Micaela Connery is co-founder and CEO of The Kelsey, a San Francisco–based nonprofit that co-develops accessible, affordable, inclusive multifamily housing, advocates for policy changes that promote inclusive practices, and provides tools and templates for others who want to build housing based on its model.
Since founding The Kelsey in 2017, Connery has secured more than $120 million in funding to pilot programming in existing units in Oakland and to finance new buildings in two of the nation’s most challenging housing markets—San Jose and San Francisco. She also oversees strategic planning across program areas, including housing development, field building, and community and political advocacy.
Connery’s lifelong advocacy for people with disabilities stems from her relationship with her late cousin and close friend, Kelsey Flynn O’Connor. The Kelsey co-founder and chief inspiration for the organization, O’Connor lived with multiple disabilities. As the two grew up together, Connery saw firsthand the obstacles many disabled people face in accessing the same resources as their nondisabled peers. Determined to work on solutions, Connery realized there was no cohesive model for housing that would allow people like her cousin to live independently in a mixed community, so she set out to build one.
The Kelsey’s model for accessible, affordable, inclusive communities allows disabled and nondisabled people with a wide range of incomes, needs, and life experiences to live side by side in equally high-quality homes. Locations are chosen for their proximity to jobs, community, culture, services, and transit, while architecture and engineering go beyond building code requirements to implement universal design. In addition, thoughtful but optional community outreach programs foster interaction, understanding, and connectedness, leading to mutual support and a sense of belonging.
Connery is proudest of the role The Kelsey plays in shifting the narrative of what disability-forward housing looks like. The Kelsey is spearheading a movement for equity co-led by people with disabilities—voices that should have been at the forefront a long time ago. Connery envisions a world where inclusive housing is the norm and people with disabilities have true options for community-based living. She believes The Kelsey’s work will show that everyone is better served by design choices that include disabled people. Prior to founding The Kelsey, Connery published leading research as a fellow at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. Her findings identified what became the core elements of The Kelsey’s design and programming principles. Before that, she served for 12 years as CEO of United Theater, a nonprofit organization she founded at age 15 to foster inclusion and leadership among disabled and nondisabled students through the arts.
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: [00:00:10] Hi there. Thanks for joining me on Rethink Real Estate for Good. I’m Eve Picker and I’m on a mission to make real estate work for everyone. I love real estate. Real estate makes places good or bad, rich or poor, beautiful or not. In this show, I’m interviewing the disruptors, those creative thinkers and doers that are shrugging off the status quo in order to build better for everyone. And speaking of building better, I’m very excited to share that my company, Small Change, is now raising capital through a community round that is open to the public. Small Change is a leading equity crowdfunding platform for impact investment in real estate. For as little as $250, anyone 18 and over can invest in Small Change, helping to fuel our growth as we disrupt the old boys club of capital that routinely ignores so many qualified people and projects. Please visit Wefunder.com/smallchange to review the full details of our raise and to make an investment if you can. And remember, investing is risky. Don’t invest more than you can afford to lose.
Eve: [00:01:51] Michaela Connery is co-founder and CEO of the Kelsey, a non-profit focused on inclusive housing for people with disabilities. Michaela’s lifelong advocacy grew out of her relationship with a late cousin and close friend, Kelsey Flynn O’Connor, who lived with multiple disabilities. As the two grew up together, Connery saw firsthand the obstacles many disabled people face in accessing the same resources as their non-disabled peers. Determined to work on solutions, Connery realized that there was no cohesive model for housing that would allow people like her cousin to live independently in a mixed community. So, she set out to build one. Since founding the Kelsey in 2017, Connery has secured more than 120 million in funding to pilot programming in existing units and to finance new buildings in two of the nation’s most challenging housing markets, San Jose and San Francisco. You’ll want to hear more.
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Eve: [00:03:32] Hello Michaela. I’m really excited to talk with you today.
Micaela Connery: [00:03:35] Thanks for having me. Excited to chat with you too and share more.
Eve: [00:03:40] So, let’s start with this. What is The Kelsey?
Micaela: [00:03:44] Yeah. So, The Kelsey is an organization that both advocates for and develops disability forward housing that’s affordable, accessible and inclusive. We are a not-for-profit based in San Francisco, working both in the Bay Area but also nationally. Our work began with Kelsey, our co-founder, who was a disabled advocate and my cousin, and can share more on that. And yeah, our mission is really to address what we see as both a really critical but too often overlooked housing need of people with disabilities. 1 in 4 Americans who live with a disability, addressing their housing need, and also recognizing that building housing that meets that need, that’s affordable, accessible and inclusive actually just makes better housing and communities for all people.
Eve: [00:04:35] It does. So, let’s go back and tell me why you started it. Like, take me on the journey.
Micaela: [00:04:40] Yeah. So, as I mentioned, my co-founder and my cousin and dear friend Kelsey, she and I really grew up together and, you know, went through every life milestone together and through all of those, you know, experienced, you know, access and inclusion or in some cases, lack of access and inclusion through really all life stages. And, you know, whether that was at our schools or in summer camps or church or recreational stuff or travel. And so, that was just a part of our lives and how we saw the world. And when we were both in our 20s, similarly, life milestones going through at the same time. We were both, you know, in that phase of life where we were looking to move out of our parents’ home, and Kelsey didn’t use verbal language to communicate, she used modified signs. But she made it very clear that she was ready to move out on her own. And the options were just incredibly lacking and limited for her and particularly lacking the option for integrated, community based, inclusive housing where she could live not only with other people with disabilities, but in real community, with people of all backgrounds and disability.
Micaela: [00:05:52] And, you know, recognized really quickly that what I thought might have been a unique issue to Kelsey based on her level of support need and where she lived was not unique to her at all. And in fact, Kelsey was an example of a much larger systemic issue of a lack of housing for people with disabilities. We had affirmed in this country through a lot of policies and rights-based work, the right of people with disabilities to live in the community of their choice and can talk more about what those policies are. But that that right was 100% not made a reality and that it was particularly acute for people in lower income communities and communities of color. And so, that led me to go on this journey to first understand like, what was this problem, who was solving it, what was the system around it that I could plug into and be a part of solutions and ultimately realize that solution didn’t exist and created that within the Kelsey.
Eve: [00:06:49] Wow. So, can you talk about some of the biggest issues you saw her struggle with? I mean, what were the reasons why it was so difficult to find housing?
Micaela: [00:06:58] Yeah, this is something that I really looked to investigate right off the bat, both as it related to Kelsey, but also as it related to like disability housing more broadly. Because one of the things that was really clear once I started to both, you know, with Kelsey and her family, but also talking to other people with disabilities, is that nobody kind of disagreed that there is a need for housing for people with disabilities. But, you know, it was hard to create some clear language around what that actually means. What is housing mean for people with disabilities? And that gets to your question around like what were the barriers and what I categorize and saw as the barriers, and this still informs our lens of our work today. I said earlier, affordable, accessible and inclusive. Those are our focus areas at the KELSEY, because those are the three barriers that we’re actually seeking to overcome in our model of both housing development and housing advocacy. And so, really what gets in the way of people with disabilities ability to live in community of their choice is one, a lack of affordability where folks with disabilities are disproportionately likely to be low and extremely low income. Our SSI system forces people to live in extreme poverty. So, those individuals, 4 million plus Americans who rely on SSI are at the lowest of incomes in our country. And other disabled people, you know, have other affordability considerations, not to mention just broadly in this country, we have an affordable housing need. So, the first barrier is really people couldn’t afford to live where they wanted to live. The second barrier then came that even in some cases if you solve for affordability, which was not being solved for, that then there was the gap in accessibility.
Micaela: [00:08:37] And accessibility we really define as anything to do with the built environment, so that even once people found housing, it wasn’t located in an accessible space, their unit wasn’t accessible to them, the amenities weren’t accessible, it didn’t meet their specific access needs and wasn’t designed for them. And then really the third barrier that came in had to do with inclusivity, which was really about the operations and the services that, you know, if you solve for one and two, that then still, and this was particularly true for Kelsey. Kelsey was somebody who used 24-hour support and care and that communities, you know, weren’t designed to be connected to the kind of services that, you know, Kelsey needed in her home, in the community. And that still, and we can have a long conversation about this, that still there’s a really, what I would say, unfortunate, if not dangerous sort of, you know, divide in saying, oh, people with disabilities use supportive services, those ones go to facilities and group homes. Like if you have less needs, then you can live in community-based housing. And we reject that concept. And really then it’s about how do you design communities where people with disabilities, regardless of the level of their support need, have access to integrated, diverse community with diverse neighbors and diverse experiences and within that community have access to the services they need to not just survive, but thrive there.
Eve: [00:10:03] Yeah, because disabilities come in all shapes and sizes, don’t they? Which makes it. And yeah, we have, I mean it’s already very difficult to build affordable housing, but to then be able to address all of the issues that need to be overcome, that must be an enormous project.
Micaela: [00:10:19] Yeah, well, you know, I think I would say yes to people with disabilities, you know, have diverse access needs and are a heterogeneous population. One size does not fit all. I would challenge a little bit that building disability forward housing has, you know, additional complexities by nature of the fact that disabled people have different needs because, you know, what we found is that actually if you just anchor on these access needs from the start, they’re just better design choices that for, you know, in 90% of times don’t actually bring additional costs to a project or make it any more difficult. It’s just shifting to have that consciousness, that access and disability is a natural part of the human experience, and we should be designing spaces that reflect that, you know, just like we would, you know, now it’s, you know, there are so many things that are standard around how we think about and develop housing and include within that, you know, access can be one of those things. It’s it’s a choice not to include that. And we would say it’s an opportunity to include that to create better spaces.
Eve: [00:11:23] Yeah, no, that makes a lot of sense. I think at least where I live, the zoning codes have required inclusion of accessible units in all sorts of projects and sometimes it doesn’t make sense. They can be really high-end projects and you’re required to set aside a certain number of accessible units which, you know, they might be available, they might not be available, they may not be affordable. It makes a lot more sense to address the entire building in some way.
Micaela: [00:11:53] Yeah. And we think that that’s the interesting thing about disability too, is that like, while I mentioned the affordability consideration, like and it is the case that, you know, many people with disabilities live on low and extremely low income. There are people with disabilities at all levels of income, including high income, workforce housing, you know, teachers, you know, direct service workers. There are disabled people at all levels. And so, we should be really thinking about how do we define and design housing of all types to include accessibility. The design principle that we’ve used at the Kelsey Air Station, which is our first community that’s under construction right now, is that 100% of our units are visitable and adaptable, meaning that if you are a person with disabilities, you can one visit any unit. So, because we would see communities where, you know, you couldn’t have a friend over if they used a wheelchair because they couldn’t get into your apartment. That’s a terrible way to build community.
Micaela: [00:12:48] So, that 100% of our units are visitable and adaptable, meaning a guest with disabilities could come in, enjoy dinner, use the restroom, you know, be in the unit, and then 100% of units are adaptable without, you know, skills or training that somebody could come in and adapt their unit to make it fully accessible for their needs. And then 25% of the units are specifically already adapted and designed with, you know, enhanced accessibility features. But like, all countertops are the same height. And I’m a very tall person, and I would tell you that that works. All the countertops are the same. All the widths and spaces and additional design features for access are included everywhere. Backing for grab bars are included everywhere. And that’s just.
Eve: [00:13:33] That’s basic, yeah.
Micaela: [00:13:34] It’s smart to do also from an efficiency and a turnover because you’re not saying, oh, like you have to go into that one unit or what if you have less or more or whatever it is. It’s just a, it’s a better, it’s better for disabled people, it’s better for owners and operators, and it’s better for future residents who could become disabled or have a disabled child or have a disabled guest. It’s just all across the board better.
Eve: [00:13:55] I’m sure you’ve made comparisons between these buildings that you’ve built following these procedures versus a regular building and what is the cost increase when you provide 100% adaptable units?
Micaela: [00:14:08] Yeah, so our community, I mean, we’re in the Bay Area, so cost is expensive to start with. But we have found if you compare our buildings to comparable projects, it is not like significantly more expensive. I don’t have a specific dollar amount to give you and that’s something that we once we’re finished with construction, we can probably give those numbers more directly. But that from our initial budgeting and estimating that we’ve done with all of our contractors and partners, it is not measurably more expensive to do these accessible projects than it would to do other kinds of projects. The cost comes in on accessibility when most people grumble about accessibility being more expensive, it’s because they didn’t do it from the beginning, and it’s incredibly expensive to retrofit.
Eve: [00:14:52] To retrofit yeah. Because you’ve got to have wide enough doors and you’ve got to have, you know, think about your hallways and everything from the beginning, right?
Micaela: [00:15:00] Yeah. But if you build that in, then it’s just in your cost. And our units are tighter. Our studios are at 490 our twos are around 700ft², about. So, there are like also people are like, Oh, that’s going to be this huge building. It’s going to have a massive footprint. We’re doing like dense infill development with these kinds of accessibility. So, it’s really feasible to do it. But again, it’s the intentionality of doing it from the start.
Eve: [00:15:26] I can see a primer in the works here.
Micaela: [00:15:29] Yeah, yeah.
Eve: [00:15:30] For contractors.
Micaela: [00:15:32] Yeah, we do actually have something called our Housing Design Standards for Accessibility and Inclusion. Those are at thekelsey.org/design and these are a set of design guidelines and design strategies for people doing cross disability accessibility and not just around some of the stuff that we’ve talked about, but it starts with community engagement and outreach from the project conception, obviously through all the units and the built environments, but up into resident services and operations. And it’s, you know, 300 elements that people can use in their own projects or, you know, as a funder or as a developer to define what accessibility looks like. And we’ve got folks using them all across the country and they’re just a really, we like went from our first community to our second and we felt like we had to retrain our whole design and development team on all of our accessibility goals and what it meant and what cross disability accessibility meant and all of that. We were like, why isn’t there a standard that we can just share with our team? And there wasn’t. So, we created one and it’s up for folks to use exactly in that way as a primer.
Eve: [00:16:34] That’s great. So, when did you launch the organization?
Micaela: [00:16:37] So, we are just coming up on five years. Our first round of funding came in March of 2018 and that launched us into a community organizing work we did across the Bay Area called, Together We Can Do More, as well as securing our first two sites in that time. So, we’ve been around for just about five years.
Eve: [00:16:57] And how many projects have you built? They’re all in the Bay Area so far.
Micaela: [00:17:00] Yeah. So, we have a project under construction in San Jose of 115 mixed income homes for people with or without disabilities. We’ll be breaking ground soon on a similar 112 home community in San Francisco right across from City Hall. We also have a small pilot that we operate providing residents services within an existing project in Oakland, so all in the Bay Area. But then we also do technical assistance where we might not be the developer, but we help support other people working on housing projects or housing adjacent projects where they’re working on being disability forward and needing capacity building or project scoping or feasibility studies or community engagement support. And so, we’ve done technical assistance both across the Bay, across California and nationally, too.
Eve: [00:17:51] So, it sounds like you’re not always the developer. How do these projects get developed?
Micaela: [00:17:56] Yeah. So, we are not always the developer in these examples of the projects that are under construction or about to be, we are the co developers, so we work in partnership with local, you know, both for profit and not for profit housing developers, building, you know, these communities and they come on and we share development responsibilities. Us obviously really leaning into the disability forward elements of the project and our development partners, you know, sharing their, you know, track record with just developing standard affordable or mixed income housing and our technical assistance work that really ranges from, you know, as we talked about at the beginning, disability. You know, disabled people are, you know, parts of communities everywhere. And so, our technical assistance clients range from affordable housing organizations who, you know, know that they are serving or desire to serve disabled people, but it’s not explicitly their mission and want to do that better and understand, you know, community engagement or dealing with regulation around disability services and compliance there or involving more disabled people in their design and development process. And so, we do that.
Micaela: [00:19:03] We’ve also worked with disability service organizations who deliver services, and as part of those services, aim to provide housing or support somebody in the provision of housing for the people that they serve but aren’t a housing developer or housing expert. And so, we’ll lend development capacity to them. And then we’ve also worked with some finance organizations who are thinking about how to think about accessibility or disability inclusion within the projects that they fund. And so, helping them think about, you know, design and development guidelines like our design standards as it relates to ecosystems of multiple projects, not just a single one. And so, you know, it really ranges in terms of all the different players, and we do a lot of stakeholder mapping of, there’s a lot of players who impact how housing gets built and who housing gets built for. And so, we really are open to lending capacity for any of the people who are moving the needle on getting housing out there to make sure that needle is moving towards more disability forward models.
Eve: [00:20:04] So, how is leasing managed and how long is the waiting list?
Micaela: [00:20:09] The community that’s under construction in San Jose will open in the first part of 2024. And so, we’ve actually just hired our resident services director who’s just starting that leasing, the marketing and leasing process and partnership with our property management and other compliance partners. Um, we don’t know how long the ultimate wait list will be, but I can tell you that even just on having like a, we have like a general form that people without any active outreach just sort of having it up there, we’ve got several hundred people who have like put their names to be notified when the lottery comes on. We imagine when we actually market it, that number will grow just from based on what we’ve seen both in affordable housing generally and particularly for people with disabilities. Our process works in that 25% of our homes are explicitly reserved for people with disabilities who utilize supportive services. And we have tenant referral organizations and partners who help us verify, you know, residents, you know, having eligibility under that criteria of being disabled and using services. And then within that, people qualify. And based on that criteria and income and there’s a lottery, then out of the qualification. And then the other 75% of the homes are available and marketed based on income, whether or not you have a disability. And it may also be the case that there are people, it will likely be the case, that there are people in those 75% of homes who might not qualify as a person with disabilities who use supportive services, but they’re a teacher who uses a wheelchair in San Jose, who likes the middle-income home, who still is disabled and comes through those 75%.
Micaela: [00:21:47] So, you know, people with disabilities will exist in both categories. And I’ll just note that we do specifically do a lottery. I saw a lot of communities that operate, especially in disability founded models or disability focused models that do waitlists. But we feel really strongly that, you know, we shouldn’t preference people who had involvement in the process or who are in the know and able to get in line first that we, you know, have a very specific affirmative marketing goal to make sure this community is known and particularly underserved and underrepresented, low and extremely low income communities, as well as communities of color in the cities we build and making sure that all people have an equal chance of getting a home in the building so people will qualify, get in and then be ultimately selected through a lottery, to try to give the most open process.
Eve: [00:22:43] I do want to get back to some of the policy questions you alluded to. And I’m just wondering what the biggest hurdles have been for you and what challenges you still have.
Micaela: [00:22:52] Yeah, I think we look at our policy focus as not far off from the framing of affordable, accessible and inclusive either. The biggest hurdles around building disability forward housing as we created at the Kelsey as one like, you know first of all, full stop, we don’t have a universal right to housing in this country and we are under subsidizing a system that needs more subsidy overall. And so, we exist within that as a housing development organization, regardless of whether we’re focused on disability. But I will say that the existing financing sources for affordable housing, very few target disabled people as they’re kind of, you know, when you apply for funding, there’s different sort of target populations and disability is not included typically in like preferences or scoring for programs. And often if it is included, it only applies if you are a disabled person experiencing homelessness. And we 100% believe that disabled people experiencing homelessness should be provided housing. But we also believe that you shouldn’t have to become homeless.
Eve: [00:23:59] In order to get it, yeah.
Micaela: [00:24:01] In order to get it. And so, it’s a both, and situation there that we need to have subsidy that provides housing for disabled people who are living in a household with parents or guardians who are aging. We need to provide funding to disabled people who are in an institution or a hospital and are ready to move out but have nowhere to move into the community. And so, just one like increasing public subsidy into, you know, housing and particularly making sure that that subsidy includes, you know, either incentives or requirements to include homes for disabled people. The main federal program that exists around that is the HUD 811 program. And we do a lot of advocacy to increase that. But that can’t be the only, and I’d also say that like we’ve also seen that a lot of our funding sources, even including like, you know, recent Nofas put out by the city of San Francisco, while well intended, a lot of these funding sources actually like don’t adhere to some of the goals of community integration and building mixed communities of people with and without disabilities of all incomes. You know it’s this sort of like let’s solve all together and concentrate extremely low-income housing. And I understand the need because we need to build more of that housing. But we also do need to think about Olmstead, which is the the Supreme Court ruling that mandates, you know, the right to community living for people with disabilities as well as, you know, the integration mandate of the Americans with Disabilities Act, that we need to make sure our housing policies live up to that integrated community model and that our funding sources not only incentivize it, but don’t actually disincentivize it, which sometimes they do.
Eve: [00:25:42] Right, right.
Micaela: [00:25:43] And then I’d say the two other policy focuses are around that accessibility. As you pointed out, there’s a lot of confusing and sometimes compliance heavy accessibility focuses where, when people think about accessibility of the built environment, it’s like one just like, oh, endless regulations, you know, opaque guidance. You know, I never know what I’m going to get. This funding source requires this, and this funding source requires that. And so, doing some work to streamline and clarify baseline accessibility so that all communities meet increased baseline accessibility, which they should, as well as that would be considered a stick. That’s a requirement and we think that’s important. But also layering that with incentives, carrots of how do you, in addition to just requiring a baseline accessibility, how do you provide incentives or systems that support enhanced accessibility or provide technical assistance or capacity building for people to do really robust accessibility? And so, we’re working on some federal legislation that’s going to be introduced in the Senate soon, specifically around that.
Micaela: [00:26:49] And then the third area is really about housing related services and that, you know, we have underfunded Medicaid in this country significantly. And California, where we’re based, relatively speaking, has robust supportive services. But that’s even that relatively is still not enough. We don’t pay direct care workers enough. We don’t, some states haven’t opted into waitlists or into waiver programs and still run waitlists where people can’t have access to services and are waiting to receive the services that they need. And so, even though we are not a service provider at the Kelsey, we recognize that people’s access to Medicaid and other supportive service programs directly impacts their ability to live in the community of their choice. And so, we we don’t necessarily lead advocacy in the service funding area, but we definitely participate in support and lift that up as that. Those two things have to go hand in hand. And perhaps there’s also opportunities which we do work on, is how to better coordinate between housing systems and service delivery systems to serve people better. When we de-institutionalized in this country, we sort of said, okay, here all you disabled people, you can take your money for services and go live wherever you want, and quote unquote, and we never actually built the live wherever you want things. And therefore, our housing system sometimes don’t even think about disabled people who use supportive service as like their responsibility or on their docket. They think, oh, those people are like served in group homes or some other things. They’re not like who the state of California is developing affordable housing for or who the city is responsible for. That’s like another system, and that’s absolutely wrong. The housing infrastructure has a responsibility to serve these people but has an opportunity to leverage service dollars coming out of the service systems once that housing is built. And so, how do we get those systems in our post institution world, getting those systems to work better to to meet the true goal of community living?
Eve: [00:28:47] How many people with disabilities are there in the US?
Micaela: [00:28:52] 61 million, I believe, is the most recent number. That’s 1 in 4 people.
Eve: [00:28:58] 1 in 4 people. And if you add into that, seniors who are having trouble getting around and could probably benefit from housing that thinks about that, you know that’s a lot of people yeah.
Micaela: [00:29:10] Think the 1 in 4 does include older adults with disabilities but yes. You’re exactly right.
Eve: [00:29:15] I mean, it’s not even necessarily a disability. You know, your knees are creaky. You don’t want to take steps anymore like, you know, sort of basically, you know, lifestyle hurdles that you start having.
Micaela: [00:29:26] Yeah, it’s a huge population. It’s also a diverse population, as we talked about before. We spend a lot of time too, like, I think it can be a both, and of thinking about the big tent disability of we are a stronger political movement when disabled people and allies like think about and advocate for disability holistically and don’t separate based on you know, do you have this type of disability or that type of disability or are you this age or that age or, you know. Just really take a big tent approach. And then you can within that big tent also be very intentional around specific interventions of supporting specific access needs or specific service needs. I feel like, you know, sometimes we’ve diluted our power as a disability rights movement of, you know, I go to conferences where it’s like, well, this is for high support need people not low support. And it’s like, okay, let’s just like talk about that all people need support and let’s like build for that.
Eve: [00:30:21] I love that approach, yeah. It makes a lot of sense. Who else is working in this space? Should there be more of you?
Micaela: [00:30:27] Yeah. Fortunately, I think there have been more and more developments coming up focused on disability access and inclusion. We actually, with that in mind, you know, part of the Kelsey’s mission has from day one always been like, we seek not to be the only. We seek to be a part of a robust field of a lot of people doing these kinds of developments. Like it would be crazy if there was one senior housing developer in the country. There’s not. There’s, you know, thousands of developers who do that. And there should be, you know, all developers should be doing disability forward development as part of what they do. We convene a group called the Inclusive Houser Network that includes housing developers that have, you know, individual projects. You know, one in Maryland, another one that’s getting developed in Maine, some work out of Chicago, something happening in Denver, in the DMV, Washington, DC area, to name a, Pacific Northwest.
Micaela: [00:31:24] So, there are some, you know, single projects. And one of the things that we do at the Kelsey is really try to bring those disparate organizations together to share best practices, start to build like an industry group, and then also have that group be working on shared policy priorities. Again, building power for this issue together. And we also hope again with things like the design standards and our technical assistance, like one of our goals is also like, hey, you developer, take what we have, run with it, it’s free, it’s Available. We want to make it so that every developer can say that they are a disability forward housing developer and sharing the tools and strategies that make that possible.
Eve: [00:32:04] So, I have to ask, what’s your background? You’ve got a lot of knowledge wrapped up in this.
Micaela: [00:32:09] Yeah. So, you know, I often say as it relates to this work, my initial background is as Kelsey’s cousin and just really from a young age, and I think about this a lot as a currently non-disabled person leading a disability organization, but that my whole life has been really wrapped up in, you know, disabled allyship and what that means in a, you know, a powerful way to share power and build opportunities in that way. And Kelsey really taught that to me. And that, you know, was from a very, whether when we were like 13 years old and our mothers had the brilliant idea that like we would be each other’s support staff at a summer camp, just the two of us or many other things that throughout our lives. I think I actually was younger than 13. But anyway, so my background really started with Kelsey. I also, prior to this, because of Kelsey, I had started a school-based inclusion program. I was a theater kid growing up and was perturbed by the lack of disabled representation in our arts programming in our school, and so redeveloped arts programming for people with and without disabilities that was student led and led by students with and without disabilities to do theater. And, you know, just as it leads to this, that was like this aha moment as Kelsey was going through her own housing challenges. And I was seeing this on a family level. I was running this education program and seeing our young people who were graduating our school programs was in middle and high schools. And we had talked in the education programs, all our entire kind of theory of change was like, inclusive education and recreational programs like prepare students for more meaningful inclusive adulthoods.
Micaela: [00:33:47] And it was like those inclusive adulthoods did not exist. And that was really a part of the inclusive concept of the Kelsey really building integrated communities was to realize that promise of inclusion that our education system is making to students with and without disabilities. But our housing and community development infrastructure is not meeting. And so, that was that. And then I kind of did, more formally before launching the Kelsey in 2018, was a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School and eventually as a Mitchell Scholar at the University College Dublin too. But at Harvard I was a Research Fellow on housing and disability publishing my initial research on this that really formed the Kelsey and did the Social Innovation Fellowship there also to initially design the Kelsey’s business model so that that helped launch into this work.
Eve: [00:34:40] So, one final question I have for you, and that is what keeps you up at night?
Micaela: [00:34:46] You know, I think what keeps me up at night is, it depends on the day is either out of concern or out of hope of just, how do we as a society create and in some cases return to true community and like, true like interdependence and recognizing that an interdependence is a principle of disability justice, that, you know, I’ve really been moved by and that really try to both internalize in my personal but also in obviously the work we do at the Kelsey and like their interdependence exists, we can point to really great communities. And I think we even saw it in many of our communities in this country during COVID, that we really recognize that like we are only as strong as our neighbors biggest trouble. And so, we really have to look out for one another and care for one another and that, you know, we need to create communities where that’s not just possible, but it’s encouraged and supported. You know, some of the systems we build go right in the face of that. And so how do we both, on an individual level, lean into that, you know, and I feel when I see moments of interdependence and moments of true community, I feel so inspired and like, oh, we can do this, it is possible. And then I feel worried when I see, you know, how isolated people are and how much our sort of capitalist systems, you know, create this false narrative that we are only, you know, little cog machines that are going to get forward by ourselves and nothing else. We just need to go, go, go. And so, yeah, that keeps me up at night, of just thinking about what it really means to have community, what it means to have communities that take care of one another. And with inclusion of diversity and both seeing when people do that really well and seeing where we have a lot of work ahead to make that happen in a real way for everyone.
Eve: [00:36:46] Well, it sounds like you’ve only just started, and I can’t imagine you’re not going to be wildly successful. So, I’ll be really interested to see where this goes, and I’ll be looking for that download too. I’m really interested in what you’re saying. It’s fascinating.
Micaela: [00:36:59] Awesome.
Eve: [00:36:59] Very sensible.
Speaker3: [00:37:01] Thank you so much, Eve. Well, it was great to chat with you on this and appreciate you lifting up, you know, disability forward housing in your storytelling.
Eve: [00:37:10] Okay. Thank you.
Micaela: [00:37:11] Thanks, take care.
Eve: [00:37:21] I hope you enjoyed today’s guest and our deep dive. You can find out more about this episode or others you might have missed on the show notes page at RethinkRealEstateforGood.co. There’s lots to listen to there. You can support this podcast by sharing it with others, posting about it on social media or leaving a rating and review. To catch all the latest from me you can follow me on LinkedIn. Even better, if you’re ready to dabble in some impact investing yourself head on over to wefunder.com/smallchange where you can invest directly in Small Change and our mission to democratize capital formation to create impact in commercial real estate development. A special thanks to David Allardice for his excellent editing of this podcast and original music, and a big thanks to you for spending your time with me today. We’ll talk again soon. But for now, this is Eve Picker signing off to go make some change.
Image courtesy of Micaela Connery