In One Niche, Housing Market Is Up

Trudy Harsh became involved in the mental health community after her daughter, Laura, suffered brain damage.
Trudy Harsh became involved in the mental health community after her daughter, Laura, suffered brain damage. (Photos By James A. Parcell For The Washington Post)
By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 19, 2007

Frustration can lead a civic activist to complain that nobody ever built a statue for a committee. But frustration with committees was responsible for the house that Trudy Harsh built.

She became active in the mental health community in Fairfax County because her daughter, Laura, suffered brain damage.

Harsh joined committees, attended hearings, read reports and got frustrated. Fairfax has about 650 mentally ill adults who need places to live, and the only activity Harsh could see was committee meeting after committee meeting . So she stepped out of the committee meetings and formed the Brain Foundation to educate people about mental illness and to raise money for her real goal: to provide housing for mentally ill people.

She bought a townhouse in Fairfax City and, using her experience and resources as a Realtor, moved four men into Laura's House, named for her daughter, who died last year.

Now Harsh has begun working toward purchasing a second house and moving in more mentally ill people, with assistance from a mental health care provider who maintains the home and helps residents cope with daily life. And she hopes to keep buying houses, using low-interest mortgages and grants from different sources, to build permanent housing stock for the mentally ill community.

"I decided since there were so many people in need," Harsh said, "that I would get us started."

Harsh is on the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, which provides all manner of help to mentally ill people, mentally retarded people and substance abusers. But when it came to getting their customers, as the board calls them, a place to live, she saw little action: "Sometimes things would happen in an emergency. But it doesn't seem to me that we're moving forward, generally."

When Harsh joined the board, it moved fairly quickly to construct Stevenson Place, an apartment complex for 36 mentally ill people near Fairfax City. But after that, Harsh said, progress slowed and she became frustrated.

A 2002 county study of the need for long-term care found that, considering the waiting list and the available places in homes for the mentally ill, "those who apply now do not have a chance of being admitted in their lifetime."

"The thing that annoyed me," Harsh said, was that the county "doesn't want mortgages. They rent these homes" for small groups of people, "and it's just so costly to the taxpayers. It's insecure. As a Realtor, I didn't like that."

Harsh got involved in mental health issues after her daughter, then 8, developed a brain tumor and the operation to remove it caused severe damage. To Harsh, there's no difference between brain damage caused by surgery and brain damage caused by illness.

"The term 'mental health' doesn't convey to the public what it really is," Harsh said. "It's an organ of the body, just like any other organ, and it has a disease. And the definition of 'mental' is so nebulous."

So in 2003, she founded the Brain Foundation and started hosting fundraisers, which raised some money, but not enough. The initiative slowed as Harsh's daughter deteriorated, and Laura died in February 2006 at age 38.

Then Harsh began discussing her ideas with Wilbur Dove, a Vienna man she had known for years and who had his own nonprofit organization that develops housing for the poor. He agreed to seed Harsh's project with $50,000 from his foundation.

"I think it's a worthy purpose," Dove said. "Public funds for people with mental difficulties have really been underused. So there's really been a need for it."

With the cash backing, Harsh was able to obtain a $450,000 loan from the Virginia Housing Development Authority at a 4 3/4 percent interest rate. She found a four-bedroom townhouse in Fairfax City, and the Brain Foundation bought it last November.

Harsh furnished the house through donations, including a large flat-screen television. The house is orderly and clean, and it looks no different from any other Fairfax townhouse. Homes of eight people or fewer don't need any particular zoning or official approval.

Pathway Homes, which provides residential care for mentally ill people throughout Northern Virginia, gave Harsh the names of likely tenants -- it has a waiting list of 400 people -- and four men moved in recently. Pathway manages the property and keeps track of the tenants, who pay $175 to $300 in monthly rent.

"It's working great," said Joel McNair, chief executive of Pathway. "When you're able to move somebody into their own home and see what it's like for them to have a home and the support they need, it's an amazing experience."

Housing mentally ill people is Northern Virginia's "biggest unmet need," McNair said. "Many are homeless, or in shelters, or in institutions, at great cost to taxpayers. So Trudy's making this home a reality -- I thought it was great."

The initial $50,000 grant from Dove should cover any cost overruns for paying the mortgage and utilities in the first two years. With help from Dan Richard, a former engineer at Lockheed Martin, she obtained $25,000 from the state for the third year.

Now the Brain Foundation has lined up a $30,000 grant from Wings House, a like-minded organization for mentally ill people, that will help her purchase the next house, Harsh said. She plans to obtain another low-interest loan from the state housing authority and buy a property in September.

Pam Gannon, director of facility planning and site development for the Community Services Board, agreed with Harsh's complaint that the county hasn't built enough housing for the mentally ill, though she said the Community Services Board must compete with many other county agencies for project funding.

"What she's doing is really creative," Gannon said. "She's looking in all directions for partnerships, and finding them. It's a real recipe for success."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company