After another brutal winter in the Northeast, Marlon Benn decided he'd had enough.

Heaps of ice and snow easily left the 48-year-old veteran, who uses a wheelchair, all but housebound in Mount Vernon, NY. The ramps that allowed him to get in and out of his 85-year-old, three-bedroom house weren’t designed to handle 2 feet of snow. Not even close.

“I was stuck in the house,” he recalls. “I couldn’t get out to take my daughter to school. I had to constantly call somebody to shovel the snow.”

Even in less challenging weather, Benn’s house was not ideal. He needed a stair lift to get to the bedrooms, and he couldn’t get to the basement at all—which meant his 11-year-old daughter, Dominique, was recruited for laundry duty.

“I couldn’t live like that anymore,” explains Benn, who suffers from syringomyelia, a paralysis caused by a fluid-filled cyst on his spinal cord.

Benn put his house up for sale and began searching for a new home online. He wanted to be in a good school district for Dominique, of course. But he also wanted a home that would truly accommodate his special needs, and make his everyday life easier and better. He discovered that Florida features a variety of accessible homes and good VA hospitals.

Then his housing search took an unexpected turn. A friend told him about the Specially Adapted Housing program offered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The program’s mission is to allow veterans with service-connected disabilities to “live independently in a barrier-free environment.”

The SAH program serves veterans with severe disabilities, including the loss of both legs, the loss of both arms, or blindness coupled with orthopedic challenges. Currently, the program provides grants of up to $70,465 to make a home accessible. These can also be used in addition to other benefits such as VA loans. Grant amounts are set by law but can increase every year depending on construction costs.

“A lot of veterans think it’s too good to be true,” Benn says.

Grants for new housing and adaptive renovations

These federal grants can be used in a variety of ways, from constructing new housing to adding adaptive renovations to an existing home. The program can even be used to pay the outstanding mortgage on an adapted home—even if the veteran acquired the home through means other than SAH.

Another program—the Special Housing Adaptation grant, or SHA —is designed for smaller and less expensive projects for veterans with disabilities such as blindness or loss of the use of both hands, as well as certain burn injuries and severe respiratory conditions. SHA grants can currently go up to $14,093.

Veterans can use these grants up to three times, with the cumulative total not to exceed the maximum amount allowed.

These programs also provide assistance for veterans who will temporarily live in a family member’s home. The maximum amount available to adapt a relative’s home is $30,934 for an SAH grant and $5,523 for an SHA grant.

Veterans can visit the VA’s website to learn more about the SAH and SHA grant programs, download forms or to find contact information for their VA regional office.

Another grant program, Home Improvements & Structural Alterations, provides up to $6,800 for veterans to modify lavatory facilities and can be used to supplement SAH and SHA grants.

'It makes me independent'

After living in a pre-existing home that was adapted for his needs, Benn, who served as a machinist mate on the USS Wichita during the Gulf War, realized that new construction was the way to go.

“The money goes a whole lot further than trying to buy an old house and gut it,” he explains.

Benn found a lot in Lithia, FL—just outside of Tampa—and met with a counselor who was overseeing the project. They quickly settled on plans for a four-bedroom, 3,200-square-foot ranch home. Benn worked with the team at Veterans United Home Loans to turn his dream into reality.

“It’s an open concept,” he explains. “You can roll right into the bedroom. You can roll right into the shower.”

Because he doesn’t cook much, Benn left the kitchen counters at a conventional height. Now he doesn't have to enlist his daughter for laundry duty—he can wash his own clothes. And from the house, Benn has easy access to his driveway and garage—neither needs ramps or lifts of any kind.

“If you come to my house, you can’t tell that a handicapped person lives there,” Benn says. “And yet it makes me fully independent."

While it took longer than a conventional build, Benn’s home was done in short order—only five months from start to finish.

He’s adapted quickly to the Florida lifestyle—he and his daughter are already enjoying the beaches and other outdoor recreation.

Of course, Benn misses his friends in New York. But he expects that some of them will be calling in the months to come.

“I’ll hear from them in January,” he says with a laugh. “After the first big snow storm.”

NMLS 1907 ( Veterans United Home Loans is not endorsed or sponsored by the Dept. of Veterans Affairs or any government agency; does not reflect DOD endorsements. Equal Opportunity Lender. 1400 Veterans United Drive Columbia MO, 65203.