Brothers seek town support for group home in Morristown’s Historic District

Two brothers hope to convert this residence in Morristown's Historic District to a group home. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Two brothers are converting this residence in Morristown's Historic District to a shared home. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Nate and Yehuda Diskint want to make some history in Morristown’s Historic District.

The brothers aim to convert a stately Victorian home into a stately Victorian “shared” home, for six individuals with special needs. They call their nonprofit project Co-home Inc.,  and it’s a personal crusade.

“I have a brother with Down syndrome. Can we create a shared home for people with disabilities where we would want to live? As opposed to out-of-sight, out-of-mind?” said Nate Diskint, 28, referring to their brother Jeremy, 24.

To achieve that, the Diskints say they must convince town officials to allocate $344,000 in affordable housing money crucial to close the sale this month.

They’re eyeing a neighborhood where the idea of bed-and-breakfasts has engendered stiff opposition. It’s a place where outsiders pay to tour the mansions, a district with walled estates, pretty fountains and, yes, history. A museum and garden date to the early 19th century; across the street, Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain used to come calling.

Prospective residents gather in proposed Morristown group home. Photo courtesy of Morris Blue Inc.
Prospective residents gather in proposed Morristown group home. Photo courtesy of Morris Blue Inc.

The brothers insist the three-story, 5,400-square-foot Miller Road home will be supervised round-the-clock. Nobody wants to repeat what happened a few years ago in another part of town, where a group home for adolescent males exasperated neighbors on Headley Road when a Pennsylvania foundation failed to exert enough oversight.

(The town ended up buying that house, and selling it at a loss this year for $432,000.)

“We’re trying to evaluate their application,” said town Administrator Jillian Barrick, who asked the brothers last month for more information about how the facility will be financed and operated.

Councilman Stefan Armington said he needs more details, too. Councilwoman Alison Deeb, whose Fourth Ward includes Miller Road, did not respond to a request for comment.

Nate, whose background is in sports biofeedback consulting, and Yehuda, a 30-year-old lawyer, said they have spent two years raising about $800,000 towards the purchase of the home, which has an assessed value of just under $1 million.

Officials said they must determine if the project qualifies for subsidies from the town’s affordable housing trust fund, which consists of fees paid by developers to help the town create housing for people with low- to moderate incomes. The trust has about $1 million, according to Barrick.

The Diskints’ approach is somewhat novel. They don’t plan to cater to any specific disability; they envision a mix of individuals who can function in the community with some assistance. Some residents will pay a one-time fee sliding fee, with their continuing care subsidized by programs to which they already belong.

Two of the eight bedrooms will be rented to persons without any physical or cognitive deficits. They will provide companionship and organize occasional outings for the other residents, Nate Diskint said.

This venture won’t be licensed by the state. But licensed organizations will supply 24-7 support services, he said.

Staircase in proposed Miller Road group home. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Staircase in proposed Miller Road group home. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The Diskints, who are Chatham natives, said they tested their concept for about a year, at a Hill Street apartment they leased for four residents with disabilities such as autism and Down syndrome.

Families with special needs covet options like this, in towns like Morristown, said Diane Riley, executive director of the Supportive Housing Association of New Jersey.

“Morris Blue…is trying to inject flexibility into a system with lots of rules and regulations. The project fills a need for some very well,” Riley said, referring to the project’s initial name, Morris Blue Inc.

“We have a situation where parents are aging and have supported a special need child, now an adult, all of their lives. They are desperate to set up a situation where their loved one can be cared for and also live as independently as possible.”

Bedroom in proposed Morristown group home. Photo courtesy of Morris Blue Inc.
Bedroom in proposed Morristown group home. Photo courtesy of Morris Blue Inc.

Riley hopes the Diskints’ effort paves the way “for more flexible and integrated projects.”

“I think it’s a great concept,” said Joanne Monaco, field services manager for the
Special Olympics New Jersey sports complex in Lawrenceville.

Initiatives like Co-home Inc. can help overcome stereotypes about people with intellectual disabilities, Monaco said.

“They can do a lot more than people think,” she said of her clientele. “They can be employed. They’re good neighbors. They have pets. They shop. Just like anyone else in the community.”

There actually is a precedent for group homes in the neighborhood–including the very same house on Miller Road, according to longtime resident Linda Carrington. During the 1980s, she said, the Eileen Cornell Legal Clinic rented rooms to clients needing housing because of divorces.

Nearby, Assumption Church ran a home for years, mainly for seniors, Carrington said. Another Victorian residence helps people in recovery maintain their sobriety

The Diskints have described their plans to neighbors and funders at a couple of soirees at the house.

One Historic District resident, Alice Cutler, said she applauds the brothers’ attempt to supply independent living to the developmentally disabled.

“However, I am sad to see [the house] taken off the tax rolls and no longer a single-family home. I imagine they have a great deal of work to do on the house to bring it up to code, and the roof looks like it is in need of repair. I am concerned that if Morris Blue had to close, another group home would move there with different at-risk residents. I wish them lots of luck,” Cutler said.

Miller Road is within walking distance of downtown, is close to social services, and offers many mass-transit options, Yehuda Diskint said.

Which makes it ideal for Jeremy, and others like him, his brothers contend.

“We wouldn’t want him to live in a place either of us wouldn’t want to live in,” Yehuda said.

The porch of proposed Morristown group home. Photo courtesy of Morris Blue Inc.
The porch of proposed Morristown group home. Photo courtesy of Morris Blue Inc.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to add this project’s current website, and information about prior group homes in the neighborhood.

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  1. I am Donna Friedrich’s mom and I came to Miller Road sad and broken. The community within the house healed me and provided a place where my children Donna and Hank could thrive. I will always be greatful to Eileen Cornel for providing this place. I know she would approve of this group home.

  2. Back in the 70’s, I lived part time in this house with my Mom.
    Lots of divorced parents lived there with their kids and we called ourselves the Miller Road Mob.
    It was a wonderful place for us kids to recover from our parents divorces and reconnect with other families going through the same things.
    It was and still is a beautiful home and I will never forget it.

  3. This sounds like it could be a wonderful thing for community members with special needs. There are already several different types within walking distance from my house in that same neighborhood. I do wonder how my neighborhood compares to others in terms of housing those with need special assistance.