SEATTLE—As the final days of August slipped away, Marilyn Smith walked the halls of the new building, taking in the details.

These steps were the latest in a long journey that has made the four walls around her and the roof above her a reality.

It had come down to touching up the paint, fine-tuning the building systems, and moving in residents. Then, there would be lives to change, maybe even save.

It wouldn’t be long before A Place of Our Own, a 19-unit transitional housing development for deaf and deaf-blind victims of domestic violence and sexual assault would open.

It has taken Smith, who is deaf herself, more than three years to develop the project, she said. She then waited a beat before signing, “Do I look tired?”

Armed with a sense of humor and a stubborn streak, Smith is driven to help other deaf women. Her latest achievement is her most important.

There’s no housing development like it in the country.

No one wants to be alone

A Place of Our Own was developed by Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services (ADWAS), a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that Smith founded and leads.

The inspiration for the project was the frustration ADWAS experienced when it had trouble placing clients in mainstream housing programs. With no one to communicate with in these developments, the deaf women became too lonely and didn’t want to stay. And the programs were often ill-equipped to care for them.

“When a deaf woman goes to a traditional place, she has to spend time explaining her deafness and her needs as a deaf person,” Smith said through an interpreter. “The issue of domestic violence gets placed low on the list because she has to be a teacher first.”

Deaf women also often have hearing children, and these children are put in the difficult position of having to interpret for their mothers.

“There is a barrier for a woman from day one,” Smith said. “It becomes more difficult and frustrating for her and makes it much easier for her to return to her batterer because at least then she has someone she can communicate with. No one wants to be alone. No one wants to be left without anyone to talk to.”

The rate of violence against deaf women isn’t any different than it is for hearing women, meaning one out of four women will experience abuse. “The numbers are the same,” Smith said. It’s the lack of available services for deaf women that’s different.

A Place of Our Own seeks to change that. The women will have the equipment and services they need, a staff that uses American Sign Language, and each other.

Strong enough

Smith, 55, is known for her bright lipstick.

At a recent birthday party, everyone who spoke about Smith made sure to color their lips, including the men. “It’s kind of a joke now,” said Smith, who is quick to laugh at herself.

Her significant funny bone, however, can’t compare to her considerable backbone.

Meningitis stole her hearing at age 6. Despite her disability, her family set expectations high for Smith. After graduating from high school in Seattle, she headed to Gallaudet University, a school for deaf and hearing-impaired students in Washington, D.C.

While a freshman, she was raped by an intruder in her dorm room. “At that time, there were no services whether you were deaf or hearing,” Smith said. “There were no services for rape victims then.”

The police didn’t do much, no one was ever caught, and Smith remained in school to pick up the pieces and carry on as best she could. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s in counseling. The university recently recognized her with an honorary doctorate degree.

“I feel fortunate in a way that in 1970 I was already stubborn enough and strong enough as a woman to take care of myself and do a lot of self-healing,” she said.

Smith attributes her stubbornness to growing up deaf and seeing how people were treated. “I used to be hearing when I was very young,” she said. “I remembered the difference. I thought people really treat deaf people differently. And, I’m Norwegian. Norwegians tend to be pretty stubborn people.”

Another turning point came in 1981 when a deaf woman was murdered by her deaf husband in Seattle.

“I thought, ‘That’s it, no one else is going to take care of us. We have to do it ourselves,’” Smith said.

“By 1981 when that woman was murdered, there were services out there,” she said. “But they didn’t help her. They were mainstream services. That was too much to take.”

Smith, who was working as a therapist at the time, formed ADWAS in the basement of her home. The organization has had many accomplishments in its 20-year history.

ADWAS, which has grown to a staff of 16 people, almost all of them deaf, was awarded a contract from the National Domestic Violence Hotline to manage the deaf abuse hotline that is accessible by TTY (text telephone). The organization also received a grant from the Department of Justice to train deaf people to replicate the ADWAS model. The group has 14 sister agencies across the country.

In 1996, Smith was recognized by President Bill Clinton for her work on behalf of crime victims, and in 2003, she was one of 17 individuals to receive the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World award. Two years later, ADWAS broke ground on A Place of Our Own.

First-time developer

Smith and the development team knew that the project needed to be in the city although additional opportunities and more affordable sites were available outside Seattle limits.

That’s because many of the project’s residents will not drive or own cars, so they need to be close to public transportation and the services offered in town. It took two years, but ADWAS eventually found a vacant parcel of land that met its needs.

ADWAS also faced the challenge of a large capital campaign. A Place of Our Own cost approximately $8.6 million. Roughly 55 percent came from public sources and 45 percent from private donations, estimated Smith. With no history of housing development, ADWAS had to do a significant amount of private fund raising to show the government agencies that the organization was not only serious but also had the potential to undertake this unique project.

One way that the campaign differed from ones shouldered by other groups is that ADWAS had to do a lot of footwork to educate people about the deaf community. “Deaf people are so invisible,” Smith said, explaining that if someone saw her on the street they would not know she is deaf.

“We really had to go out and convince people that there are deaf people out there.” Some national statistics estimate that there are more than 6.1 million adults who are deaf or have significant trouble hearing.

Working out the financing

While ADWAS worked on its capital campaign, Common Ground, an organization that assists nonprofit housing developers building projects in Washington, helped the group through the development process.

One of the decisions made was to apply for federal low-income housing tax credits in 2004. Under the tax credit program, affordable housing projects compete for the credits, which are then sold to corporate investors to raise money for the development. The investors use the credits to reduce their tax liability.

That year, however, competition for the credits was extremely stiff. A Place of Our Own scored well, but just missed the cut and found itself on a waiting list with three other deals.

It was an example of another great project and not enough resources, said Steve Walker, director of the tax credit division at the Washington State Housing Finance Commission (WSHFC), which allocates the credits in the state.

Walker and his team, however, felt strongly about the projects on the waiting list and recognized that they had their other funding in place.

The staff presented the unique circumstances to the commission, which then agreed to fund the waiting-list projects out of the tax credit authority they would receive in 2005.

A Place of Our Own received a reservation of credits that would bring roughly $1.7 million of equity to the deal. The development also helped lead to a policy shift at WSHFC, which has since moved to prioritize projects that are ready to go, according to Walker.

One of the keys for ADWAS was that its leaders understood their strengths and their role and then built an experienced development team around them.

Finding an investor

At 19 units, the project is small for a tax credit deal in an urban setting like Seattle.

Projects this size also often fall off the radar screen of tax credit syndicators, who help bring the investors to the deal.

But Homestead Capital, a nonprofit tax credit syndicator headquartered in Portland, Ore., learned about the project early on from people who were working with ADWAS.

The development seemed like a good match for Homestead, which has a reputation for investing in small and unique deals, said Homestead CEO Deborah Saweuyer-Parks.

Even so, this project was extraordinary, she said. Saweuyer-Parks has helped finance 86 projects at Homestead, and A Place of Our Own ranks way up there, she said. “That ADWAS can take these women out of harm’s way and [help them] not be victims of abuse any more is really special,” she said.

Homestead Capital provided the tax credit equity for the deal. The investors included Wells Fargo, Sterling Savings Bank, Fannie Mae, The Standard, Banner Bank, and AmericanWest Bank.

Financial support also came from the state of Washington, King County, the Federal Home Loan Bank, and several cities, including Seattle’s Office of Housing, Federal Way, SeaTac, Renton, Kirkland, and Shoreline. In addition, many private foundations and donors made the development possible.

The Seattle Housing Authority is assisting by providing Sec. 8 vouchers. As a result, a qualifying woman will pay no more than 30 percent of her income toward rent.

Calling it home

The deaf and deaf-blind women and their children will be able to call the new development their home for up to two years.

The apartments are fully furnished down to the utensils in the kitchen cabinets.

The building is also loaded with special features for the residents, including lights that flash to alert residents when someone is at their doors and a carpet that has a patterned border to help visually impaired residents navigate the halls.

ADWAS will provide on-site services focusing on independent-living skills, job placement, family support, and therapy. The program is expected to serve not only women from the area, but from across the nation.

Although Smith has entered the homestretch toward opening the new development’s doors, she also knows she is starting a marathon when it comes to operating the housing for the long haul.

The group had been providing many of these services, so the programs were in place. A big challenge going forward, however, will be to maintain the relationships and support that the project received during the development phase, according to Smith.

She is receiving inquiries from groups around the nation wanting to know how ADWAS built A Place of Our Own so they can develop their own affordable housing projects, she said.

For A Place of Our Own, the story will soon become not one about how the project was built, but one about the people living inside.

“I’m hoping the people who have moved in will be able to tell us that this has been a great thing for them and made a change in their lives,” Smith said.

Then, the journey will be complete.