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Don D. Cooper

Don D. Cooper, (Vietnam War Veteran), Tacoma, WA

I’m writing to request that the House Committee on Veterans Affairs undertake a serious reconsideration of an adequate and proper funding amount for the Special Adaptive Housing grant. For some time now it has remained at an inadequate $50,000 maximum grant per qualifying disabled veteran.

I am a Vietnam Era (1968-69), service connected triple amputee and wheelchair user.  I previously used the Special Adaptive Housing grant in 1980-81 when I purchased a condominium unit in Seattle that was undergoing a conversion from rental apartments to individual unit private ownership. The SAH grant at that time was $30,000 and the cost of the two bedroom unit was to the best of my recollection $80 to $85 thousand, which was at the time a median priced condo unit for Seattle. The SAH grant at that time was sufficient to allow me to completely remodel the kitchen, utility room, both bathrooms, all interior doorways, flooring, etc., to make the condominium unit into a fully wheelchair accessible home; thereby permitting me to live an independent, full life as I pursued a normal and productive career life that was as good as anyone could expect with my severe physical limitations.

In the intervening time period of approximately 26-27 years since I last used the SAH grant to buy and remodel a home, I find that the median price of a home in my area has jumped more than fivefold over that same period of time. If my memory serves me correct, I believe that I recently read that the overall U.S. median price of a home has more than tripled since 1980. Yet the SAH grant has increased by only $20,000, or 67%, to $50,000 within that same time period - not even doubling over that near 30 year period and thereby not keeping up with the cost of inflation for housing.  In 2005, either the U. S. House or the Senate considered adding $5,000 to the $50,000 maximum grant amount, but even that small increase didn’t make it to any final bill passage.

I don’t know how our newly disabled Iraqi/Afghani Vets, especially with wheelchair mobility requirements, can be expected to adapt his or her existing home (let alone purchase a first home!) on only $50,000 at today’s prices. For a fully wheelchair adaptive home we are talking significant adaptations to kitchens, bathrooms, interior doors, electrical placements, flooring, perhaps ramps or lifts, etc.

Now, 26 years after I last used the SAH grant, I have retired from a successful career life and as part of my retirement experience I decided last year to sell my last condominium home and purchase a single family home with yardage that would provide me with an outdoor living experience that a condominium building could not. The selling price of my condominium and the purchase price of the single family style home were an even trade, price wise, but I had to additionally set aside what I assumed would be adequate funds to cover expected remodeling costs for wheelchair accessibility. But since buying the home I have been amazed at the current expense of trying to remodel any home to make it at least minimally accessible for wheelchair needs. I have hired an architect and have been told to expect remodeling/construction costs to average between $150 to $200 per sq ft.  I am needing a wheelchair lift to have full access to all the home and have received bids of between $23 to $25 thousand for the cost of simply purchasing the lift - not including the costs for installation and construction.  Because of the high lift cost, I have decided to forego any kitchen or utility room remodeling, and will only do one complete bathroom remodel out of the three total bathrooms in the home.  I was fortunate to receive a relative’s donated labor when I remodeled 3 interior doors to make them wider, pocket-type doors for ease of wheelchair access.  I have decided to install ramp access to only one of three exterior doors to also cut down expenses.

I was quite surprised and relieved when I received notice from the VA last December that I qualified for a reuse of the SAH grant under the new provisions of PL 109-233 passed last June 15, 2006. These new provisions allow reuse of the SAH grant for up to three times "as long as the aggregate amount of assistance does not exceed the maximum amounts allowable for grants authorized under Title 38 ..."  In my particular case, this has meant $20,000, the difference between $30K I used in 1980 and the maximum SAH grant that has existed for several years at $50K. This unexpected windfall will now allow me to complete my remodeling project because it will pay for the majority of the cost of a wheelchair lift, even though I am still forced to scale back my initial remodel plans because of unanticipated high costs for the remaining work.  Yet overall I am still pleased and satisfied with my decisions as they stand even if they will fail to meet my maximum benefit.  Such is life. Therefore I don’t wish to give the impression of exhibiting a sour grape attitude to my predicament, or to be a whiner at the public trough.

Yet my experience and needs as a disabled U.S. veteran since 1969 and comparing it to the future needs and possible experiences of the newly disabled Iraqi/Afghani Vets causes me to be concerned that their well-being will not be as fully met as it has been for me. Looking at my care overall, I have been well served by the U.S. Veteran’s Administration and the laws enacted to provide for my care.  I can especially say that this was so in the early years of my disability, when my needs were greatest to get me started on the path of a reasonably independent and full life.  My basic physical needs were provided for; my independent transportation needs were taken care of by the automobile grant; my college education was fully funded, enabling me to pursue a normal career life; and my independent housing needs were met as I’ve outlined above. All four of the above life needs were important in allowing me to have a fulfilling life in spite of my severe disability.  At present, in giving thought to all this, I’d be hard pressed to put them in any sort of needs hierarchy.

But this is not the point that I wish to emphasize to this subcommittee. The point that I wish to impress upon this subcommittee of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs is the importance of fully funding all four of these life needs that I have found important as a longtime disabled veteran.  From my perspective and experience, the funding of one of these life needs is currently not being fully met, and that is the independent housing need. 

If I wasn’t able to live independently from the beginning, I faced either being taken care of by my parents or siblings, or by living in a physical care institution.  Neither was an acceptable option for me as I would have most likely deteriorated emotionally over time, since I valued highly my independence in choice and action, and towards which my VA funded education and independent transportation abilities had already pointed me as a desired direction.  Not being married at the time of my war trauma, I did not have the opportunity afterwards to have a third option - that of having my own wife and family to live with (this will also be the future for many of these newly disabled war vets).

My experience in meeting this need from 30 years ago and trying to meet it again at the present day hopefully clarifies my point.  If these housing needs are not adequately funded from the beginning, additional Federal tax dollars will end up being expended in the future, either for long term psychological or institutional care, or both.  We owe these newly minted disabled vets better than that.

Thank you for your time and consideration.