How can cities best help disabled veterans?

During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, more than 48,000 men and women have been injured. To put that in some perspective, this is about the same number of people living in cities such as Concord, NH, Salina, KS or Olympia, WA. With both of these wars winding down, veterans are in need of homes that allow them to become fully integrated into their communities.

In Glastonbury, Connecticut, a national non-profit partnered with the Rotary club and city officials to bring together hundreds of volunteers to provide a new home for a Marine Corps Corporal disabled by an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan. The collective effort created a new, affordable and barrier-free home for under $35,000 in a county where the median price of an owner-occupied home is nearly $250,000.

How was this accomplished? What are the lessons learned? Can this be replicated?

There are several reasons why this effort came together. First, the Town offered municipally-owned land to the effort for $1. Generally speaking, the most expensive part of any real-estate deal is the land. With this cost essentially eliminated, the project’s affordability is based on the annual property tax. Since tax amounts are based on a property’s assessed value and this home was being built from the ground up, architects deliberately kept the basement unfinished, designed hallways to be wheelchair accessible but not over-sized, and used stone veneer to minimized the assessed value.

Other factors that allowed this project to succeed were community buy-in and translating goodwill into action. When you talk to someone about providing housing for disabled veterans, particularly veterans disabled in the line of duty, who is going to say no? No one. Everyone will say yes in some way. But saying yes and making things happen are two different things.

In Glastonbury, credit is due to the leadership shown by the town’s elected officials. The Town Council and Town Manager were committed to ensuring that the property benefit a veteran. The challenge facing these officials was balancing this benevolent intent with the need to protect the town’s future fiduciary interests. By being forthright about responsibilities and honest about intents, stakeholders from both sides were able to solve a sensitive but critically important issue in a collaborative manner. The result was an agreement legally structured in a way that met the needs and interests of everyone.

The final element that made this project possible was volunteer management. We often hear about the “Sea of Goodwill” that Americans have for our veterans. All too frequently, the challenge is tapping into the goodwill in a meaningful and timely manner. When the local Rotary heard about this project, they took it on as part of their community service. They quickly realized their real value would be in coordinating and managing the nearly 400 volunteers who wanted to be a part of the effort. This is a critical role. To meet the varying needs that our veterans have requires a community agent with the exclusive role of playing “match maker”. Faith communities, service-based groups, and military service organizations are well-positioned to play this role. When needed, non-profits can step in. In all instances, leadership and coordination are paramount to success.

To read more about this project and NLC’s work on housing for disabled veterans, click here.

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