Affordable, Accessible, Sustainable: Inside the Award-Winning Wynne Watts Commons

Brand Story – Portland-based nonprofit Albertina Kerr offers a new blueprint for affordable, inclusive housing

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On its quest to help people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) lead self-determined lives, Portland-based Albertina Kerr built Wynne Watts Commons—an award-winning affordable housing complex that offers a new blueprint for inclusive living.

Unlike standard affordable housing options, Wynne Watts Commons seamlessly integrates accessibility and sustainability to create a community for individuals with and without disabilities. The concept merges universal design, empowering technology and solar energy, eclipsing the status quo and earning it a Portland Business Journal Landmark Award and the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center Award for Innovation in Attainable Housing.

Allison Stark

“We know that people with disabilities need access to affordable, subsidized housing,” explains Allison Stark, CEO, Albertina Kerr. “They have the lowest incomes and are two or three times more likely to be unemployed. But they also want to live in integrative, inclusive communities. Wynne Watts Commons puts those things together and adds accessibility through universal design.” 

Its universal design approach means that the housing complex strives to be useable by as many people as possible, manifesting as color-coded levels, extra-large apartment numbers, low mailboxes, fob accessibility, automated entry doors and elevator kick pedals.

Thirty subsidized, ADA-compliant apartments spread throughout the 150-unit building further prioritize accessibility with pull-out cooktops, multilevel front-door peepholes, motorized kitchen cabinets and sound-proof bedrooms for those with sensory issues. 

“We’ve put people with disabilities at the center of the design, but it’s better for everyone,” Stark continues. “When it comes to aging, for example, larger numbers are helpful, and being able to push elevator buttons with your foot helps someone with a disability but also helps a mom carrying her kids.” 

Elevator kick pedals

Albertina Kerr has served the I/DD community for over 115 years, resulting in a deep understanding of its needs. Through its work—including 24-hour residential care for youth and adults with I/DD, supported employment services for adults with I/DD, and in-patient crisis psychiatric care for youth—the human services nonprofit recognized a gap that led to Wynne Watts Commons: Low-income individuals with I/DD capable of living independently with the right support face meager options—homelessness, staying with family indefinitely or confinement within institutions.

According to Stark, unnecessary institutionalization limits freedom and wastes financial resources on disproportionate care: “The ideal system is one in which everyone gets what they need, not too little or too much.”

New technology plays a pivotal role in enabling independent living for residents of Wynne Watts Commons. Comcast Business provides both Business Class Internet service and VoiceEdge hosted voice platform.  We also provide traditional cable television services for some parts of the program.

Individuals can manage their living environments through the SimplyHome customizable application, easily controlling their window shades, thermostat and lighting, making it easier to manage stimulation level and mood. SimplyHome also equips apartments with sensor-based systems that monitor the environment and facilitate safe independent living, a breakthrough for a state short on direct support professionals and the allocated funds to pay them living wages.

Pull-out cooktop

For example, a sensor on the oven detects if it was left on for too long and can notify the resident before escalating the message to a support worker or family member. A sensor in the bathroom alerts people to overflowing water, while a sensor on the front door monitors if a resident leaves in the middle of the night, prompting a phone call to check in with that person or alert others.  

“This is a win-win. The state neither pays livable wages nor invests in enabling technology, and we’re advocating for both. If you invest in technology like this for people who can use it, you free up a lot of money for people who actually need 24-hour care,” Stark says. “We’re creating independence and opportunity.”

Albertina Kerr’s emphasis on enabling freedom and autonomy also extends into Wynne Watts Commons’ sustainable design, developed with Portland-based Green Hammer Design Build. Solar panels provide 100 percent of the community’s energy, removing the burden of electrical bills and making Wynne Watts Commons the largest net-zero energy affordable housing development in the Pacific Northwest. Residents also do not have to pay for water, sewer or high-speed internet.

“We need to become more thoughtful about sustainability and using resources wisely,” Stark notes. “We have seen the impacts of climate change, and when we have wildfires or other natural disasters, they intensely impact people with disabilities. Sustainability goes hand in hand with our mission.” 

Rooftop solar panels

Like all of Kerr’s initiatives, the housing project relied on outside financial support, including from the Wayne & Joan Kuni Foundation, M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, Meyer Memorial Trust, Oregon Community Foundation, customers participating in PGE’s Green Future SM program through the PGE Renewable Development Fund, and the, generosity of private donors. Kerr donated 2.5 acres of land in Gresham, Oregon, and worked with Edlen & Co., Ankrom Moisan Architects and Pence Construction to develop the project budget. 

Some level of collaboration and partnership underpins each of the nonprofit’s high-impact initiatives, such as Project SEARCH, an immersive nine-month internship program for adults with I/DD to explore careers and potentially boost employability. By partnering with Multnomah County, the City of Salem and large businesses, Project SEARCH provides job training for adults with I/DD to help them find meaningful work in the community.

Allison Stark with Kerr clients

Its longtime data services partner, Comcast Business manages a robust all-encompassing network solution to help support the nonprofit’s community efforts. Comcast Business provides Wynne Watts Commons with its Business Class Internet service and its VoiceEdge hosted voice platform, in addition to traditional cable television services.

With Wynne Watts Commons’ first year of operation in the rearview and a growing waitlist, the Kerr team hopes that its successful blend of affordability, accessibility and sustainability encourages other housing projects to follow suit.

“It’s a really innovative, exciting model, and we’re definitely trying to provide technical assistance for others. We’ve done some national webinars and conferences,” Stark concludes. “We know this is a blueprint for others to follow.”

Brand stories are paid content articles that allow Oregon Business advertisers to share news about their organizations and engage with readers on business and public policy issues.  The stories are produced in house by the Oregon Business marketing department. For more information, contact associate publisher Courtney Kutzman.