Low-income disabled tenants have new home, thanks to generous gift

KAREN RIVEDAL | Wisconsin State Journal, March 24, 2013

Though confined to a wheelchair, Madison resident Scott Sneve never let his disabilities limit his vision of the future.

So when he died, on March 7, 2012, at age 57, the decision of what to do with his house was already long made — he would donate it, to help others with disabilities enjoy the comfort and independence he did owning his own home in the 800 block of Troy Drive.

"His home was accessible for someone with physical disabilities," said Roy Froemming, the Madison lawyer who helped Sneve with the estate planning in 2009. "He was hoping that in this way, he would be able to pass the home on so that it would be used by another person who could take advantage of that."

"He wanted somebody else to benefit from it," said Howard Mandeville, executive director of Movin' Out Inc., the Madison-based housing nonprofit organization for the disabled to which Sneve deeded the home.

"That was his legacy," Mandeville added. "He was kind of a forward thinker."

Born in Ashland, Sneve lived as an adult in Madison starting in the early 1990s and worked for many years doing office support work at Dreamweavers, a nonprofit that helps adults with developmental disabilities live in their own homes and access community opportunities. His wife, Lori Zenke, also was disabled and died in 2006.

The couple had no children, and his wife's death prompted Sneve to consider what to do with the house they bought in 2004, with down-payment assistance arranged by Movin' Out.

The home donation was the first and so far only case of a former Movin' Out client deeding back a property to the group, which formed 21 years ago to help low-income people with permanent disabilities and their families find affordable housing statewide.

But the precedent-setting nature of his action was not a surprise to those who knew Sneve well.

"They all described him as a creative thinker, almost restless in his thinking, always looking for the next best answer," Mandeville said. "And he really was a strong advocate for people with disabilities. That kind of (approach) led him to think he wanted to have his home used for an important purpose for longer than he was around."

Another part of what made the gift possible was his personality, said Lynnea Nielsen, Sneve's social worker/case manager for the last five years of life. It was in his nature to give and convince others to help.

"Scott definitely had a warm and generous spirit," said Nielsen of Madison-based Teamwork Associates Inc. "And he brought out the best in the people around him, in his caregivers and in his friendships. People wanted to be around him and work with him and help support him."

Moving in

Because of Sneve's foresight, his house — a 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bath ranch built in 2003 — will soon be an affordable rental home for two men with disabilities.

One of them, Roberto Ramirez Jr., 52, has been living there since 2006, when Sneve took in a rent-paying house mate to help with the mortgage after his wife died. Part of Sneve's plan required that Ramirez, who has physical and cognitive limitations, not be displaced, Mandeville said, so he can stay in the home as a renter as long as he wants, while another disabled man, who is from Eau Claire, will move in within a month or so, after a meeting to ensure compatibility.

As with Movin' Out's other rental properties in five Wisconsin counties, the group arranges for property management services at the house, while other agencies provide daily living support for the tenants, including caretakers who work in shifts.

The house, assessed at $114,900 last year counting its lot, already is ideally set up for two people in wheelchairs to live comfortably, Mandeville said. That meant modifications weren't necessary. The group usually has to add features to its rental properties — such as a ramp or a roll-in shower.

"It was built to the highest standards of accessibility at the time," Mandeville said. "(Sneve and his wife) both used wheelchairs, so this was a state-of-the-art house in terms of the access. And also (an advanced design) for green, sustainable things, with weatherization and in the construction materials."

Built by a community land trust as one half of a duplex with an attached garage, it doesn't immediately stand out as different from any other modest North Side home, and a tenant who isn't disabled rents the other half.

Wheelchair accommodations

But look more carefully inside Sneve's former half, and the careful accommodations are apparent, from the low light switches and thermostat to the uncarpeted floors and carpeted walls — to allow mobility for wheelchairs and to protect against the occasional bangs and dents they can cause.

The bathroom also is extensively modified, and overall egress is designed to flow easily from room to room and to the outdoors.

"It's a very open floor plan that flows," Mandeville said. "They even have an at-grade deck on the back of the house, with these French doors that open up wide onto it, and a beautiful backyard that backs up to a (permanent stand of trees.) It's a really pretty setting in the back."

Beyond the practical advantages, owning or renting a private home — rather than living in a group home or other facility — can be empowering for people with disabilities. Sneve wanted a house so that he and his wife could live together as a normal couple, Mandeville said, and he hoped to pass on that sense of control and independence to others as well.

Feeling of home

"It's about the dignity and feeling of home, that this is my place and I've got a key to it and I decide who is going to come in and be my guest," Mandeville said, explaining the philosophy behind his organization's mission. "That's a huge difference from being placed in a facility and it's the staff who decide whether the door is open or closed, or when the lights are on or off. That's a huge shift (toward more autonomy for the disabled) that's occurred over the last two to three decades."

The donation also in a way is a continuation of Sneve's active, independent life, Nielsen said.

"He had a lot to face with his disabilities, but he didn't let that stop him," she said. "Instead of living a life defined by his disabilities, he was defined by being out fishing, going on pontoon rides and going to Mallard games. He was just a really active, social guy."

Staff at Movin' Out hope Sneve's donation can be a model for similar estate gifts from others, disabled or not.

It will never be a very common choice, Mandeville said, but perhaps for some people, who may not have relatives who need or want their house, it can be an option to consider.

Setting up a post-death home donation can require filling out only a simple, one-page sheet, Mandeville said, while the benefits of providing housing where disabled people can live as independently as possible go beyond those helped.

"It also has an impact on our community," Mandeville said. "If your housing (sector) is stable, then your needs for other supportive services that could have a social or community cost are much less. And that stability is going to benefit the community as well."

Roberto Ramirez Jr., left, with caretaker Zachary Hoff, talks about the posters in his room during a tour of the home he rents on the North Side of Madison through Movin' Out, a nonprofit organization that provides affordable housing for low-income disabled people to rent or own.

PHOTO CREDITS: AMBER ARNOLD, WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL

Caretaker Zachary Hoff, right, plays music on the computer for background noise as Roberto Ramierz Jr. eats his dinner on a table that was pushed to the corner of the dining area to make room for his wheelchair, in his home made available through a program called Movin' Out, a Madison nonprofit that helps low-income people with permanent disabilities buy or rent affordable homes statewide.

The roll-in shower provides accessibility for disabled users in a house that was donated to Movin' Out, a provider of affordable housing for people with disabilities. The colored tiles on the shower wall were selected and personalized by the former owners, Scott Sneve and his wife, Lori Zenke, now both deceased.

Caretaker Zachary Hoff pushes Roberto Ramirez Jr. toward his bedroom from the living room of the home Ramirez rents in Madison. The floors have no carpeting to make it easier for people in wheelchairs to move around.

Built in 2003, this house on Troy Drive was owned by Scott Sneve, a disabled man who bought it with down-payment help arranged by Movin' Out, a Madison nonprofit organization. After Sneve died last year, the house was donated to Movin' Out to ensure that disabled people continue to enjoy more control and independence by living there rather than in a group home or facility.

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