Micaela Connery is co-founder and CEO of The Kelsey, a San Francisco–based nonprofit that co develops accessible, affordable, inclusive multifamily housing, advocates for policy changes that promote inclusive practices, and provides tools and templates for others who want to build housing based on its model.
Since founding The Kelsey in 2017, Connery has secured more than $120 million in funding to pilot programming in existing units in Oakland, Calif. and to finance new buildings in two of the nation’s most challenging housing markets—San Jose, Calif.; and San Francisco. She also oversees strategic planning across program areas, including housing development, field building, and community and political advocacy.
Connery’s lifelong advocacy for people with disabilities stems from her relationship with her late cousin and close friend, Kelsey Flynn O’Connor. The Kelsey co-founder and chief inspiration for the organization, O’Connor lived with multiple disabilities. As the two grew up together, Connery saw firsthand the obstacles many disabled people face in accessing the same resources as their nondisabled peers. Determined to work on solutions, Connery realized there was no cohesive model for housing that would allow people like her cousin to live independently in a mixed community, so she set out to build one.
The Kelsey’s model for accessible, affordable, inclusive communities allows disabled and nondisabled people with a wide range of incomes, needs, and life experiences to live side by side in equally high-quality homes. Locations are chosen for their proximity to jobs, community, culture, services, and transit, while architecture and engineering go beyond building code requirements to implement universal design. In addition, thoughtful but optional community outreach programs foster interaction, understanding, and connectedness, leading to mutual support and a sense of belonging.
Connery is proudest of the role The Kelsey plays in shifting the narrative of what disability-forward housing looks like. The Kelsey is spearheading a movement for equity co-led by people with disabilities—voices that should have been at the forefront a long time ago. Connery envisions a world where inclusive housing is the norm and people with disabilities have true options for community-based living. She believes The Kelsey’s work will show that everyone is better served by design choices that include disabled people.
Prior to founding The Kelsey, Connery published leading research as a fellow at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. Her findings identified what became the core elements of The Kelsey’s design and programming principles. Before that, she served for 12 years as CEO of Unified Theater, a nonprofit organization she founded at age 15 to foster inclusion and leadership among disabled and nondisabled students through the art
A passionate expert source on the importance of providing infrastructure and resources that allow people with disabilities to live full, independent lives with access to community and culture, Connery can talk in detail about the current landscape of disability housing, how we got here, and legislative actions needed to catalyze growth. She can also speak to barriers to building accessible housing in cities and how to overcome them, illustrate how economic trends like the ongoing affordable housing crisis disproportionately impact people with disabilities, and describe the design principles that developers, designers, architects, and engineers can adopt to build better homes for everyone.
What does it mean to you to be Disability-Forward? Why does it matter? Why does inclusion matter?
Growing up with Kelsey, my family was defined by inclusivity and access. When we centered family vacations on Kelsey’s access needs or let Kelsey influence our lives with her on the example of inclusivity, we not only made Kelsey’s life richer but we all benefited. This is what disability-forward means to me. Disability-forward reminds us that centering on access and inclusion of people with disabilities isn’t something you do out of charity or obligation, it simply makes all spaces better, all experiences richer, and ultimately a better world that includes opportunities for all people.
Favorite building feature?
I love cities and have lived my whole adult life in small spaces in big cities. So I love how all our projects are well-located in diverse, vibrant cities and neighborhoods. Yet, while I’m an urbanist, I also value nature and being outside. So, I love how our very urban projects also include outdoor amenities, green spaces, and accessible ways for our residents to enjoy nature.