Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

The goal: Independent living

Finding housing for the disabled

Bruce Connus, an advocate for independent living for those with disabilities, stands in the lobby of a building where his group is renovating condominiums. (Tom Gralish  /  Staff Photographer)
Bruce Connus, an advocate for independent living for those with disabilities, stands in the lobby of a building where his group is renovating condominiums. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)Read more

Developer Bruce J. Connus admits he was an unusual date when he was still single and out and about with the ladies.

"Most guys would be looking at girls," he said. "I was looking at buildings."

With a very finicky eye. Lots of steps, for instance, would earn a structure a quick trip to the reject pile. What Connus seeks - he's now married but still has a wandering eye for edifices - are buildings that are accessible to people with disabilities.

As executive director of the nonprofit Liberty Housing Development Corp., established in April 2007, he looks to create affordable, accessible housing within existing Philadelphia communities - from apartment buildings to neighborhoods.

With $2.2 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, $240,000 from the Philadelphia Office of Housing and Community Development, and $494,250 from the Philadelphia Housing Trust Fund, Liberty is creating 16 individual one-bedroom apartments in two communities: 11 at the Marine Club Condominiums in South Philadelphia and five at Valmont Towers in the city's Northeast.

Connus' passion for his job is personal: He has mobility and speech disabilities from cerebral palsy.

Question: How many people in this region need this kind of housing?

Answer: There was a study in 2000 that 59,000 people need affordable accessible housing just in Philadelphia.

Q: And when did you decide to use your disability to shape your career?

A: Ironically, in 1983, I took the position of a district supervisor at a driver's license photo center. That was a contract with a nonprofit called Pennsylvania Industries for the Blind and Handicapped. It just seemed to gel, helping the physically disabled . . . understanding what they may be going through.

Q: When did you decide to move into housing?

A: In 1988, I obtained a job in Boothwyn, Delaware County, for a hundred-unit, HUD-funded elderly facility that also had 10 percent of the units for the physically disabled.

Q: What do you consider obstacles to independent living?

A: Mainly accessibility and affordability. Of our consumers we help with disabilities, a majority of them are either on Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability Income.

There's not too much out there in the lower-income rent structures to obtain accessibility because Philadelphia is old. Everything seemed to have steps going into it.

Q: Why is condominium renovation so important to you?

A: Liberty Housing Development Corp.'s philosophy is integrated housing. We are using typical HUD funding that would build a facility on one site and are creating a mini-institution, so to speak, where we're integrating people into the community and into the housing development by using individual condos.

Q: Why is integration so important?

A: Our mission is moving people out of nursing homes. They want to move into the community and away from the institutionalized setting. It really gives them the opportunity to make their own decisions.

Q: How do you find the housing stock that you renovate?

A: A lot of looking. A lot of looking. A majority of the buildings that I've looked at . . . you walk into a landing and there's six steps going up and six steps going down. There's no way you're going to be able to make that accessible.

Q: Will this economic tailspin that we're in right now affect your work?

A: Hopefully not. It looks like HUD is going to offer this [Supportive Housing for Persons with Disabilities] program next year.

Q: Is there anything that the business community can do to assist you in this effort?

A: We're actually going out and trying to partner with existing landlords. If anybody has a building that they think is or could be made accessible, we would love to talk to them. [267-765-1500]

Q: How do you describe success?

A: When we move somebody out of a nursing home into the community. Picture a 40- to 50-year-old person living in a room with three or four people 90 and above. That's no life.

Bruce J. Connus

Age: 56.

Hometown: Spring City.

Occupation: Executive director, Liberty Housing Development Corp. of Philadelphia, since April 2008.

He has managed apartment communities for the elderly and for people with disabilities for more than 20 years.

Family: Wife, Bernadette; children, Geoff and Leslie Ann.

Liberty Housing's mission: To develop accessible and affordable housing for people with disabilities in the most integrated environment possible.

Hobbies: An "avid Phillies fan" who was "on Cloud Nine" when they won the World Series. Cooking, with a specialty in stuffed cabbage.

His personal perspective on his work: He was born with cerebral palsy, which now requires him to walk with a cane.EndText