Resnik family

The Resnik family, from left, Denise, Matt and Rob at Matt’s First Place Phoenix apartment.

When Scottsdale resident Denise Resnik’s son, Matt, was diagnosed with autism nearly three decades ago, she and her husband were told to love, accept and eventually plan to institutionalize him. At that time, little was known about the outcome for adults with autism and institutionalization was often suggested as part of continuing care.

“I talked to those places and ran away as fast as I possibly could,” said Resnik. “I have been driven by fear, love and like-minded, passionate leaders who are also looking for more hopeful futures.”

Resnik is a member of both Temple Kol Ami in Scottsdale and Temple Chai in Phoenix and has a background in real estate. She founded First Place AZ, a residential and community development nonprofit focused on creating supportive housing for adults with autism, Down syndrome, traumatic brain injuries and other developmental disabilities.

Resnik is also co-founder of the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center. The 25-year-old nonprofit organization is dedicated to autism research, education, evidence-based treatment and community outreach.

First Place AZ, now 10 years old, is launching a survey and market analysis designed to assess the demand and preferences in Greater Phoenix for housing and supportive communities for people like Resnik’s son.

“We need to know what the demand is and what the needs and preferences are so that we can smartly develop more options,” Resnik said.

Matt Resnik, 31, lives in First Place Phoenix, a 63-apartment residential community with a life-skills program. He works too, helping to pack and ship biscotti at SMILE Biscotti, a business he inspired and co-founded with his parents.

“First Place Phoenix allows us to not only provide homes for the people who live there, but for us to more fully appreciate how to support people in their community or in their home,” Resnik said.

The study is being conducted by the First Place Global Leadership Institute’s Center for Real Estate and Community Development. The Center for Real Estate and Community Development is one of First Place Global Leadership Institute’s five centers that collaborate with international experts and industry leaders to address issues and facilitate the work and impact of First Place AZ.

The analysis will collect market data, identify barriers and explore how public, private, nonprofit and philanthropic sectors can work together to respond to market demand.

“It will help us design a blueprint for making more housing options a reality,” said Resnik.

The market research will rely on online surveys of individuals and family members. An accessible version of the survey will also be available for individuals with disabilities to complete directly. Another version will be translated into Spanish.

Make Waves Family Foundation and Dominium, a property management company, are providing partial funding for the analysis; additional sources are being sought.

Results will be presented at the First Place Global Leadership Institute Symposium Oct. 19-21, which will be held in person and via webinar. Leaders from across the country are coming together to focus on advancing a new generation of housing and community options.

“The study is the foundation to make it possible for housing developers, support providers and technology innovators to grasp the needs of this market and facilitate major marketplace and policy advances based on data,” said Maureen Casey, director of the Colonel Harland Sanders Center for Applied Research at the First Place Global Leadership Institute.

“We know that this is an invisible population in the housing crisis in Arizona,” said Casey, adding that 300 people a day are moving to Arizona and affordable housing has not kept up. “We have at least 159,000 people living with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Arizona. We’re hoping to bring visibility to this population so we can stand next to other populations in need of housing.”

About 77% of the developmentally disabled live with family and 27% live with a family caregiver over the age of 60, Casey said.

“Among the looming questions for parents like me is, ‘Where will my loved one live, who will care for them and how will they thrive when I’m no longer here?’” Resnik said. “Our big vision for First Place is to ensure that housing and community options are as bountiful for this population as they are for everyone else.”

Casey added that the “whole point of early intervention is to think about what happens when people are adults and prepare them for adulthood. For this population in particular, we spend most of our time, research, funding and providing services for them as children and we don’t spend time thinking about what happens when they turn 22.”

Resnik talked about “raising the bar on opportunities. We want more families or individuals with a diagnosis to appreciate early in life that their loved ones can have friends, lifelong education, jobs, homes and supportive communities.” JN

The public can register for the survey at

Ellen Braunstein is a freelance writer based in Chicago.