Improbably, one corner of Stephen Vander Schaaf’s office is anchored by a piano. The others are lined with shelves groaning under the weight of binders containing proposals for homes for people with disabilities. Photos of groundbreakings cover the walls, the subjects’ attire changing with the era. In the earliest, the blazers hanging from Vander Schaaf’s lanky frame are plaid. In more recent ones, his thick wavy hair has begun to grey.
For three decades, Stephen “Shep” Vander Schaaf ’78 has gotten to work at 4 a.m., taken a break near 7 for a half-hour swim, and returned to the job he’s held since 1982: President and CEO of Accessible Space, Inc. In that time, the St. Paul-based nonprofit has grown from five small, affordable homes to a $500 million network of 110 buildings in 31 states housing 3,100 people.
The idea of combining barrier-free housing with on-site support services might not sound revolutionary now, but in 1978, assisted living didn’t exist. There was no Americans with Disabilities Act to make public buildings accessible to all. There weren’t even curb cuts for people in wheelchairs. And there was virtually nowhere for a young paralyzed man to live with any degree of independence.
In 1975, Mike “Hondo” Pesch— a boyhood friend of Vander Schaaf and Stephen “Wigs” Wiggins ’78—broke his neck diving into a lake in northern Minnesota. When Pesch finished rehab, his options were to move back in with his parents or into a nursing home. Neither alternative promised even a taste of the adult life he had just begun to savor.
When Pesch went into rehab at the Courage Center in Golden Valley, Minn., Wiggins got a job there as an orderly. It was much better than a nursing home, but it was still an institution. “You still ate when the bell went off,” recalls Vander Schaaf.
With no concept of the bureaucratic machine they were about to engage, Wiggins and roommate Chuck Berg ’78 made resolving their buddy’s predicament into an honors project under the tutelage of geography professor David Lanegran ’63. Vander Schaaf also stayed involved. “Our buddy needed a place to live,” says Berg. “Being the shrewd researchers we were, we went to the Minneapolis Public Library.”
There the three pored over volumes of legalese until Wiggins stumbled across a passage describing a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program geared toward creating affordable housing for seniors. By his reading, there was no reason why the same pot of money—which provided construction loans and subsidized the rents used to repay them—couldn’t create homes for people with disabilities. Miraculously, HUD awarded the “kids” $1.1 million in construction financing and $4.2 million in rent subsidies to be spread over 20 years.
Shelter wasn’t enough, though. Pesch and those like him also needed support. At that time, people with disabilities were eligible for seven hours of in-home care each day plus homemaking services. Wiggins and Berg asked the Minnesota Department of Public Welfare to allow several recipients sharing a home to pool their care hours to create round-the-clock staffing. “The state’s first response was, ‘Go play on the freeway, kids,’” says Vander Schaaf. “But they finally found someone who would listen to a cost-effectiveness argument.”
In September 1980, Pesch and 29 others moved into five brand new buildings, three in Minneapolis and two in St. Paul. Site selection was the main focus of the Mac honors project at the heart of it all. Wiggins and Berg worked with Lanegran to imagine the best settings for future residents, such as proximity to bus lines and medical services.
To comply with the era’s red tape, the homes were duplexes, with two doors and two addresses, but comingled indoor space. Like the ASI residences that came later, residents managed the properties and chose whether to use the on-site services.
Wiggins, ASI’s first executive director, left in 1982 to pursue an MBA at Harvard University. Berg had left the project in 1978 to earn a law degree at Georgetown University. Berg went on to found HealthPartners and is now a Macalester trustee. Wiggins founded the managed care company Oxford Health Plans and later the Internet concern Health- Market. He, too, served as a Macalester trustee; he now heads the New York office of Essex Woodlands Health Ventures, the country’s largest health care venture capital firm. Pesch died of pneumonia in 1992.
In 1982, Vander Schaaf took over as head of ASI. Inspired by the residents’ dedication to the model—program participants serve on the board and evangelize widely—he has concentrated on expanding the organization’s reach. ASI now has more than 3,100 units on an annual budget of more than $35 million. The details vary from state to state, but most combine individual apartments with space for shared services. “It’s really about having the will,” he says. “Some of these projects take seven years from first inkling to opening up. And then we’re committed to HUD for another 40 years.”
Over the decades, funding streams have shifted and so has the need. As the quality of care has risen, people with mobility impairments are living longer, propelling ASI into the senior affordable housing market. With 39 buildings, Minnesota is ASI’s largest market, followed by Montana and Nevada.
“Shep has turned ASI into what it is today,” says Wiggins. “There’s a lot of transparency. The staff says what’s on their mind. They don’t think the boss is a big threat because there’s virtually no turnover.”
Ever the geographer, Lanegran suggests that the environment in Austin, Minnesota, where Vander Schaaf and his friends grew up, played into their confidence. New ventures and their founders are much more visible in small towns, he explains. “It’s a real testament to Macalester’s ability to add value that it took that main street entrepreneurial spirit and those raw talents and allowed Steve Wiggins to develop that,” he says.
Wiggins and Vander Schaaf say they were encouraged to think real world even though they were still students. “Macalester encourages a sense of ‘I can do it, why not me?’” says Wiggins. “It’s one of the great things about the school.”
And it’s an attribute that endures, Vander Schaaf adds. His niece, Holly Vander Schaaf ’11 helped start a social entrepreneurship fund called the “Live It Fund” while at Mac. The idealism and vision evident among her classmates, including Wiggins’s daughter Rosie Wiggins ’13, remind Vander Schaaf of his own cohort. “They’re doing good work,” he says, “and they’re doing it on a global scale.”
As for Vander Schaaf, he plans to stay at ASI, nurturing that original vision conceived at Macalester 30-plus years ago. “Everyone,” he’s fond of saying, “needs somewhere to live, something to do, and someone who cares.”
Accessible Space, Inc.