Cost 336,000 384,000 451,000 284,000 302,000 259,000 336,000

Note 1:  The cost for labor and materials at each home varies based on required home size, specific adaptations


 

Homes Purchased and Adapted Home Owned by Veteran
and Adapted by HFOT
Georgia
(see Note 2)
North Carolina Virginia Average California
Labor & Materials - Purchased 4,000 25,000 17,000

15,000

39,000
Labor & Materials - Donated 31,000 75,000 64,000 57,000 15,000
   Total Labor and Materials 35,000 100,000 81,000 72,000 54,000
Purchased Existing Home 151,000 76,000 370,000  199,000

 

 
     Total Cost 186,000 176,000 451,000 271,000  

Note 2:  This home was already partially handicap-accessible for a wheelchair-bound person, so the cost for modifications was less than the other homes.

Reconsidering the 50% Cap

A disheartening aspect of the SAH Grant that should be changed is the requirement that the award of the grant is limited to 50% of the cost incurred by the veteran. Simply put, in order for a qualifying veteran to receive the full $50,000 SAH Grant, the veteran must show a cost to of $100,000 in home purchase price or home adaptation costs.

It should be noted that $100,000 can do little these days to obtain and/or modify a home to meet the requirements of the SAH Grant. However, in the extremely unusual case that a qualified veteran is able to obtain or adapt a home to meet the requirements of the SAH Grant for under $100,000, it is concerning to think that we as a nation would only reimburse 50% of those costs to that veteran.  It would seem more appropriate that these veterans should not have to incur a cost since the price they have already paid as a result of their life-altering injuries cannot be measured in dollars.

Redefining “Cost to the Veteran”

The SAH Grant “cost to the veteran” requirement has caused the hindrance of communities, NGOs and family members to provide housing to “their veteran(s)” at no cost to those veterans.

As the American public realizes the importance of supporting our servicemen and women, efforts by organizations like Homes for Our Troops, local communities and family members of severely injured veterans have been hindered in applying the SAH Grant to the cost of specially adapted home building projects because, technically speaking, the veteran did not incur any cost.

The requirement that, in order to qualify for the SAH Grant there must be a “cost to the veteran,” should be removed or at least modified to allow for costs to be incurred by other entities on behalf of the veteran. A simple change like this would free up resources and encourage NGOs, communities and family members to help those veterans needing specially adapted housing.

If Homes for Our Troops were able to get the full value of the SAH Grant applied to the 20 homes we presently have underway, that would reduce our cost for those homes by $1,000,000 and allow us to take many more families off of our waiting list.

Redefining “Specially Adapted”

Many of us have heard and read about the unfortunate battlefield effectiveness of Improvised Explosive Devices and snipers, and the devastating injuries they inflict on our servicemen and women. We have also read how these sources of injury, coupled with improved medical care on the battlefield, have resulted in greater survivability of our most severely injured combat veterans. Servicemen and women with injuries that would have killed them in previous wars are now living to see another day, and are in need of truly “special” home adaptations.

The SAH Grant, in its present form, is primarily focused on the home adaptations needed for wheelchair accessibility. Wheelchair accessibility is very important for our veterans.  However, the uniqueness and severity of certain injuries requires that some adaptations, currently dictated as mandatory, become more flexible and occasionally omitted from the requirements in lieu of other more modern and appropriate adaptations specifically chosen for the actual needs of the individual veteran.

For example, the SAH Grant currently dictates specifications that mandate grab bars, countertop heights and depths, electrical outlet placements, door handle requirements and several other adaptations that benefit wheelchair bound individuals with upper body control, but provide no benefit to a quadriplegic or to a blinded, upper bi-lateral amputee.

A more preferable alternative to this would be to allow flexibility in what adaptations are required so that, in lieu of spending money on unnecessary grab bars for a quadriplegic, that money could be spent on providing a larger living space for ease of movement, or perhaps motion or voice activated adaptations to improve the veteran’s quality of life.

In its present form, I believe that the “Specially Adapted” Housing Grant does not provide enough flexibility in the field to allow for these homes to be truly “Specially Adapted.”   

The general guidelines for the required and recommended adaptations needed to award the SAH Grant are spelled out in VA Pamphlet 26-13, which was last updated in April 1978. Along with not having been updated in 29 years (which is before many of the men and women being injured in this current war were even born), the pamphlet does appear to offer flexibility in the choices of adaptations by using the word “should” in many of its recommendations. However, SAH field agents, whether by direction or personal interpretation, are often mandating adaptations that are listed as “should,” thereby diverting financial resources from needed adaptations to unneeded adaptations.

Examples of Truly “Special” Adaptations in Two of Our Home Projects

US Army Specialist Russell “Kyle” Burleson was only 22 when he was shot in the left cheek by a sniper during a firefight in 2004 in Iraq while serving as a top gunner on a HMMWV.  Kyle was left a C-2 quadriplegic on a ventilator and confined to an 800 pound wheelchair and the need of a hydraulic lift to lift Kyle out of his chair and his bed. Upon release from the Army and the hospital, Kyle, his wife Kristy, and their two young children had no place to move to except Kyle’s mother’s 120 year-old, 900 square foot house.

The house was small and because of its size, Kyle, Kristy and their two children lived in one room that used to be his mother’s living room. Because of the size of Kyle’s wheelchair, Kyle was confined to that one room and could not move to other rooms in the house. And because of the size of the hospital bed, the size of the wheelchair, and the size of the other equipment like the hydraulic lift and the ventilator, Kyle could not move his chair at all, except to wheel out the double-doors they installed, that lead to the front porch of the house and a wheelchair ramp.

Living conditions were very tough for this young family that had already sacrificed so much, and because of these conditions, conducting some of Kyle’s recommended therapies and exercises became too much of a burden, and Kyle’s health deteriorated.

To say that this situation is unacceptable is a significant understatement.

Kyle and Kristy could not afford to build their own home, nor was the SAH Grant a sufficient monetary contribution to their financial resources to allow them to build a home specially adapted to meet his many needs. The family lived in those conditions until we recently finished a home for them in November 2006. Although we conformed to unneeded adaptations like grab bars, fixture placements and countertop heights, we also focused on other special adaptations necessary for Kyle’s situation.

Because Kyle is confined to a large wheelchair and on a respirator, and because he lives in a rural area of Louisiana where tornadoes, hurricanes and severe weather often occur and result in power loss, we also adapted his house with those concerns in mind.

To meet those concerns:

  1. A back-up generator was installed, so that Kyle’s ventilator would continue to function during extended power outages.
  2. The walls of the house and the walls of the master bedroom were constructed of insulated concrete forms to provide a safe haven and a bunker for his family during a tornado or hurricane
  3. Simonton Windows, one of our corporate sponsors, donated their Stormbreaker Plus, shatter-proof storm resistant windows to protect the family from flying debris
  4. Knowing that a majority of Kyle’s time would be spent in his house and basically become “his world,” we constructed a large open floor plan for ease of movement and greater freedom.

Had we not constructed a home for Kyle and his family, they would still be living in the same conditions, a thought that we find intolerable.

US Army Specialist James Fair was severely injured in 2003 in Iraq while serving with the 1st Infantry Division. Although James’ memory is not clear of the event, it is believed that James was severely injured while diffusing an IED that he came across while setting up a barbed wire perimeter. The explosion took James’ hands (just below his elbows), severely injured his right leg, caused a traumatic brain injury and left James completely blind in both eyes.

To put James’ injuries into perspective, James had to be repeatedly told that he had lost his hands because phantom pains made him believe that he still had his hands, and his blindness prevented him from seeing that his hands were, in fact, gone.

The combination of James’ injuries has left him unable to live on his own, and in need of 24 hour care from his mother and step-father, who rent a small house with no special adaptations. Because of James’ living conditions, the lack of home adaptations and the family’s inability to afford to purchase a specially adapted home, James has spent the last few years sitting on his couch, hoping to someday overcome his challenges.

His injuries provide very unique challenges from a home adaptation stand-point because the combination of blindness without hands has proven to be a monumental challenge to overcome.

Because James has no hands, he cannot use tactile feeling to orient himself like most blind people do. Prosthetic arms do not work for James because he cannot see where the tip of the prosthetics are, or feel what they are coming in contact with.

Although the SAH Grant will assist James with wheelchair accessibility, there are many other equally important adaptations that James will need. Some of the adaptations we are planning on implementing into James’ home should, in our opinion, take precedence over some of the SAH Grant requirements. Please see Page 9 for a list of these adaptations. Of course it is understood that VA Prosthetics and Occupational Therapy may already cover some of these adaptations.

Planned Special Adaptations to James Fair’s Home

  1.  Home Automation
    1. Doors openers by (proximity reader)
    2. Toilet Seat (motion and large button activated to lift seat, cleanse, dry, flush and close seat.)
    3. Alarm system (voice activated) – EMS/Fire/Police/Burglary
    4. System operations (HVAC – voice activated)
    5. Sinks – Motion Activated Faucets
    6. Soap Dispensers – Motion Activated
    7. Electric Hand Drier – Motion Activated
    8. Several Hand Driers, vertically mounted to dry off from a bath
    9. Body spray nozzles in shower
  2. Home Adaptations
    1. Different flooring per room, for room orientation with feet
    2. Radiant floor heating
    3. Low thresholds to minimize trip hazards
    4. Controls for HVAC, Electrical, Toto toilet seat, etc… located on the floors or baseboards
    5. Kitchen
      1. Cabinets with sliding doors and pull-down shelving unit
      2. Stove - voice activated
      3. Faucet - motion activated
      4. Drier – motion activated
      5. Dishwasher – voice activated
    1. Rounded wall corners
    2. Sensors in walls or danger areas that beep to let James know he is getting too close
  3. Landscaping/Yard
    1. Private outdoor area with railings - devoid of trip hazards – cushion surfaced (like playgrounds)
    2. Sound and aroma, calming environment design – running water, flora, sound system
    3. Solarium or 3 season room
    4. Sitting area

Summary

I would like to express my gratitude for the efforts of this Committee, the efforts of the Veterans Administration and all who are involved in administering and implementing the SAH Grant. The SAH Grant is a much needed, extremely valuable service that is provided to our severely injured veterans.

Yet despite its benefits, I feel that the intention and capacity of the SAH Grant is not being fully realized, and should be modernized and expanded to better assist our severely injured in a manner more fitting and appropriate to their service and sacrifice to our country.

Homes for Our Troops will gladly assist the Veterans Administration in developing new criteria and technologies for inclusion into the requirements of the SAH Grant, and will further suggest the possibility of a VA Representative being assigned to Homes for Our Troops as means to accomplishing this goal.

Chairwoman Sandlin and members of the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, I would again like to thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. I would be happy to answer any questions that you might have and provide any additional information that you might need.