Fred A. Bernstein

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Free Homes for Disabled Vets -- But Where's the Land?

To rebuild their lives, they need barrier-free houses

Published in The New York Times, December 4, 2005

EARLY last year, John Gonsalves, a construction supervisor from Taunton, Mass., decided to use his skills to help build houses for soldiers returning from Iraq. The soldiers he had in mind were paralyzed, or missing arms or legs, or blind or deaf. Or more than one of the above.

After failing to find an organization building houses for disabled Iraq veterans, Mr. Gonsalves founded one, Homes for Our Troops. In less than two years, the group has completed three houses (with three more under way), received countless awards and been the subject of several television shows.

But now Mr. Gonsalves, 39, may need to start a new organization: Land for Homes for Our Troops. Finding the lots to build the houses on has proved a stumbling block, Mr. Gonsalves said. "The real estate is the hardest part," he said.

Mr. Gonsalves, soft-spoken and earnest, has created a groundswell of support for his organization, with donors like the singer Billy Joel and the golfer Phil Mickelson. Most labor and materials for the houses have been donated.

"Companies have been incredibly generous," Mr. Gonsalves said. But without a piece of property, there is nowhere for the generosity to go.

One soldier already owned property. Another was able to build on a corner of a family plot. But those are the exceptions.

For other disabled veterans, in an overheated real estate market, just finding the land for a free house is nearly impossible.

Mr. Gonsalves is particularly eager to find a lot in Dale City, Va., 25 miles southeast of Washington. That's the hometown of Eugene Simpson, a 27-year-old father of four. Mr. Simpson, whose spinal cord was severed when a bomb exploded under his Humvee in Tikrit in April, was paralyzed from the waist down.

Right now, Mr. Simpson and his family are living with his parents in a three-level house in Dale City, where he is confined to the ground floor. Homes for Our Troops has committed to building him a wheelchair-accessible dwelling. And Mr. Gonsalves is determined to do it in Dale City.

"How do you tell a guy like this, 'You're going to have to move out into the middle of nowhere,' " Mr. Gonsalves said. Mr. Simpson said he wants to be close enough to his parents so that "if my wife's not here and I need assistance, I can get it."

But in Dale City, a section of Woodbridge developed in the 1950's, land is at a premium. The community, Mr. Simpson said in a telephone interview, "is going from middle class to upper middle class."

"Everywhere you look, they're building giant houses," he said.

Mike Minnery, a broker at Re/Max Allegiance in Dale City, said that, at present, "there are no residential building lots that can be bought in Dale City." A commercial lot, the least expensive piece of property on the market, he said, is listed at $700,000.

How is that possible? "What we're running into here is that all residential construction is pretty much monitored, supervised, maintained by commercial developers, and they buy up huge tracts of land, and create subdivisions," Mr. Minnery said. "The odds of finding a vacant lot are slim to none."

Several other brokers agreed with Mr. Minnery's view.

Mr. Minnery added that he works with Habitat for Humanity International, "and we face the same stumbling block."

True, there are houses in Dale City for less than $700,000. New homes start at about $500,000, and older ones in the $300,000's. But Mr. Gonsalves said that Mr. Simpson "has four kids - it's got to be a good-sized house."

And wheelchair accessibility, as Mr. Gonsalves defines it, means more than a ramp to the front door. "He should be able to access everything the children can access; he certainly deserves it," Mr. Gonsalves said. And that, he said, "means the whole house has to have wider-than-usual hallways and doors."

Mr. Gonsalves said he was so surprised by real estate prices in Dale City that "the first time I went looking there, I thought I must be doing something wrong." Lately, he has come to the conclusion that tearing down a house and building on the lot may be the most economical option. But for a group that is in the business of creating housing, demolishing a perfectly good house seems wasteful.

Mr. Simpson said that he goes out with real estate agents once or twice a week, looking at houses that can be renovated or torn down, "but I haven't found anything in our price range." Mr. Gonsalves said he has budgeted about $300,000 for land for Mr. Simpson.

Government subsidies won't help, Mr. Gonsalves said. The Department of Veterans Affairs offers disabled veterans a housing subsidy of up to $50,000. But the amount is capped at 50 percent of what the veteran pays for the home. Because Homes for Our Troops does not charge veterans for the houses, they do not qualify for the grant, Mr. Gonsalves said. (Jose S. Llamas, a Veterans Affairs spokesman, said that those figures were correct.) Mr. Gonsalves said that he is negotiating the matter with the department.

But even if he succeeds, $50,000 won't buy much in Dale City. "I don't think the veterans' benefits are really keeping up with the times," Mr. Gonsalves said.

Among the disabled veterans who already owned land is Sam Ross, a combat engineer with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. In 2003, while he was disposing of munitions near Baghdad, an explosion left him sightless. He is also missing a leg, and the other "is in bad shape," Mr. Gonsalves said. The organization has nearly completed a wheelchair-accessible log cabin for him on some land owned by his family in Dunbar, Pa.

Kyle Burleson, in Spring Hill, La., is the most severely wounded soldier that the group has worked with. He is a quadriplegic on a respirator, and Homes for Our Troops is building a house for him on part of 20 acres in Spring Hill owned by his family. "His mom will be his next-door neighbor," Mr. Gonsalves said.

"We just broke ground a few weeks ago, site work is done and the foundation is being put in," he added.

But the Simpson house is still only a dream. "When we find the right piece of land," Mr. Gonsalves said, "I'm ready to fly down there and buy it."