Per Maresca didn't let his disability get in the way of his independence.
Maresca, who has high-functioning autism, has spent the past year working at Residence Inn by Marriott. And at a time when young professionals are finding it nearly impossible to find affordable housing, he was able to secure a studio with developmental disabilities support in Mountain View thanks to assistance from nonprofit Housing Choices.
"Having my own place means I could build my own independent life, I still have my parents' support," Maresca, who just turned 27, said at a Thursday community meeting in Palo Alto. "I make meals, I take care of household tasks, I started going to a creative writing class which I absolutely love."
Maresca was addressing a room full of residents and housing advocates in the Mitchell Park Library and Community Center, where officials from the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing, which develops affordable housing, and Housing Choices, which advocates for residents with developmental disabilities, offered information about the latest proposal to address the unique housing challenges of disabled individuals: A 59-unit development at 3709 El Camino Real that would have at least 15 units dedicated to adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
Palo Alto is home to 460 people with developmental disabilities, according to Housing Choices. Of 216 who are adults, only 40 are living in own apartment, with the rest living in the homes of their parents. Housing for the developmentally disabled is sparse. Jan Stokley, executive director of Housing Choices, said her organization's mission is to allow people with developmental disabilities to "live in the community with a network of support."
"We need a whole community to understand and get on board. It doesn't happen accidentally — it happens because we're intentional," Stokley said at the meeting.
While affordable housing units for the developmentally disabled are identical to regular affordable housing units, services will include living support for each disabled individual to maintain housing, do routine check-ins, provide career advice and help with living skills.
In an interview with the Weekly, Maresca said his favorite part of living independently is constantly being surrounded by friends, who have come to "feel like close family." After the end of a work week, he goes to the mall, goes bowling or plays miniature golf with his group of friends.
Many parents of disabled children in Palo Alto are worried that as they get older, their children aren't able to be on their own. Most of those in attendance Thursday night were middle-aged or older.
"It's crucial for people like my son to learn to live independently. For those of us aging, we only have a couple of years," Maresca's mother and longtime Palo Alto resident Linnea Wickstrom said. "Like all other young adults they want to live independently, and they need to learn how to do that."
Wickstrom said those with disabilities "need affordable housing for the long haul," adding that many of these individuals are already active members of the community who have jobs and engage in many local activities.
Hoping to address commonly raised concerns about the impacts of new housing developments — namely, traffic and parking — she emphasized that residents rely on public transit for almost all of their activities. Even when support staff makes visits, they are only there for several hours during the day, freeing the parking spaces at night, she said.
Wickstrom said she wants her son to be able to move back to Palo Alto where he was born and raised.
The Thursday meeting in Palo Alto was part of a broader effort by Palo Alto Housing and Housing Choices to boost community awareness and engagement with the two projects in Palo Alto and Mountain View, in hopes to see the El Camino Real project through to development.
To date, there have been some signs of progress. In September, the city's Planning and Transportation Commission approved the zone change needed for the project to advance. Despite the small victory, however, a long road lays ahead. Palo Alto Housing's new CEO Randy Tsuda said it can take up to four or five years to see it through to occupancy.
If the Architectural Review Board passes the proposal at its next meeting on Dec. 6, the project will come before the City Council early next year. The development needs to go through design, planning, architectural review, often up to three times. Throughout, the group expects to face pushback from residents about issues from traffic to parking to simply fear of the unknown.
"It is a true commitment, a mission and a labor of love," Tsuda told the attendees.
On his second day on the job, he stood in front of the room, firmly expressing his optimism and excitement about the project, saying he wants to "keep them in (the city), keep them close to friends and family."
The Wilton Court project is Palo Alto Housing's first attempt to develop in the city since 2013, when voters passed a resident-led referendum that pushed the brakes on a proposed housing development on Maybell Avenue. That proposal, which included 60 units for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes, received unanimous City Council support before getting turned down the voters.
"We had a surprise referendum which was on Maybell — which was the proposal close to the fire station that would've put up 60 below-, moderate-units for seniors," Mayor Liz Kniss explained. "Perfect site, done well, and it was referended."
Since then, Palo Alto Housing has focused its efforts on neighboring cities such as Redwood City and Mountain View, where a residential community planned at 950 W. El Camino Real would also offer units for those with developmental disabilities.
Now, the group is preparing to return to its hometown to help address what every member of the City Council acknowledges to be a pressing priority: the city's significant housing shortage. In February, the City Council set a goal of creating 300 units every year through 2030, but the city hasn't met half its goal with the year nearly over.
Those attending the Thursday meeting, which included city officials and many Palo Alto parents of those with disabilities, spoke personally on the dire need for more housing in the city catered to its disabled population. Together, they tried to flesh out potential fears the community may have about these types of housing projects.
Gita Dedek, a longtime resident of Old Palo Alto, also wants housing in Palo Alto for her daughter with high-functioning autism who volunteers and sells art to local restaurants.
"In Palo Alto, she can walk everywhere. It's her community," she said. "For her to move to Sunnyvale or somewhere else, it'd be heartbreaking. Her friends are here."
One parent from Barron Park who declined to give her name said there needs to be more association between the people Palo Alto residents see every day at local businesses and around town, and the people who would be moving into these housing projects.
Housing projects for the developmentally disabled are deducted from corporate taxes, housing fees collected by the city and other resources such as the recently passed propositions 1 and 2 that set aside $6 billion for veterans' and homeless' affordable housing, respectively.
Katie Talbot, a parent of a Paly student with autism, asked Kniss if in-lieu fees are available for use toward these types of projects. These are fees that developers are required to pay to support the city's affordable-housing program.
"Does the city have any leftover in lieu fees they can shake out? Should we be making noise about that?"
In order not to prevent another "Maybell incident," the two organizations have been holding neighborhood meetings in the Ventura neighborhood, introducing themselves to every household on Wilton Court, inviting neighbors to tour their treehouse project and trying to get neighbors to see what could be on the site way ahead of time.
"It has taken moving heaven and earth to make this happen," Kniss said. "The night we vote, please show up."