Tucked against Pogonip Creek, a cluster of nine colorful bungalows forms Coastal Haven — a “pocket community” for 11 families who have adult children with disabilities. The hope, its founders Heidi Cartan and Philippe Habib say, is that this will be the children’s homes for a lifetime.
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The first thing you notice when you walk around the community Heidi Cartan and Phillipe Habib built is how quiet it is. Opposite the picturesque Common Roots Farm, known for its strawberries, dahlias and bleating sheep, nine colorful bungalows stretch out in two rows against the backdrop of the densely wooded Pogonip Creek, just north of the Harvey West area of Santa Cruz.
Cartan and Habib built this neighborhood — almost a village, complete with a pedestrian-only “Main Street” — for their 26-year-old son, Noah Habib, who has cerebral palsy. Noah uses a wheelchair and feeding tube, and cannot speak. This project, Cartan said, is meant to be a home available to him for the rest of his life.
“What do you do to have a purposeful and meaningful life when that’s your situation?” Cartan said. “That’s the challenge my husband and I set out to address for our son.”
As Coastal Haven Families, LLC — a “pocket community” for adults with disabilities, their caretakers and family members — marks the first anniversary of its opening, the effort they’ve put into addressing that challenge is evident. Home to about 40 people, the community is comprised of nine four- and five-bedroom homes, in which everything, from the width of the bungalow doorways to the absence of cars on most parts of the property, is designed to allow people with disabilities to live and thrive there.
The project began around seven years ago, when Cartan and Habib realized they had a problem: On Noah’s 22nd birthday, the support he had received for most of his life from the public school system would end. He would no longer have free access to education, physical therapy or work training — or the opportunity to be with friends.
This “cliff,” as Cartan calls it, is familiar to every parent who has an adult child with disabilities. While the federal government mandates that people with disabilities be given access to public education until they turn 21 (California extends this age to 22), their need for the support schools provide doesn’t go away. Parents often step in to fill the gap — smooth the cliff, so to speak, by arranging therapy and opportunities to socialize for their children themselves. But this is an impermanent solution.
“Everything they’ve been receiving — physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, vision therapy, educational services, work training opportunities, and their whole social life — is bound up, typically, at school,” Cartan said. “When it stops, it’s quite dramatic and not always understood by them, and the ‘system’ to pick them up after age 22 is really, really limited.”
“As a good friend of mine says, ‘If your plan for your disabled child is for you to live forever, that is not a plan.’”
That’s how Cartan and Habib found the 10 other families who became co-investors in Coastal Haven. Born out of a shared need to have a housing insurance policy for their children, Cartan and Habib’s scheme contained plans for both a nonprofit farm — Common Roots Farm, originally Costanoa Commons, which planted its first seeds in 2015 — and the Coastal Haven housing project, which admitted its first residents in September 2021.
“When you’re raising a child with a disability, you just end up sitting in the same doctors appointments and therapy visits and P.T. and O.T. and special-ed schools and all that stuff together,” Cartan said. “It was very organic.”
The whole project — including both the sticker price of the 6.74-acre parcel that Common Roots Farm and Coastal Haven sit on and the cost of construction — rang in at about $9 million. Cartan says this included about $1 million in fees to the City of Santa Cruz, the result of a lengthy zoning battle between the group and local developers John Swift and David Curry, who own three of the parcels that surround Coastal Haven and Common Roots Farm.
Aside from Cartan’s family and their 10 partners, another family and two groups of UCSC students occupy three of the property’s nine residences.
Architecture can be an enemy to people with disabilities. It’s difficult to get a wheelchair up a set of stairs, for example, let alone through a narrow doorway. Cartan also said that cars — ubiquitous in American neighborhoods — pose a serious threat to people with developmental disabilities.
That’s why Coastal Haven was created along “universal design” principles — so called, in Cartan’s words, because they “work for everyone while excluding no one.” The entrance of each home is level with the ground and has a doorway 36 inches wide, which allows people who use wheelchairs to enter and exit more easily. The tables and benches that punctuate the pedestrian-only pathway linking the homes are open on one side to be wheelchair-compatible. Though each unit has two floors, all are outfitted to accept chair lifts, if needed, and the two five-bedroom units contain space for home elevators.
“The thing is, it’s mostly a matter of thinking of these things,” Cartan said. “It’s not like the cost is significantly more difficult to bear.”
Cartan, who is a geriatric social worker by training, pointed out that most people will face the design problem she and her husband did at some point in their lives. When elderly family members begin to lose mobility, they also lose access to parts of their homes — and that’s what drives many of them into assisted living facilities.
“Their existing home wasn’t designed for aging in place,” Cartan said. “It’s a common story, but many people don’t think about it until it’s upon them. [...] It was important to me that nobody live here in their young adulthood and mid-life, and then find that as they’re seniors they have to go someplace else.”
Coastal Haven’s “pocket community” concept isn’t anything new. In Barcelona, Spain, so-called superillas (“superblocks”) made of clustered city blocks internally closed to vehicle traffic were instituted throughout the 2010s to encourage walking and cut down on vehicular pollution. In building Coastal Haven, Cartan said she and her husband took inspiration from American architect Ross Chapin, who designed pocket communities throughout the Pacific Northwest and authored the book “Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World.”
Not only does this pocket design make Coastal Haven safer, it also encourages close-knit social bonds among its residents. Cartan said that one resident, Scott, who can communicate only via an iPad, distributes eggs collected from the adjoining farm throughout the community every morning. Most of the nine houses are shared by multiple residents with disabilities, some accompanied by family members and caretakers.
Cartan said the design of Coastal Haven was driven in large part by the preferences of their son. Other groups of families seeking to build communities similar to Cartan and Habib’s — notably one in Half Moon Bay and another in Los Angeles — have come to them for guidance, but Cartan said she stressed to them that what their communities would look like would need to come from the particular needs and wants of their children.
“As my husband says, we’re one possible flavor among many,” Cartan said. “We chose, for example, to have shared housing, because our son is really, really social, and would have hated living in an apartment by himself. But for other people, that’s what their child wants.”