In this special episode of Anderson Business Advisors, Toby Mathis speaks with Jim Richardson and Diane Lawson of Front Porch Co-Housing about a growing issue in our country – the lack of independent, affordable housing opportunities for neurodivergent adults.
This is an opportunity for our listeners to help solve. There are 5.4 million autistic adults in the U.S. today, and 87% of these individuals live with their parents. It is crucial that there be a plan for those adult children when their parents are gone. Investing in real estate used for this purpose is an amazing opportunity to be “more than a landlord” and the non-profit status of the Front Porch Co-Housing organization can also offer the investor certain advantages.
- Diane’s experience with a neurodivergent son being denied housing
- Jim’s background – also has a son with autism who was denied housing
- The scope – millions of adults with neurodivergent issues
- A unique approach – co-housing neurotypical and neurodivergent adults – “neuro-inclusive living”
- Millennials (22-40), are experiencing unprecedented levels of loneliness and isolation
- The expansion plan for Front Porch Housing
- Costs for neuro-inclusive living – planning for an entire lifetime
- No state funding assistance – not classified as a ‘group home’
- Real estate investors can help their communities and be more than “just a landlord”
- Sponsoring a neurodivergent person in your community – visit the Front Porch link below
- Donations can also be land, real estate, vehicles to sell, and other assets – email Jim with the link below
Front Porch Co-Housing Website
Donate to, or Support Front Porch
Full Episode Transcript:
Toby: Hey, guys. This is Toby Mathis with the Anderson Business Advisors Podcast. Today, I got a very interesting topic that I really want people to pay attention to because I think it’s something that’s critical in this country and that you’re going to learn about and realize how critical it is and how it’s not going away unless we do something about it.... Read Full Transcript
There are lots of opportunities in all things where there’s something that we need to address as a country. There’s usually money to be made in it as well as you can always do really good things by helping those folks.
I’m going to introduce Diane Lawson and Jim Richardson. Jim has been a client for a long time. Diane, I’ve worked with. I sat on the board with these two. I would like to introduce them and let them tell their stories a little bit.
Let’s do ladies first. Diane, what’s your background? What are we going to be talking about today?
Diane: Today, we’re going to be talking about neurodiverse, inclusive cohousing in Pennsylvania for us specifically but hopefully eventually across the country. As you mentioned, there is a terrible need. There are many, many people on the spectrum who need housing.
I’m involved in this. My son, Matthew, is 27. He actually is on the spectrum. It’s something I’ve always thought about since the time he was diagnosed. What’s going to happen to Matt when I’m not around anymore?
We ran into an issue, which made everything very clear. Matt and his girlfriend at the time went to apply for housing in an apartment building and were turned away, which we all know is definitely discrimination, but you don’t want to get into that fight because what’s it going to be? Eventually, he and his girlfriend would live in an apartment building where nobody wanted them.
Rather than fighting that one singular fight, I decided to fight the bigger fight and make this a place where not only Matt and his girlfriend but many, many millions of young adults like them have a place where they can go and belong. I met up with Jim, and Front Porch Cohousing is the story.
Toby: I know you guys use the term neurotypical for folks that are not spectrum in the neuro. Is it neurodiverse? What is it?
Diane: I believe it’s neurodivergent.
Toby: I’m assuming that a lot of the neurodivergent folks are staying home with mom and dad. Is that fair? Because they do get discriminated against and a lot of times, people are like, hey, I don’t want to have my son or daughter at risk.
The way it was put to me—and I don’t want to be insensitive—was I am a landlord for an organization that is nonprofit that does this. They said employable and awesome but may leave the iron on a shirt and burn the house down. That sounds horrible. Maybe they don’t turn off the stove. You need to have a little bit of a watchful eye. Of course, I imagine that’s why mom and dad are saying, hey, stay home with me. Is that accurate?
Diane: It is accurate. Quite honestly, as a mom, you want to protect. You want to make sure that there is a bubble around your child if your child is 5 or 50. It’s a bad world out there. Whereas there are a lot of young adults who could be on their own as you mentioned with the support in place, sometimes the parents aren’t as willing to push them out into the real world.
Toby: Let me bring Jim into this. Is it the same background? You and I know each other for quite a while, but you’re in the same boat as Diane, right?
Jim: Yeah. We have our son. Michael is 28. It’s the same thing. We looked at a wonderful property in a community not far from us, and everything was fine until the folks that owned it realized that we wanted to put Michael and two other autistic adults in that home. It was like, not in my backyard. You don’t.
Fair housing is fair housing, but the practice of it is a very different thing. The other aspect of this, Toby, that I think bears note is that it’s outrageously expensive. The cost of raising a child with autism can run into millions of dollars for their life.
Because housing is not inexpensive because these individuals don’t have the same opportunity at independent living as their neurotypical peers, they do stay at home with mom and dad often into their 40s and 50s. I’ve had parents who’ve had 60-year-old children, and they just haven’t planned for it because they don’t have the income and they don’t know what to do. There is just a massive amount of need today.
Toby: What happens then if something happens to mom and dad to these adults?
Diane: Best case scenario is that there is somebody around who can then take up living with them. If there’s a family member, sibling, or someone. Worst case scenario, if you take it all the way out to the worst case, it’s homelessness.
Toby: In my experience, I worked at a guardianship firm. Not everybody knows my background before I was an attorney.
Mental illness is the number one reason that there’s homelessness in my personal opinion, but it’s not a mental illness when you’re neurodivergent. You would look at that and say it’s just different. The punishment is perhaps homelessness in a world where that should not exist.
How big of an issue is this? Let’s give it some context. Is this something where it’s, hey, there’s a small little community, or are these hundreds of thousands across the country? What are the numbers like?
Jim: It’s millions. We’re just going to talk about adults with autism because when you start to go beyond that, you include Down syndrome and TBI. There are probably 10 different diagnoses under the IDD (intellectual and developmental disability) umbrella of which autism is one.
It’s millions. But when we bring it closer to home for us in Pennsylvania, in 2014, Pennsylvania did a study along with the census. At that time, they projected that by 2023, there’d be over 38,000 adults in Pennsylvania with autism living at home with parents and receiving services from the state. That’s projected to go to 58,000 in 2 years by 2025 and up to 75,000 by 2030.
Toby: In one state. This is just in Pennsylvania.
Jim: In Pennsylvania. Let’s make the math easy. If it was 50,000 adults in Pennsylvania and 80% of them live at home—and that’s the national average—with mom and dad and aging parent caregivers like myself, that’s 40,000 kids that potentially could be displaced or bounced from family member to family member. That’s really not what any of us want as parents.
Then, if we break that down a little more, Pennsylvania is a big state, but if we look just at the counties that Diane and I are in, by 2025, there will be 60,000 adults in Southeastern Pennsylvania—which is Philadelphia and the surrounding six suburbs—that are autistic and receive services, and 80% of them likely live at home with mom and dad. The numbers are staggering.
Toby: You guys have come up with a unique approach to addressing the issue. I first got acquainted with this as a landlord in Baltimore. I had larger homes in one of the syndications that I was working with. Larger homes, five-bedroom, and six-bedroom.
I met an organization that would put a caregiver in there, but you guys do it a little differently. You’re not just a caregiver. You’re actually looking and saying it’s not that different. We just need people.
Maybe, Diane, you can give me the thumbnail sketch of what you guys do which is a unique proposition that’s changing the face of landlording and in helping address the issue.
Diane: When I started this before I found Jim and Front Porch, I went to a lot of experts because again, as a mom, I wanted my kid behind the gate completely insulated from everybody that could hurt him.
I went to this great organization in the Lehigh Valley called Center for Independent Living, and I was talking to the people there. The executive director there said, that is not how you want your child to live. That’s not a life. Behind a curtain is not a life. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not a life. I really took that to heart.
We started from then when I met Jim and Nancy. We started working together to build that inclusive community. It’s people with and without a disability.
Our first phase is co-living. They’re living in a single-family home. The people who are typical like my son’s peers, Jim’s son’s peers, and who’s ever live together as housemates. They’re not providing care for them other than if you live together. You become a caring individual, but you’re not providing care. To that point, the individuals that will live in this house don’t need extensive care right now either.
Jim: Just to add on to that, about 20 years ago, Pennsylvania had institutional living. It was bad and deplorable. They’ve since swung the opposite way. They really don’t want groups of adults with a disability living together and nor do we as parents because we want our children to have as normal life as possible living with others that can be peer housemates.
I think this concept of neuroinclusive living is really what families are latching on to. They want housing for their loved one, but they want them to live with others who are going to support them, care for them, and care about them.
Toby: You may already be in this situation. I know the spectrum. There are people that are more affected than others, but it’s not uncommon. I imagine that in college and other things, people are living together anyway, and then as they get older, they realize that maybe it’s more substantial and causes greater issues like are your kids working? Are they able to work and things like that?
It’s just that when a landlord comes across and somebody is doing an application, they’re being discriminated against overtly or maybe subtly here. They’re saying, hey, you might not be the best candidate.
You guys have to be seeing that. You guys work with, I want to say, hundreds of families with children that are in this situation. Is that what they’re all experiencing, that when they try to get their sons and daughters out into the community, the community rejects them?
Diane: I wouldn’t say the community necessarily but definitely landlords.
Jim: We ran into this five years ago. Michael graduated high school, and we started looking at apartments in and around our home here in Doylestown. They would rant to me. Even though they would take my money, they didn’t want Michael living there by himself. Even though he’s capable of living 90% independently, they didn’t want him there.
That’s really why we created this for ourselves, and then we realized we’re not the only ones who are facing this. That just snowballed from there.
Diane: The bigger thing is part of what we’re creating as a community is a community of people who care about each other. As we go through this, we’re finding that we started it for ourselves and then expanded it out to people with disabilities and other families, but in the real world, there’s been a whole bunch of studies recently that typical people are experiencing an unprecedented amount of loneliness in their own lives. It becomes, well, what is the neurotypical get for living with our neurodivergent adults? It’s that sense of community. Everybody needs it. Everybody wants to belong.
Toby: I know that you already have a property that you’ve put under contract and you’re looking at doing this. The people that are neurotypical, is it nurses? Is it people that are caregivers anyway or older folks that maybe just like being social or don’t want to be isolated? What do you see?
Diane: All of them. The most isolated age group right now according to a 2022 survey are millennials. People between the ages of 22–40 are reporting unbelievable, unprecedented feelings of loneliness and not belonging.
Toby: So your solution is, hey, let’s do something that benefits society and have both neurotypical and neurodivergent living together. Let’s facilitate it. Let’s help do it. It’s commendable.
Just to do a quick pump real quick, it’s Front Porch Cohousing. You’re already rolling this out. First off, I’m just going to say for anybody listening who wants to learn more, go to Front Porch Cohousing and also look at it from a landlord’s side. Reach out to Jim and Diane, especially if you’re in Pennsylvania because I think that’s where you guys are living. If you’re willing to, I know you guys have a list of people who want to be tenants. How long is that list right now?
Jim: Today, it’s 147 families in our immediate counties, so not even Southeastern PA. In the three counties where we’re focused on Lehigh, Northampton, and Bucks, we have 147 families that have said, we are absolutely looking for what you’re willing to provide. It’s just now a matter of we can’t do it fast enough, Toby. It’s one house at a time.
It took a while coming through COVID to get to this point, but we have our first property under contract. It’ll be a five-bedroom beautiful home, 8000 square feet. We’re looking to do three more, one more in Lehigh and two in Bucks to satisfy that immediate demand, and then move to our next phase which is cohousing where we actually kick up can accommodate many more families at one time than you can in a single-family home.
Toby: I know that when we do residential assisted living or one of those, the average cost is so high. The average cost of residential assisted living if you want your own room is over $5000 a month. What does it cost a family here to work with you guys and put somebody in a house where it’s neurodiverse? It’s a combination of both. Mom and dad are looking and say, I can’t afford $5000 a month. What would it cost them to work with you guys?
Jim: The average that we’re finding right now for this first property would be about $2400 a month.
Toby: That’s not bad.
Jim: But here’s the thing, Toby. Most of those 140-something parents that we’re talking to today have not planned for what they refer to as a third retirement. In most families who have neurotypical children, the kids grow up, go to school, and move out, and mom and dad go about their retirement.
But for families like ours where we have our adult children living with us today, we now have the burden of covering those expenses theoretically for the rest of their adult life. Our plan is not only what do we do with them this year, next year, and in five years, but when mom and dad are gone, we have to have a plan that’s going to take them through the end of their life.
Diane: That’s a really important point. I have two children. One, I don’t have to plan for her longevity, but I plan to live with her for another few years. I hope my son makes it to 70. It’s a lot of years of planning that needs to happen when I’m not around to help.
Toby: Your organization is helping put this in place. Is the state helping at all? Are there any organizations out there saying, yeah, we know this is a big issue. Here, we’re willing to donate devote funds, insurance, or anything. Is there anybody out there helping out?
Diane: No, because we are not a group home. We are not residential assisted living. If we were, that would be a different story, but we are not.
Toby: Let me go over the numbers then. If it’s about $2400–$2500 a month for a neurodivergent, is it the same for a neurotypical? Is it the same cost, or are they paying a smaller fee? What does that look like?
Jim: We think they’re going to pay a smaller cost, Toby. Part of that smaller cost they’ll pay is to help incent them to want to be a peer, roommate, or housemate for those individuals. But we also find that for moms and dads, especially moms, there’s a statistic that’s pretty sad about the divorce rate for families that have neurodivergent children. Moms are looking to downsize and make that transition with their son or daughter as a roommate until they move on, and then that would then get rented out to someone else.
But we do think it’s going to be less. It depends upon the location of the house, size of the house, and the amenities, but for a neurotypical, it’s going to be in the $1800–$2000 a month because these are going to be really nice homes.
Toby: If I’m a landlord and I own a house, again, I’m going to use the recovery and the residential assisted living moniker to a certain extent, which we have a ton of success in and which I do personally, so I can actually attest to this.
You’re usually doing a five-year lease, and you don’t have to do anything with the house. They’re the best-maintained properties because you have people there that are actually taking care of the property on a daily basis. Is that what you guys are doing? Are you doing a five-year lease, basically giving it up, and putting the families in place, they’re coming in, and you’re just doing that?
Jim: Exactly. In this first property, we’ve had someone that has offered to buy it for us and lease it to us for five years with an option to renew for five or purchase. That’s exactly the model we’re going into today.
Toby: If you are an investor and you’re doing well in your real estate and realizing that it’s not enough just to be a landlord, you want to actually do something that affects society. I have a lot of folks. Again, I have recovery housing, residential assisted living, veterans housing, and fill-in-the-blank. Let’s add in neurodiverse living into that.
You can reach out and learn more about it at Front Porch Cohousing. Reach out to Jim and Diane. They could talk directly to you guys, right?
If that’s you and you’re willing to lease a property to this organization so that they could turn around and help out these people, you guys have a waiting list. It just seems like a no-brainer if I was there, especially if I have a bigger house. Here, five years, knock yourself out. As a landlord, that would seem to be, in my experience, so much easier than having tenants that leave every year.
Jim: I think we’ll be great tenants because our families want longevity. They don’t want two years and five years. They want 10 years and 15 years. Actually, interestingly, we’ve turned down a seller landlord, because he only wanted to rent to us for a year. We said, no, our minimum is five, and we want the option to renew or to purchase. They said, we’ll rent it to you for a year, and we said no, thank you.
Toby: There’s that side of it. If you’re interested in learning more about what these guys are doing and you want to do it in your neck of the woods, if you’re in Washington state, Nevada, or whatever, you say, hey, you know what, same situation. I have a relative. Maybe it’s a son, daughter, niece, nephew, somebody that you know, or family that you know. You say, they’re in this situation, and this is what I’d like to do.
You guys have already done all the vetting out. You know what kind of houses and you know what the numbers look like. Will you be willing to help that individual or those individuals if they reach out to you?
Jim: Absolutely. Interesting you mentioned that. About two weeks ago, a mom has been following us for months. I thought, being interested in our area, that she actually lives in North Jersey. She wants to hire us to consult with her to do what we’re doing.
Toby: You guys are nonprofit. This isn’t something like, hey, I got something up my sleeve. I think we can all agree that when you’ve been personally affected by things, you tend to take the money out of the equation.
But you know that there’s a need. We still need those individuals who are well-heeled to go out there, put their money where their mouth is, and say, hey, I want to affect change. This is an easy way to do it and is still profitable.
Diane: Even if they’re not interested in purchasing a house or doing any of that, I think the stats are one in four people are disabled. Probably all of your listeners know at least someone who is either a caregiver of somebody with a disability. We would always, always welcome any sponsoring of individuals that are going to be living with us. Any of that, we would be very, very appreciative of.
Toby: Diane, I want to explore that for a second. You can sponsor a family. You can go there. You got 147 people right now that need housing. The families are not getting aid, and they’re not getting anything from anybody else.
We want to help transition them into a property. You could either be the landlord. What if you just wanted to help and you said, you know what, I want to help one family, can they do that with you guys? Can they sponsor? If so, is there a link I could put up? How do I learn about that?
Diane: Jim is the master of the website and the links, so he’ll have to give that to you, but absolutely, there is a way to do that. Our families would really appreciate it because $2400 might not sound like a lot of money, but it is a lot of money for a lot of people to come up with every month.
We would love to have a sponsorship program. Anybody who sponsors an adult would hear from them and would definitely get updates, all kinds of information, and whatever information they would want to get. We could certainly make sure that that happens.
Toby: If you’re a church, a group, or something like that and you say, hey, you know what, I want to sponsor some people in my community and I want to sponsor a home, I could do it at any level like $50 a month or something like that, or all the way up to hey, I could sponsor the house. Maybe you’re a social worker or you’re somebody with the state and you say, we could devote funds to this. Could they all come in and help you guys out?
Jim: Yeah, absolutely, Toby. On our website, frontporchcohousing.org/support/sponsor, there’s the opportunity to make a one-time donation of any amount and a monthly donation of any amount. Actually, the monthlies would be wonderful from that sponsorship standpoint. There’s a $2500 monthly option there ironically with our costs being $2400 to sponsor an autistic adult. Sponsoring someone for 6 months or 12 months would be a blessing.
The other thing I don’t want to lose sight of as an IRS-recognized nonprofit is we have the ability to accept land. If someone has a parcel of land that they no longer need or want and are looking for a tax deduction on that, we can take that land, and then we’ll use it to build more housing. We can also take any type of real estate. Those forms are on our website as well.
The best way if someone has an interest is to send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. I will answer any and all questions about sponsorship, buying a house, donating a house, or donating land. We can take any motor vehicle that people no longer need or want and sell it, and those funds will go back to support our residents that need help.
Toby: You guys are just doing everything you can to actually not just create housing for neurodivergent adults. You’re creating a community with both neurodivergent adults and neurotypical regular folks so that we can address this issue.
I just looked at your website, and 4.5 million people in the United States are autistic. I know that it’s increasing. Everybody can have whatever idea of why. Maybe it’s just being diagnosed now, there’s something that’s more insidious, or whatever the case, but we know it’s an issue.
Here we have parents of their children. Like any parent, what happens if I’m gone or not able to? What if I get sick? It doesn’t weigh on you guys. Is that something that’s in the back of your head? Is that what all these families are dealing with?
Jim: It certainly weighed on my mind and Nancy’s mind when Michael graduated, and we started looking for long-term lifelong housing for him. In Pennsylvania, there isn’t.
Diane said best case, Nancy’s sister would take Michael, but she’s older than Nancy, so what happens? You kick that proverbial can down the road as often as you can, and then you’re left with an untenable situation. What do I do now?
We decided that we would take that bull by the horns and create it so that we didn’t have to worry about it. Now, I think it’s just catching on like wildfire because every parent we talked to, what do I do and when is the common theme across all 140-something families. It’s inevitable.
Diane: We all worry about it. It just came together that we got together and we’re able to work with all of these families to come up with a solution. It’s very daunting to think about it happening on your own, so a lot of times you don’t really think about it. Scarlett O’Hara, I’ll think about that tomorrow. But tomorrow eventually shows up.
Toby: Let’s do it today. I want to say thank you guys for joining me today. I get to talk to folks all the time. I’m a tax lawyer. I’m usually on the tax side and doing some asset protection. Every now and again, we touch on a topic that I think is really important that usually resonates with our folks.
I’m always shocked at how many people end up in our recovery housing and doing transitional housing for inmates and all that. There’s a big group of people out there who have real estate and stuff, and they realize that they don’t want to just do monetarily well, but they want to do socially well. This sounds like an opportunity for somebody to go into an area that has a definite need that’s not being met at all.
Until I met you guys, I never heard about this. I had run across it once where I rented to an organization, and again, they were like, hey, we have a caregiver in there, but I never really thought about it for two seconds until you guys made it clear. I did not know how big of an issue it was eventually. Most people out there listening did not realize how large of an issue.
If it’s an issue, it’s an opportunity for us to solve. If you want to be part of that solution, go to frontporchcohousing.org. I’ll put the link up. I’ll put all your guys’ links up and make sure that we’re pointing it out.
I just want to thank you guys both for coming in. Any last thoughts? Anything else that you guys want to say before we’re gone?
Jim: One of the things, just to put this in perspective, is if we had 20 homes or 20 properties today, we still wouldn’t have enough in our neck of the woods. We’re doing one and have just gone under contract. If we have 20 places where families knew that they could have a safe, sustainable place for their child to have an inclusive independent life, we’d sell out in a heartbeat. It’s just amazing how dramatic this issue is.
Diane: I just want to say thank you so much, Toby, for having us on because it’s interesting that for such a big problem, there’s not a lot of talk about it. Thank you very much. We really appreciate you giving us a chance to talk about what we’re doing.
Toby: We’re going to get the word out. One thing I know is it only takes one or two good investors to say, this is something I want to address and I want to commit myself to, and you could see some pretty amazing change.
I always bring up Frank and Sherri, Michelle, and some names. You guys probably know who I’m talking about. […] and his whole family. Rest his soul. He’s gone now, but his family is carrying on. They’re doing all these amazing things to help effectuate change. It doesn’t take that many people to have a huge impact.
I hope in five years, we’re saying, hey, remember that time that you guys first came on? Here’s Diane and Jim. Hey, we made an issue, and then you see something take off. Hopefully, this is one of those occasions, and we’ll come back, look at this, and say, what an amazing thing you guys started.
Jim: Thank you, Toby.
Toby: I’ll do my part. Thanks, guys.
Diane: Thank you.
Jim: Bye, happy holidays.