First Place AZ is changing the housing landscape for adults with autism with an innovative model that promotes independent living, continuing education and community integration.

Assisted by a panel of experts from the Urban Land Institute Arizona District Council and an outpouring of support from the community, First Place AZ plans to open its first location in 2018 and use that property as a model worldwide.

“Our bold vision is to ensure that housing and community options are as bountiful for people with autism and other neuro-diversities as they are for everyone else,” says Denise Resnik, the founder, president and CEO of First Place AZ, a nonprofit organization designed to advance residential options for adults with different abilities.

“There is great demand,” Resnik says, “We get feedback from around the world from people who have searched and believe that First Place is the right place for them and their loved ones.”

First Place Phoenix, a $15 million residential property that can house up to 80 residents, has received 550 expressions of interest.

Resnik’s plan is to open First Place AZ and ensure its success then replicate First Place in communities across the country, while promoting the principles of public, private, charitable and nonprofit collaboration.

“We’re looking at 10 First Place properties over the next 10 years,” Resnik says, “We have more than 30 markets around the world that have expressed interest and have come out to visit.”

The property at Third Street and Catalina Drive in Phoenix will include 55 apartments supported by independent living services and amenities; a two-year, tuition-based residential training program that focuses on independent living skills, career readiness and interpersonal relations; and a global leadership institute that will serve as a national training center for professionals, direct service support providers and medical personnel as well as a site for research and public-policy advancement. Nearby public transit will connect residents to the community through jobs, recreation, education and other opportunities.

First Place AZ evolved from years of planning, research and collaboration with 100 local partners, including Urban Land Institute (ULI), Arizona State University (ASU), and Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC), First Place AZ’s sister nonprofit co-founded by Resnik.

Resnik participated in ULI’s Arizona Technical Assistance Panel (AzTAP) program, seeking advice from experts on two separate occasions. The panel looked at all dimensions of real estate from design and location to finance and helped Resnik map out a path to move forward.

Joseph Blackbourn, president and CEO of Everest Holdings and ULI member, participated in one of the panel discussions.

“The best ideas merged together, built from a real estate design, programming of services and capital market approach in order to catalyze the development of these communities not just in Arizona but anywhere they are needed,” Blackbourn says.

He says the work that has been done so far is “quite revolutionary” and that Resnik and SARRC are nationally thought of as pioneers trying to get the model perfected and expanded.

“By tapping into ULI (Resnik) has found the right place,” he says. “For ULI and the real estate community in the Phoenix area, it is a labor of love.”

In 2016, ULI Arizona earned the ULI National District Council Impact Award for its work with SARRC, First Place AZ and ASU in addressing the residential needs and options for adults with autism. First Place AZ received the 2016 HeroX Autism Speaks House to Home Prize for the work it is doing in housing and residential support.

“We hope to set the bar high and be that standard in markets where we have a presence for what housing should look like in community integration,” Resnik says.

She recognizes the impact the community has had in making this project a reality.

“The reason we are dreaming bigger is because we can,” Resnik says, “because we have the Urban Land Institute and government officials and philanthropists and moms and dads and family members everywhere who believe in what we are doing. That is truly the best expression of community.”