Hometown Hero
Buyers Seeking Accessible Housing Find Their Champion in Realty Agent Jackie Simon

Jackie Simon, a longtime real estate agent and activist in Montgomery County, has been named a "Hometown Hero" for her work on behalf of the disabled.
Sandra Fleishman
Washington Post Staff Writer

Usually a real estate agent tries to get a client to buy or sell a house.

But Gaithersburg agent Jackie Simon thought it made much more sense for Philip Watson and his family to remain in their split-level house after he was paralyzed by a spinal cord infection.

When she told them that, Phil Watson thanked God. His wife, Arlyce, cried with relief.

The couple, who are hearing-impaired, did not want to say goodbye to their Silver Spring house and their neighbors, one of whom is a nurse and others of whom are deaf. And they did not want to take their two teenagers out of high school there.

But the 40-year-old house was not designed to accommodate Phil Watson's new wheelchair or the changed life he would lead after he came home from the hospital in April 2001.

Simon, however, saw a way the family could stay. It was one that had not occurred to other agents they had consulted or to some hospital counselors. Simon helped the Watsons find a contractor to convert their lower-level family room into a bedroom and to widen doors and exits. She showed them where to apply for grants and suggested they refinance to get the cash for other expenses, such as the $10,000 wheelchair lift.

"She was a godsend," Arlyce Watson, 57, said in a recent interview. "We talked to other realtors, but they don't know what they're doing when it comes to something like this."


At the home of Philip and Arlyce Watson, the bathroom door was widened and the shower transformed into a roll-in to accommodate Philip's needs.
gotten paid for all the time she put into help and activism."

The agent is a local legend in fair housing and disability-rights circles. Simon's record includes service, mostly unpaid, on a slew of boards, councils, committees and commissions. And the work she has done has won her a raft of awards. Plaques cover the walls of her tiny cubicle office. Among the latest: last year's induction into Montgomery County's Human Rights Hall of Fame.

The most recent honor, from the National Association of Realtors, came in August. She and three others were named the group's first Hometown Heroes for "extraordinary contributions to the real estate profession."

The NAR and its local group, the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors, singled out Simon for creating classes to teach agents how to help people with disabilities find housing and a program to match property owners or builders of "barrier free" properties (those that can be made barrier-free inexpensively) with needy residents.

Simon has helped hundreds of people find accessible, adaptable housing and has put them in touch with federal, state and local financing and assistance programs. The real estate group also recognized her efforts to increase homeownership among minorities.

"She's been involved in fair housing for 40 years," said Michael D. Mitchell, director of enforcement for the Washington-based Equal Rights Center. "I could go on and talk about Jackie forever.

The Watsons had not realized it, but in Simon they had found an articulate, passionate advocate for equal rights and fair housing. Simon, 66, is also a knowledgeable local supporter of accessible housing - the idea that any person should be able to enter and leave a house and to maneuver in and out of the major rooms. She has been focused on the issue ever since her oldest son, Kirk, was paralyzed after being injured in a bike race 14 years ago.

Sales commissions are not her biggest motivator, she and her colleagues say, although she is quick to point out that there is a strong market in selling accessible housing. In fact, as Simon has advocated for her causes, she has been a consistent top sales producer nationally, first at ERA Mimi Selig Homes Inc. and then at Avery-Hess, Realtors Inc.

"She didn't do it for the money," said Mimi Selig, who hired Simon as a real estate agent almost 25 years ago. "She would be a wealthy woman today if she'd

Arlyce and Philip Watson talk with agent Jackie Simon about the modifications to their home, such as the lift, which allows wheelchair access to the basement.
Realty Agent Builds Career on Activism
" What they all say is that she is inspired by her family and a commitment to causes. Colleagues can recite the promise she made to her father, Edward Greenamyer.

"When I wanted to go to college, my dad said he would assist in my education if I did 20 hours of community service a week," Simon said. She promised she would. "He said an education wasn't worth it unless you used it for somebody else's benefit.

" While at Denison University in Ohio, she coordinated faculty recreation, laundered shirts for a fraternity, and worked as the teen and senior-citizen program director at a nearby YMCA to pay the bills. And she volunteered.

Still, she was able to graduate in three years instead of four, finishing in 1957 with a dual major in English and theology.

Shortly after graduation, her husband died in an accident at the German military base where they lived. She was widowed at 21.

It was her first big trial, one that helped her develop a philosophy of optimism in the face of adversity. After a summer traveling between home and Europe, attempting to regroup, she took jobs teaching in Ohio. She also got involved in sports car racing, buying a white TR3, because she liked the competition and because "that's where the boys were."

The hobby not only helped her regain her footing emotionally, she says, but also helped professional: "My students, who were basically the troublemakers where I taught, really liked it."

And she met her second husband, another racing hobbyist. They married in 1961. His job brought them to Montgomery County in 1962. They eventually had three sons but have since divorced.

In 1962, Simon made another life-changing decision. She applied to work at yet another YMCA. But this time, she crossed a line.

Her application was to the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA at Ninth and Rhode Island NW, which in 1905 had become the first YWCA for black women in Washington. Although Simon did not realize she was making history, she soon found that she had become the first white employee and the first white member.

"When they asked me if I was sure I wanted to apply, that I'd be the only one, I said, 'Sure, why not?'" Simon said. "And it was a wonderful working experience."

That job led to civil rights activities, including the 1963 march on Washington led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "It was one of the most significant events of my life," she said. "It was just such a powerful affirmation of the best that's in us."

In 1969 she took a job with Montgomery County's Housing Opportunities Commission, where she met many of the people who would influence her career.

She decided to run in 1978 for political office, eyeing a seat on the County Council that two-time member Neal Potter was expected to leave. Articles at the time about her campaign indicated she had business support from having led the county Chamber of Commerce and the local United Way while working at the housing commission.

But Potter decided not to step off the council to run for the state senate. Simon lost.

"It was the best thing that ever happened to me," she says, because she ended up with a career in real estate, where she could make a living and "have an impact on the things I care about: fair housing and affordable housing."

Simon joined ERA Mimi Selig Homes in 1978 because the Hatch Act prevented her from running for office while working for a county agency.

Selig knew Simon from years of working together on committees, but when she offered a job, Simon had her doubts. "I said, 'You've got to be kidding. I've never sold anything.'"

Selig, though, was sold on Simon because of her past professional and volunteer jobs. And she turned out to be right. After 18 years with Selig, Simon had won lifetime memberships in the ERA Million Dollar Club and Hall of Fame for annual sales. In 1980 she was the top ERA agent out of 40,000 across the country, winning the use of a Rolls-Royce for a year.

At Avery-Hess, which bought the Selig company in 1996, she is also always among the top sales-people, even though she sells mostly modestly priced properties to mostly first-time buyers.

Simon "brought a sense of community spirit and community involvement to my company," remembers Selig, who is retired. "She had very high standards, and sometimes it was even difficult for me to meet those terms, but it was to my benefit that I did." For example, Selig's firm backed Simon when she went to court against an agent whose client to sell to blacks. The 1981 settlement was the largest up to that point on a housing case in this area, Simon recalled.

Her work has sometimes put her on opposite sides from many in her profession. She was, for instance, the only real estate agent to testify in 1988 before the House and Senate in support of amendments to the Fair Housing Act of 1968 to extend protections to the disabled.

Others have winced at the fair housing lawsuits she has sought and the negative publicity such suits can generate.

But her colleagues say Simon has mastered the art of not making enemies. "The thing about Jackie that has always struck me is that she does some very serious advocacy, but she usually does it with grace, a smile and dignity," said Elizabeth "Betsy" Tolbert Luecking of the Montgomery County Commission on People With Disabilities.

According to David Hess, one of the principals in Avery-Hess: "She has a real good, strong sense of right and wrong.... And if she comes across people who are doing ill to other people, she's going to run them in."

Mitchell, of the Equal Rights Center, has worked with Simon on many issues during his 10 years there. Besides advocating for fair and accessible housing, he said, she has worked to add protections against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Although Simon testified in 1988 to extend the fair housing act to cover the disabled, she says she did not fully realize the extent of

the challenge facing people with disabilities until her own son's injury later that year.

Kirk Simon, a ranked amateur cyclist, was hurt when another rider lost a tire during an evening race. The tire was not properly attached to the rim, Jackie Simon said. As her son rode behind the other bike, "drafting him" to save energy, he was unable to avoid hitting the frame when the tire spun off. He suffered a spinal cord injury that left him a quadriplegic.

"It was a life-altering experience," said Mark Simon, the second of Simon's three sons and a real estate lawyer. "I didn't even know what a spinal cord injury was. And I didn't know anybody when I was growing up who was in a wheelchair."

Jackie Simon was suddenly faced with the dilemma of where her son would live when he got out of the rehabilitation hospital. The 25-year-old had been living in a group house, very much on his own. What went through her mind was: "If you thought that the rest of your life you were going to live with Mommy, would you want to get up? I don't think so. So we decided to seek independent living."

Putting thought into action was not easy. "It was an incredible challenge then to find something that would accommodate a wheelchair," she said.

Kirk Simon, who now teaches county students about injury prevention, remembers "how frightened we were."

"That day I went to work, then I went to the bike race. The next thing I knew was that I was never able to go back to my house.... I tell my teenagers [in classes] about that a lot, about how you can leave your bedroom, your favorite things... and something can happen and you can't go back because you live in an inaccessible house," he said.

Jackie Simon found housing for her son through a builder she had met in her fair housing campaigns. Simon's personal experience led to her latest calling, mostly because of requests from Kirk's friends.

"When Kirk was hurt, they told us that all of his able-bodied friends would be gone in six months," she said. "That didn't happen, but he developed a while new network of friends who heard about how he had his own apartment and who wanted to know how they could find a place to live. So he'd say, "I'll call Mom.'"

Simon says it is only a matter of time before builders, architects and real estate agents accept the responsibility to provide accessible housing. The Census Bureau has estimated that 20 percent of the population has a disability that affects one or more activities. And as the population ages, more people are becoming interested in housing that will let them age in place.

Sometimes, though, agents and builders need a push. That is why Simon offers classes for agents and helps train "testers," or undercover investigators, to document discrimination complaints.

Kirk Simon went undercover for "Dateline NBC" in 1997. The segment, "No Way In," addressed the challenges of being disabled and what reporter John Hockenberry, a paraplegic, called the "cruel realities" people face when looing for jobs and housing.

Jackie Simon says simple changes can make a big difference.

"A lot of realtors don't even recognize when something is accessible or modifiable, so they don't report that" in their listings, she said. "But it's in their sellers' interest to identify" all possible buyers.

She also tackles popular misconceptions. Although many might think a split-level house is always a better choice for a disabled person than a two-story house, Simon says it costs much more to modify two sets of steps than one.

The Watsons' house in Silver Spring shows how a split level can be modified, though.

While the family and other agents intially thought their only choice was to find a one-level house, "the economics didn't make sense," Simon said. "It was still easier and cheaper to modify their house' than to pay the closing costs on another house and then change it.

Finding another house as "frustrating" because of the lack of choices and other agents' lack of knowledge, Arlyce Watson said.'

"The houses the other agents showed us just didn't work," she said. "They all had hallways that were too narrow, or they had too many steps" inside.

Simon thought the Watsons' lower-level rec room could be modified into a bedroom with a roll-in shower if a wheelchair lift were added and if doorways were widened and openings reversed. By moving the washer and dryer and replacing them with a stacked unit, there was room for an accessible exit downstairs.

The Watsons did not want a ramp from the front door to the curb because it was "too conspicuous." Instead, they preferred running it across the front porch and then down the side of the yard.

Phil Watson, 61, now retired from his job as a District social worker for the deaf, can't thank Simon enough. The paralysis "turned my whole life around; I had to learn to do everything," he says, but he was able to do it in a familiar setting.

Simon's most recent cause is a campaign for "visit-able" houses, the idea that all houses should be built with at least one accessible entrance and an accessible bathroom.

The principle, Kirk Simon says, is simple. "If your grandmother broke her leg, you'd still want to welcome her to your home, wouldn't you?"

The prime mover in the campaign is AARP, a nonprofit organization that advocates for people 50 and
older. Atlanta led the way in 1992 by mandating a zero-step entrance in certain houses built with city funds.

"I'd love to see every builder offer this," Jackie Simon said. Never one to let the dust settle, she'd also like to see builders "offer a model in each subdivision with a first-floor master bedroom so people can age in place."

And to the reporter interviewing her, she adds: "I'd love to see The Post put wheelchair logos in their housing ads and not charge for it."

Where to Go for Help

For more information about accessible housing and "visit-ability," a relatively new concept that says all new housing should be built to be affordable and accessible as a basic civil and human right, check the following sources:

  • AARP, www.aarp.org
  • Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access, School of Architecture and Planning, University at Buffalo. Offers a free booklet on visit-ability. Call 716-829-3485, Ext. 329; www.ap.buffalo.edu/idea.
  • Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University. E-mail cud@ncsu.edu; 800-647-6777; www.design.ncsu.edu/cud
  • Concretechange.home.mindspring.com has information on how to make a home visit-able and on efforts to pass visit-ability laws.
  • Housing and Urban Development Department, www.hud.gov. Search for "fair housing" or "disabilities".
  • HomeChoice, a Fannie Mae mortgage product for people with disabilities. Call 800-732-6643 for a list of lenders.
  • Local independent living centers, state and county housing authorities and agencies, such as the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development's "Homeownership for Individuals with Disabilities Program," 410-514-7535.
  • National Resource Center on Supportive Housing and Home Modification, University of Southern California. A National Directory of Home Modification Resources allows a search by state. Call 213-740-1364; www.homemods.org
  • Paralyzed Veterans of America Architecture and Barrier-Free Design Program. Free information on universal design and accessibility. Call 800-424-8200, Ext. 645; www.pva.org. In Washington, 202-416-7645.


Books

  • "Building for a Lifetime: The Design and Construction of Fully Accessible Homes." Margaret Wylde, Adrian Baron-Robbins. Sam Clark (Taunton Press, 1994). Call 800-888-8265.
  • Directory of Accessible Building Products (National Association of Home Builders Research Center, 2002). Call 301-249-4000 or order through http://store.builderbooks.com/cgi-bin/builderbooks.
  • Retrofitting Homes for a Lifetime" (NAHB Research Center, 1994). Call 301-249-4000 or order through the NAHB bookstore.
  • "Universal Kitchen and Bathroom Planning: Designs That Adapt to People." Mary Jo Peterson (National Kitchen & Bath Association, 1998). Call 908-852-0033.

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