Micaela Connery: Building Inclusive Housing in the Bay Area

Housing crises in urban areas across the United States threaten to prevent many people from accessing shelter, community, and services. This trend is even worse for the millions of people with disabilities, in the US. Micaela Connery (MPP ’16, Cheng Fellow) is seeking to revolutionize affordable urban housing with The Kelsey, a replicable model for mixed-income, mixed-ability housing that leverages public and private interests.

Connery, a lifelong advocate for people with disabilities, developed her intimate awareness of the importance and challenges of inclusion from her cousin Kelsey. “Kelsey and I were born months apart, so we went through every milestone together,” said Connery. “Even though she had significant disabilities, our moms did their best to make sure we did everything together. whenever I was going through something, I would automatically think about how that same experience would affect Kelsey.” As Connery and Kelsey became young adults, they began to understand different challenges related to inclusion as Kelsey struggled to find housing. Connery said, “I realized that once people with disabilities aged out of the school system, they were often isolated or totally reliant on family.”

Connery launched her first nonprofit, Unified Theater, at the age of 15 and ran the organization successfully for 10 years, growing the mixed-abilities drama program to more than 100 schools. However, she was drawn to the Kennedy School to more deeply understand the systemic barriers to inclusion that adults with disabilities face. While she considered studying inclusive employment, Connery ultimately chose to focus on housing because she found that a scarcity of mixed-ability housing existed nationally and little discussion attended to the issue. “Despite that the Americans with Disabilities Act and Olmstead Ruling happened 20 plus years ago, so much of the housing available to people with disabilities is not inclusive. Some people would disagree with me, but I believe many of the models used for housing today are iterations of institutionalization,” she said. Connery, who considers herself a radical inclusionist, believes that no one should be forced to live somewhere in order to receive vital services, and no one should be required to be part of a disability-specific community to have housing.

“I realized that once people with disabilities aged out of the school system, they were often isolated or totally reliant on family.”

As for her time at the Kennedy School, Connery identified the SICI community’s impact as an integral experience in understanding the complexities of mixed-ability housing, forming meaningful goals, and planning the best steps post-graduation. Without SICI, Connery said she would not have realized that she was uniquely positioned to agitate for greater awareness of this issue and advance new ideas in the disability housing space.  “SICI made me focus on the long-term problem and build a strategy that I could lead to dismantle the challenges. I didn’t want to create another organization, having only recently left Unified, but after defining the problem and studying the sector, it was clear a new organization was needed because no one was doing the work that I identified as necessary in inclusive housing.”

After graduating from the Kennedy School, Connery accepted a Mitchell Scholarship to complete a one-year MBA at the Smurfit School at University College Dublin. There, Connery developed The Kelsey’s detailed business plan, which leverages a blended finance model and emphasizes public-private partnership. Connery believes that designing a reproducible business model is a critical step to unlocking the barriers faced by the one in five Americans who have disabilities. “I can run meetings with real estate developers and not just share the need and the vision but also show them my models for housing complexes. When they ask me who did my modeling, they’re often surprised and impressed when I say I built them myself.”

The Kelsey’s approach includes what Connery describes as “amenitizing inclusion”: making inclusion a value for residents of all abilities. They plan to have community programming and a signature on-site Inclusion ConciergeTM, who will support residents in connecting with neighbors and the community. “The Kelsey’s programs are for everyone because they benefit everyone. Inclusion and valuing diversity is not about helping certain people. It’s about how we can all learn from each other and be better together.”  

The Kelsey’s first target community is California’s Bay Area, where stories about the struggle to create affordable housing hit the news daily.  Recently funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, The Kelsey is currently leading a project bringing together stakeholders in the area to explore new solutions to the affordable housing crisis for people with disabilities. The organization is also identifying potential sites for The Kelsey’s first housing complex, which Connery plans to have in operation by 2022.

“Inclusion and valuing diversity is not about helping certain people. It’s about how we can all learn from each other and be better together.”

Connery explained, however, that alleviating this problem is not about her or her organization or the Bay Area alone. “Tens of millions of Americans are directly impacted by the lack of mixed-ability housing, so we don’t want to own our ideas. We share our work though open source practices because we believe that will result in the greatest impact. My hope is that we can look back in 30 years and say we got it right.”

Connery hopes Kennedy School students will continue to join SICI as part of a larger movement for positive social change. “If you have a specific problem that you want to solve, this is the place to think through the best intervention. The program does not demand that you stick to traditional pathways such as founding an organization, but it requires you to develop whatever social entity will best address the problem.”

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