“I like staying up late,” says Connie Chu, when asked what she likes about living on her own. She also likes that she can eat whatever she wants — which means her favorite food, corn dogs. “Corn dogs are the carnival of steak,” she confides.
Although she is 40, Chu is living on her own for the first time, thanks to a newly renovated apartment building in Upper Haight. Arc Mercy Community — built through a collaboration between The Arc and Mercy Housing — caters specifically to adults with developmental delays. The more than 100-year-old building on the corner of Page and Masonic streets was built as a sanitorium in 1905, and despite its attractive location near the 43, 6 and 7 bus lines, and with views of Buena Vista Park and the Panhandle out its windows, from 2006 to 2016 it sat empty. Homeless groups slept on the sidewalk outside, and the large old windows were boarded up.
But in January of this year, a multi-million-dollar renovation wrapped up, turning the vacant space into a home for disabled adults, who often fall through the housing market’s cracks. The 16 studio apartments add a much-needed resource; only 44 units of housing citywide are dedicated to adults with mental disabilities. These units are listed in Section 811, which means the cost is subsidized by the government, and residents only need to contribute 30 percent of their wages toward rent.
It’s a great deal — and a great opportunity —for both adults with disabilities and their families. And the need for such facilities is enormous, as evidenced by the number of applications Arc Mercy Community received — more than 400 were submitted for the 16 units, as people vied for the right to independent living.
The four floors of Arc Mercy cater to the many mental and physical disabilities its residents may have, without being too institutional. The doors to units on the top floor, for example, are green — while the doors a floor below are orange, helping residents understand where they are. The stairs are covered in slip-free laminate, and the hallways are wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs. A modern elevator helps people up and down the four-story building, and a little garden in the back offers a chance to get some fresh air without leaving the compound.
“Welcome to my new home,” says Rosetta Burroughs during the grand opening event on Wednesday. With the help of her family, she told the crowd that she liked the elevator most. “That’s the main thing!” she said. “I like my apartment. It’s nice and cozy, and roomy, and I can get around in my apartment real good. You are all welcome to my studio apartment, it’s on the third floor.”
Each studio unit has its own full kitchen, large windows that look out onto the neighboring parks and streets, hardwood floors, and high ceilings. In Chu’s, she has teddy bears, a patchwork quilt, and pillows that read “hello lovely” and “nap queen” on her sofa. In her free time, she tells SF Weekly, she writes books on her computer — mostly science fiction and fantasy.
But Arc Mercy is more than just a space to live — it also comes with full-time and round-the-clock staff available to offer support. Mo Khidir, who lives on site, is the residential services manager and the job development manager. Other staff provide support for residents to be “good tenants and neighbors,” and to adjust to living on one’s own for the first time.
For those who didn’t get into Arc Mercy Community, there sadly aren’t many other options available. Chu lived with her parents in the Sunset, before winning the lottery. The task of caring for adult children with disabilities — even those who are fairly independent — can be exhausting for families. Many are sent to group homes, and some end up living on the street. In a city that strives to meet the housing needs for all, this is one demographic that is sorely left out.
And while Chu and Burroughs have found their place to call home, the future doesn’t look bright for other disabled adults in San Francisco — or nationwide. In March, the Trump administration announced that it was considering more than $6 billion in cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Of that, $29 million would be cut from Section 811 funds — nearly 20 percent of the budget.
Nevertheless, change is slowly happening — 14 more units for developmentally disabled adults just opened up last month at Bill Sorro Community in SoMa.
“At a time of seemingly unconquerable odds, The Arc Mercy Community shows that we can make a difference in our community,” says Doug Shoemaker, president of Mercy Housing California. “While there is still a lot of work ahead, the addition of these 16 units at The Arc Mercy Community and another 14 at Bill Sorro Community — a total of 31 new affordable apartments committed to meeting the needs of low-income residents with developmental disabilities — is a huge step forward, and we can all be proud of that.”