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The Columbus Dispatch
Jonathan Riskind & Encarnacion Pyle

Apartments for disabled OSU students in jeopardy

Law meant to end abuse may evict those in need

Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Joy Bechtol can hardly believe she’s halfway toward getting a degree at Ohio State University. A plum-sized brain tumor cut off her cerebral spinal fluid at age 12 and nearly took her life before leaving her disabled.

But Bechtol, now 20, worries that a new law aimed at cracking down on abuses of subsidized housing by student-athletes will ruin her dream of graduating from college, becoming a dietitian and living a full, independent life.

Tired of cramped quarters on campus, Bechtol moved last summer into Creative Living, which operates 34 federally subsidized apartments near campus for people in wheelchairs.

"Isn’t subsidized housing meant to be a stepping stone to a better life?" she said. "All I want is to gain a skill so I can become self-sufficient and not have to rely on Social Security."

Ironically, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a prominent advocate for the disabled, wrote the legislation that some fear could wind up forcing out Bechtol and other disabled students who reside at Creative Living’s complex.

Harkin and federal officials charged with overseeing the new law acknowledge there is a problem but say they are working to ensure that Bechtol and other disabled students are not displaced. Harkin was the chief author of the landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

Harkin’s legislation required the Department of Housing and Urban Development to count more of a college student’s finances, including parental income, to determine eligibility for federally subsidized housing.

The legislation was aimed at subsidized-housing abuses at the University of Iowa involving student-athletes on full scholarships - some with well-to-do parents - living in Section 8 housing meant for low-income people.

Students younger than 24 who are not veterans, are unmarried and don’t have dependent children must "meet the financial tests of eligibility under Section 8 in order to receive benefits," wrote Harkin in a Dec. 12 letter urging federal officials to promptly write rules to put the law into effect.

Those rules were completed Dec. 30 and took effect Jan. 30.

They are rules that Bechtol worries could rule out her residence at Creative Living.

"My bathroom is larger than my dorm room," she said. "In fact, my room at Bradley Hall was so small I couldn’t use my wheelchair. I had to hold onto things - my bed, desk, wall - to get around."

While living in the OSU dorm, she also had to use a basement door, which was locked at nights, to get in - her wheelchair couldn’t fit through the front door.

At Creative Living, she has more than enough room to get around in her wheelchair, as well as to use her crutches or walker.
And Bechtol appreciates that she can call a resident assistant to help her day or night with the push of a button. "They’ve helped me go to bed, get dressed and even open a jar of pickles," she said.

Bechtol receives $603 a month in Supplemental Security Income. She pays a $195-amonth fee for the occasional help of the resident assistant and $111 in rent, with the federal government picking up the balance.

If she had to leave Creative Living, Bechtol fears she couldn’t afford market-rate rents and would be forced to live with her mother in Westerville, which would make it difficult for her to get to classes.

Harkin never intended for the law to apply to needy disabled students, his spokesman said.

"People who could afford their own housing were abusing the public-housing system, displacing low-income families all over the country, including people with disabilities," said Allison Dobson, Harkin’s spokeswoman. "We are now aware of this unintended consequence and are working with (HUD) to resolve it as quickly as possible."

Right now, the rules putting Harkin’s law into effect count independent-living assistance as income, said Marilyn Frank, Creative Living’s director.

Included is Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation funding for such things as special computers and the resident assistance for Creative Living tenants, Frank said.

"They shouldn’t have to count money they get for vocational assistance as income," she said. "It helps them to be independent and go to school."

Between three and five Creative Living residents are OSU students who likely would have to immediately move out, some to nursing homes, if they lose their Section 8 eligibility. About a dozen other residents are students who could see their rents rise significantly, Frank said.

After being contacted by Frank, Rep. Deborah Pryce recently wrote a letter to HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson asking him to make sure the new law doesn’t wind up harming disabled students. Pryce’s staff plans to meet with HUD officials next week.
The agency released a statement yesterday, after being contacted by The Dispatch: "The department is aware of the issue and is now in the process of reviewing it to see how it can be resolved. Obviously, this was not the intent of the legislation."

It wasn’t clear yesterday whether new legislation is needed to offer an exemption to disabled students or whether HUD can simply clarify the rules to achieve that purpose.


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