For most young adults, moving out of their parents' home can be one of the most pivotal moments in their lives, especially in the Bay Area where finding an affordable option can be difficult.
But for many people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, striking out on their own might not seem like an attainable option most of the time for a variety of practical reasons, which can create a stressful problem as their parents get older and less able to take care of their children who may also be craving more independence themselves.
"Part of our journey as humans is to feel like how can we help our fellow man or fellow woman, and this is a population that is never going to ask you directly," said Susan Houghton, founder of Sunflower Hill. "So it's up to us to reach out, it's up to us to acknowledge, it is up to us to talk to a parent of a special needs child and say, 'How can I help you? What can I do? How can I bring awareness?'"
Sunflower Hill is a nonprofit organization based in the Tri-Valley that aims to create affordable housing and vocational opportunities for people with disabilities and special needs -- something that Houghton told the Weekly is often overlooked in many communities.
As she gets set to celebrate Sunflower Hill's 10th anniversary, Houghton took some time to reflect on the nonprofit's successful development of 31 affordable housing units at Irby Ranch in Pleasanton, the plans to construct more units at two other locations in the East Bay and its renowned garden in Livermore, which in many ways paved the way for the organization's growth over the last decade.
More importantly for Houghton, she reflected on the fact that while they have done so much work, there is still more to do in order to make sure that the unseen population of people with an intellectual or developmental disability (IDD), like her own son Robby, continue to have a voice in the fight for more affordable housing in the Bay Area.
"They're quiet folk," Houghton said. "But they're on the border of homelessness to where if I wasn't here, if Robby didn't have Irby Ranch, where would he be? He would be on the streets or needing mental health services."
The seed was planted
When Robby was about to graduate high school in 2012, Houghton had attended a transition fair that was meant to help her figure out what came next for her son.
Robby, who was diagnosed with autism at a very young age, was given three options for where he could live now that he was an adult and not in high school, according to Houghton: live in a group home, live totally on his own or continue living with her at home.
"I remember being at that meeting and saying well that's it? How can there be no other options?" Houghton said.
It was there that she met another of Sunflower Hill's founding members who heard Houghton asking a bunch of questions, which led to Houghton's realization that if she wanted more options for her son to live on his own, it was up to them to do something about it.
So she decided to call up a group of other parents that she knew who had children with disabilities and gathered them all together at a coffee shop in downtown Pleasanton where they discussed the idea of creating a permanent residential community for IDD adults.
"We didn't know what we were doing," she said. "We just thought if we don't do it, who else will. And there was nothing greater than a group of motivated parents who had not only their own children to think about, but the greater society."
So after they all officially formed the nonprofit in 2013, Sunflower Hill began its long journey of executing that goal -- which first started with the creation of the Sunflower Hill Garden at Hagemann Ranch in Livermore.
"One day, I opened up the newspaper and I saw that the city of Livermore was accepting applications for people to run programs at Hagemann Ranch," Houghton said. "We had watched other communities like Sunflower Hill, do gardening programs, and we thought, 'Oh, my gosh, that's a great skill set for our kids, we should do that.'"
It also lined up with the fact that longtime board member Lynn Monica and another member had just attended the prestigious Alice Waters Edible School Program at a garden made out of a cement parking lot in Berkeley.
"After we went to that, we thought well, this is something we could adapt to our population," she said.
Monica became involved with Sunflower Hill sort of by proxy because her husband, Jon Elfin, was one of the founding board members. Elfin, who used to coach the Special Olympics in Pleasanton, has a son with special needs who now lives at Irby Ranch.
Because of her background in technology, she started off by helping with things like the website design and marketing projects. But after the nonprofit was awarded the space at the ranch for a garden, it became Monica's sole responsibility.
"We always had this vision of wherever we build this community, we wanted to have a garden because we felt it was really important and therapeutic to teach the special needs individuals where their food came from," Monica said.
So after months of cleaning up the weeds and debris, designing the space and bringing hundreds of volunteers to help plant and build structures, Monica's dream garden finally opened in 2015.
Filled with a sensory garden, lifted garden beds, wider spaces in between rows of crops, a compost area and dozens of tools specially designed for folks with disabilities, the garden ended up becoming the biggest marketing tool for Sunflower Hill and its broader goal of building housing.
"Nobody knew who we were until this garden started," Monica said.
After producing almost 10,000 pounds of produce that first summer, bringing in people with special needs or disabilities from surrounding transitional high school and adult day programs and cementing themselves as the Nonprofit of the Year in 2017, Sunflower Hill was ready to finally break ground on its first housing project.
Living at Irby Ranch
In 2017, the Pleasanton City Council unanimously approved the final designs for the 31-unit Sunflower Hill apartment complex at Irby Ranch, and by 2019, the project was officially underway.
Then, in 2020, the first groups of residents started to move into the residential community on the edge of downtown Pleasanton and Houghton was able to finally realize her dream of providing housing options for a population of people that often can't afford to live anywhere else in the Bay Area.
"I don't think a lot of people realize that most of the residents at Irby Ranch are existing just on a Social Security disability income," she said. "Robby gets $1,100 a month from Social Security. That's it."
Now there are 38 residents currently living in the apartment complex -- some share a two-bedroom apartment and there's even one family living there. They all pay rent based on 30% to 60% of the area median income on the affordability scale.
The complex sits at the edge of Irby Ranch and is made up of a two-story residential building, a pool with an all-access lift, a small all-inclusive basketball court, a community center and plenty of other amenities like an arts and crafts room, laundry rooms and a storage room for bicycles.
But Sunflower Hill Executive Director Jen Lenard-Benson told the Weekly that it was important to make sure that the public knows the complex isn't like a senior living center -- it's just like any other apartment complex only with added features so that individuals with disabilities can be as independent as they want to be.
Lenard-Benson is only the nonprofit's second executive director and is fairly new, having started in March 2022. But since she first started, she immediately saw the importance of having a space like at Irby Ranch.
"I would say that I get three to five emails and phone calls a day for people who need somewhere to live," she said.
She also said that the waitlist for the apartments at Irby Ranch is about 250 and that they had to stop taking names because of the fact that the number could easily reach into the thousands.
"That's how high the need is for affordable housing for people with disabilities," Lenard-Benson said. "Because again, as folks who may live with family members, their family members are aging. And so as they age, our folks need somewhere to go."
Throughout her time working at both the apartments and at the garden, Lenard-Benson has seen the impact Sunflower Hill has had on the community.
"I talk to our residents and they say, 'I'm so thankful for Sunflower Hill,'" she said.
She said that the residents tell her that the organization has given them "a chance to feel like I belong, to feel like I fit in."
And the same goes for the garden.
"I can see, in the residents and even the community members who come in, they're so happy to be involved in something and feel like they're a part of something bigger," said Olivia Christensen, residential activities coordinator for Sunflower Hill.
Christensen, who oversees all activities at Irby Ranch, said that as a Pleasanton native who was always an advocate for individuals with disabilities, she was extremely happy to be a part of a nonprofit like Sunflower Hill.
"It's really exciting and fun to see people who may not have been given the opportunities to be a part of a club or a group when they were younger, when they were in school, now be a part of something that's welcoming to them," Christensen said. "I'm just super excited to continue to build on that and get to know everyone a little bit better."
For Houghton, she's especially proud of the fact that people like her son are able to finally take more control of their lives and be a part of their community in a place where they can feel safe and have easy access to grocery stores, transit and other important amenities.
"There's a sense of pride that you see," Houghton said. "I see this in many of the residents there. They are so proud to be a part of a community where literally it's their friends. And that's the benefit of living in a community like Irby Ranch is that two doors down is the boy who Robby's known since he's been 7 years old."
Lenard-Benson added that it's nice to see the residents at Irby Ranch also take advantage of the different evening activities and programs at the community center such as movie nights, cooking classes and other activities that are sometimes curated by the residents themselves.
"The way that this transforms their lives, I feel like you can see it," she said.
Even as they celebrate recently opening up certain programs at the community center for the public and working with local nonprofits to donate food to places like Culinary Angels and flowers to Hope Hospice from the garden, Lenard-Benson said there is still a long way to go.
She said that building another 10 complexes like the one at Irby Ranch wouldn't even begin to scratch the surface of providing enough affordable housing for this community of people.
"If people don't take action now, the next 10 years will be bleak," she said. "We need more affordable housing for people with disabilities, period."
What's next for Sunflower Hill
While Houghton said that Sunflower Hill has cemented itself as a nonprofit that serves a demographic of people with disabilities, it is only one of many similar organizations and needs to do more in terms of working with others to address the issue of a lack of affordable housing for this specific community.
"That's the vision we have for Sunflower Hill," she said. "We want to come in and help play a role. We're part of that garden; we want other organizations to help our garden grow. And I'm saying that metaphorically."
And that metaphorical garden of affordable housing is already breaking some grounds in other places in the Tri-Valley.
In 2021, the organization was approved for its second residential community complex In partnership with Pacific West Communities Inc., Miramar Capital and Novin Development Corporation. Sunflower Hill will co-develop a new residential community in Lafayette, which will offer 38 affordable housing units for folks with disabilities.
Lenard-Benson said that the project's architect is currently reworking on the design and that the units are set to "probably open in 2025". She said the building is slated to be four stories tall, more compact compared to Irby Ranch and will include an educational kitchen for more extensive cooking classes.
She also said that the organization is working on creating 22 units at Francis Ranch, formerly Croak Ranch, in Dublin through a partnership with Trumark Homes and Eden Housing.
While both projects are still in the early funding stages, Houghton said they are that much closer in creating all of these different opportunities for people with disabilities at different locations that would best suit their needs and level of independence.
"We really want to continue to build as many Sunflower communities as we can," she said. "You give us land, we will come. That's our mantra."
And with cities throughout the entire state of California having gone through the process of zoning land for residential as part of their Housing Elements, which aim to allocate land so that cities can meet their state-mandated Regional Housing Needs Allocations, those opportunities could become more abundant.
"We continually look for housing opportunities," said former Sunflower Hill board president Kathy Layman, who joined the organization in 2016.
Layman, who recently termed out of the president role, continues to serve as the head of the nonprofit's land committee and works more as an adviser to the board.
She said that while many residents might have a negative view on the state's housing crunch, these Housing Elements in cities around the Tri-Valley and throughout California are forcing developers to look for partners like Sunflower Hill in order to work in affordable housing units so that their projects can get approved for development.
"We have had a couple of cities reach out to us and want to talk to us about potential projects," Layman said. "For us, I think it's a good opportunity to get in some places that we might not have been able to get into before."
And as these opportunities grow, Layman -- just like the rest of the members of Sunflower Hill -- continues to wish for elected officials, city representatives and community members to keep offering their support so that more housing can be developed and it doesn't just end with a few developments here and there.
"When I look back over the last 10 years; the individuals, the corporations, the organizations, the government elected folks -- it's taken a village, and it will continue to take that village if we're going to impact the numbers and make a difference," Houghton said "I would just invite anyone who wants to be part of our village and part of our garden, come on down. Because together we can grow."
Sunflower Hill will be celebrating its 10th anniversary with a special event on Sept. 30 at the Blackhawk Museum in Danville. The theme is moonlight at the museum, and the event will be open to the public. For more information and ticket purchases, visit www.sunflowerhill.org.