By GREGORY GILLIGAN, The Richmond Times-Dispatch

RICHMOND, Virginia (AP) – William Sweeney started having an idea almost 10 years ago after waking up from a medical coma and learning he had a paraplegic.

After various surgeries and months of rehabilitation, Sweeney needed a wheelchair accessible living space that included a level entry, wide doors and renovated bathrooms with accessible toilets and a roll-in shower.

“I probably did seven to ten screenings from different locations and not a single one was functional,” he said.

“I think the first aha moment I had, I realized it was just a different perspective on life,” Sweeney said. “I’m a curious person, so I just wanted to learn more and more from this perspective. When you wake up and have had a life changing moment that changed your life and will never be the same kind of moment again, you can’t believe it, but you can’t give up.

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Sweeney, who has been in real estate since 2006, wanted to start a business to foster inclusive solutions for people with disabilities and for an aging and growing population. This fall, he founded BoundaryLess Living, a Richmond-based business that he hopes will continue to meet the housing needs of people with adjustment needs and aging adults.

The company’s first project was to empty and renovate a house at 1012 W. 49th St. in South Richmond, with universally designed access for wheelchair users on the first floor. The house, which is currently on sale, is part of plans to build two more houses in the same area that would also have universal design and features.

A universal design incorporates standard building products or design features, such as wider doors, stepped entryways, or lower countertops, so that a home can be used by anyone, no matter what. be its capabilities.

“We are focused on features designed to reduce or eliminate the physical social barriers that prevent people from living longer, safer and more fully in the neighborhoods and communities in which they want to live,” said Sweeney. “Our goal is to bring together individuals, organizations, businesses and collaborators to create a platform for holding important conversations that ensure people with adaptive needs and aging adults are recognized and their quality of life. has priority. “

Most homes and neighborhoods have never been designed to meet the needs of the disabled population, let alone the exponential growth of people 65 and older who want to live in their own homes as they age, he said.

“Adequate housing is a huge housing problem in general. We’ve just decided to take a risk, build a house, put it on the market, and see who’s buying it for how much, and we’ll do two more. And if it works, we will continue to do so, ”he said.

“Our hope is that we can help facilitate more and more housing and start the conversation to turn the situation around and start finding solutions,” he said.

The need is real, said Erica Sims, executive director of strategy and sustainability for HousingForward, a statewide affordable housing policy organization.

“Over time, there is a growing need for all of our housing stock to be more responsive to the needs of the elderly and to the needs of those with permanent disabilities or those with disabilities, regardless of age,” said Sims.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 26% of Americans have some type of disability, including 18.6% of adults 18 and older who have difficulty moving around.

And nearly a million Virginians have at least one disability, including more than 484,000 who have difficulty walking or climbing stairs and more than 335,000 who have difficulty living on their own, she said, citing 2018 Census Bureau data.

Three in five of Virginia’s baby boomers say they plan to stay in their current home after retirement, she said. But the problem is, two in five Virginia seniors live in homes built before 1970.

Alison Clarke, community engagement manager at the Sheltering Arms Institute, said finding accessible housing for a person with a disability or senior can be expensive and difficult.

“I have worked in rehab for over 30 years, so I know finding suitable accommodation is difficult,” she said. “What Bill (Sweeney) is trying to do is tap into a market that is a growing market for people who need help or are able to adjust to their lifestyle.”

Sweeney has learned a lot firsthand about adaptive living over the past decade.

It started when he went to work on a Monday with back pain. He was an avid runner and rock climber, so he believed that these pains were the result of over-exercise.

“I had a stroke in my spine. It’s a little unusual and it goes up in your brain, so it’s like being in both places. They understood that and put me in an artificial coma, ”he said. “When I got out of there, that’s when I had to figure out what my life was going to become. It devastates a family, especially when something like this suddenly happens. “

Sweeney, now 67, was single while trying to find a place to live. He ended up on the first floor of his parents’ house because ramps could be built to enter the house.

His first renovation of a fully adapted house was for himself, a few years after the stroke. He has since renovated his current home in the Westover Hills neighborhood. He also oversaw renovations of two other homes for clients.

“We get better and better and learn more and more each time,” he said. “With this collaboration, we hope to bring so many more ideas that we can share and be the resource and the conduit in helping people live longer, more fully and more safely.”

The home at 1012 W. 49th St. – about a block south of Forest Hill Avenue near Westover Hills Boulevard – went on the market this month. The asking price is $ 547,596. He bought the house a year ago for $ 231,000, according to the city’s online real estate registers.

“We have had screenings but no offers yet,” he said. “A lot of what we’re trying to do is figure out how to present it to the public to destigmatize aging and living with a disability. “

The 2,200 square foot house was gutted and then reconfigured to allow a person in a wheelchair to live and function fully. A garage has been added at the back, with a ramp into the house.

In the kitchen, counters and cupboards have been lowered. The stove, oven and refrigerator have been strategically placed for ease and convenience.

The master bedroom on the first floor has features like pocket doors. The bathroom has a shower in which a person in a wheelchair can roll directly.

“Some of these features are just universal in design. Some of it is just because we know and we live it and we just want more life experiences, ”he said.

Work should start next year for the construction of two houses behind this house. These two-storey houses are in the design phase.

The 1,950 square foot house would face Clarence Street, while the 2,500 square foot house would face Herbert Street. Richmond City Council recently approved a special permit to allow the construction of the two new houses essentially on what had been the same land as a house at 1012 W. 49th St.

BoundaryLess Living plans to build both homes without first finding a buyer.

Sweeney admits it’s risky. But her decision to embark on a single home renovation and bring it to market, and now plans to build two more homes, is based on her personal experience of not being able to purchase a fully adaptable home.

“I decided we had to do this and build them for a population that needs housing and make it easier for them to deal with other aging or disability issues,” said Sweeney, real estate agent at Keller Williams Realty.

Building new homes using universal design features has been around for decades.

Much of this has happened when residential communities for people aged 55 and over are developed or when a disabled or elderly person wants a home built or renovated with these characteristics.

“Most contractors do it either in an age-controlled neighborhood or for an individual owner and often times they might not build all of them (the adaptive features), but some of the housing like stepped showers and things like that, ”Sweeney said.

Danna M. Markland, CEO of the Home Building Association of Richmond, said builders have been fitting out homes while designing entire communities to help age in place.

“It just may not be marketed adaptively,” Markland said. “So many of these homes in communities over 55 have zero-entry, zero-entry showers where you can walk straight in or roll a wheelchair. I think there are a lot of them on the market. The thing about these homes is that they can benefit anyone, at any age, with a disability. “

Home improvement companies also spend a lot of time renovating spaces in homes for people with disabilities and the elderly, she said.

The HousingForward Sims said having affordable housing that is also adaptive is a big deal.

Those in need of adequate housing typically earn 30% less on average, she said, and the poverty rate in this group is above average.

Renovating a large portion of the Richmond area housing portfolio to special needs housing “is extremely expensive,” Sims said, as the houses are much older.

Sweeney said he hopes BoundaryLess Living can evolve and be more of a conduit for a variety of businesses, from real estate builders and developers to healthcare companies. The goal, he said, is to bring together organizations, businesses and collaborators to create a platform to address the often overlooked and overlooked issues facing aging adults and people with health needs. suitable accommodation.

“I don’t want to be an entrepreneur any longer than necessary. I am not a developer. I am not an entrepreneur. I want to be able to produce a plan and distribute it, ”he said. “We are working to make progress, but there is still work to be done. The possibilities are endless.

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