Judy Kerr was only 30 years old when she found herself living in a nursing home in 2017—unable to find accessible, affordable housing in Toronto, she had no other choice.
Kerr, who uses a wheelchair, was left unhoused after a dispute with her roommate, a renter from whom she was subletting. Unsure of where to go, Kerr spent the first night in a hotel, and on the second, went to a hospital, where she was connected with the nursing home where she spent the next three months.
At the time, Kerr’s income meant she didn’t qualify for community housing—but she was also unable to afford adequate housing in Toronto’s rental market, given the cost and scarcity of a fully wheelchair-accessible apartment. So she was stuck, like thousands of Canadians with disabilities across the country, settling for inaccessible and inadequate accommodations that worsened her quality of life.
“It definitely was challenging,” she says. “All of a sudden, because I had been moved, a lot of my caregivers couldn’t come in and help me. So I had to rebuild this team, once I did get moved to somewhere more stable.”
Later that year, when Kerr was finally offered co-op housing advertised as wheelchair-accessible, things were supposed to get easier for her. But it turned out that the co-op apartment didn’t have a roll-in shower she could use.
With this essential part of everyday life unavailable to her, Kerr had little choice but to move once again, eight months later, to the first fully accessible home offered to her next—even though her new home would be almost 120 kilometres away from Toronto, her family, and the care network and employment she had set up for herself.
That’s how Kerr ended up in Fergus, Ontario, a township of approximately 20,000 people. While her current home is fully accessible, she says her environment has worsened significantly, and the distance and income limits to qualify for the housing mean she is no longer able to work.
“I swear [Fergus] is about 20 years behind in terms of beliefs of disability—living here is the first time I felt truly disabled,” Kerr says. “There’s no accessibility resources, there’s no transportation out here.”
The Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) said in an email that of the 58,500 units they manage, approximately 14,000 have been modified in some way to be accessible, ranging from specific features to full renovations, alongside another 40 fully accessible units developed in partnership with city and private builders.
While this accessibility rate is better than other parts of the country, the problem lies in demand: there were, as of 2020, more than 81,000 people on the waitlist for social housing in Toronto, more than a third of whom are seniors who are likely to have access needs, or require features to make a space accessible.
The crisis in accessible social housing is inherently tied to housing affordability, among other factors, across the country. If people with access needs are unable to afford adequate private housing, they have no choice but to turn to publicly-owned accommodations, but those with incomes are often lower-priority on an already overburdened waitlist that ultimately fails to meet the needs of low- and middle-income people.
The resulting marginalization is doubled for women, who have higher rates of disability, and especially Indigenous women, who have higher reported rates of disability than non-Indigenous people. Black, Indigenous, and other racialized women also experience the intersection of medical racism that impacts their healthcare experiences, and housing precarity because of low wages or insecure employment.
“There’s a lack of affordable housing, there’s a lack of housing that’s not overpriced in neighbourhoods where it’s accessible for people who need services, and can’t necessarily be an hour or 90 minutes away from work, or from where they get resources like community support,” says Karine-Myrgianie Jean-François—director of operations and projects at the DisAbled Women’s Network of Canada in Montreal.
“A lot of racialized women who have disabilities don’t have access to diagnosis, which can sometimes help to move forward, to get on a housing list,” she adds.
With the cost of living rising nationally, wages stagnating and work growing increasingly precarious for low-income communities, and now with the devastating impacts of COVID-19 and the resulting evictions crisis, these problems are only getting worse.
In 2020, Statistics Canada released information on the availability of barrier-free publicly-owned housing across the country. Barrier-free is defined by Statistics Canada as meaning “a building and its facilities can be approached, entered and used by persons with physical or sensory disabilities”—it’s one definition on a spectrum of accessibility terms ranging from “visitability,” which offers basic access features, to “universal design,” which is supposed to be accessible to everyone, and which shouldn’t require modification in order to be barrier-free. It’s important to note, however, that while universal design caters to the largest range of needs, it’s not a guaranteed solution because of people’s unique circumstances.
Statistics Canada’s data—only available for a few provinces—seems to suggest that some provinces had seen
a decrease in publicly-owned barrier-free housing between 2016 and 2018, the last year for which data is available.
But one analyst working on the dataset, Lee-Anne Jennings, explains that because the definition of accessibility can be vague, it leaves the national infrastructure survey open to interpretation from year to year.
“Analyzing the data, we did notice that this definition [of barrier-free] can be possibly interpreted in different ways by different respondents, as evidenced by the change in response,” Jennings says. “One possible issue might be someone considering [that] the whole building must be barrier-free, as opposed to some units.”
Alongside differing response rates, this accounts for the changes in accessibility rates between the two years.
In Ontario, for instance, the response rate for semi-detached houses and 5+ storey buildings rose between 2016 and 2018, which revealed clearer information: the percentage of publicly-owned, barrier-free housing in these categories was lower than initially thought. Only 1.2 percent of semi-detached homes and 17.7 percent of 5+ storey buildings publicly owned in Ontario are barrier-free.
In contrast, the response rate in New Brunswick fell from 100 percent in 2016 to 0 percent in 2018.
Jennings notes that a more specific definition would be useful in future surveys. But it’s clear that there is yet to be a unified national understanding of what accessibility is—and therefore no way to uniformly implement it.
Standards for accessibility across the country vary on municipal, provincial and national levels, and within different human rights frameworks. For instance, a 2012 review of the National Building Code found national guidelines to be out of date compared to provincial and international standards, which led to significant revisions in the 2015 Code; but regulations like the mandatory minimum number of accessible units in new developments varies by province, for instance, five percent in B.C. or 15 percent in Ontario.
Neither of these minimums are enough to meet the needs of Canada’s growing elderly population, advocates have pointed out. A report by the Rick Hansen Foundation estimates that the proportion of Canadians with disabilities will rise at nearly double the overall population growth rate over the next decade.
New developments are some of the best environments to build in adaptable and accessible features, because older housing stock often can’t be easily adapted. But with provinces already failing to house those with access needs, these minimal rates for new housing developments indicate a failure to preempt what Canada will need in a decade’s time.
“You’re going to grandfather certain things in,” said David Kron, executive director of the Cerebral Palsy Association of Manitoba. “But when you’re building [new developments], just put that spin on it: how do I make this a truly universal design for everybody? So that the next generation has those options on where to live comfortably?”
Despite the gaps in access, public social housing regulations are stronger and more accessible than private housing across the country. Every social housing corporation that responded noted that they have funds available should a tenant need to retrofit their unit to be more accessible—within certain limitations dictated by the home’s design. On occasion, municipalities will also introduce bylaws improving upon provincial housing guidelines.
For newer projects and renovations, the National Housing Strategy put forth by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) stipulates that 20 percent of new affordable housing units developed by the government’s housing development fund need to be barrier-free and use universal design principles. The accompanying National Housing Strategy Act, put in place in 2019 to hold the government accountable to the goals outlined in the Strategy, is the closest thing to nationwide implementation of accessible social housing guidelines, though the medium- and longer-term impacts are yet to be seen.
The CMHC noted in its guidelines that projects that go above minimum requirements will be prioritized in funding decisions, but the question still lingers as to why universal design isn’t implemented more thoroughly in new developments, with higher mandatory minimum requirements.
“Building a suite with universal design in mind doesn’t make it not attractive for somebody who doesn’t have a disability,” Kron points out. “It just means that everybody can use it.”
The cost of implementing universal design, while not insignificant, is lower than one might imagine. A 2015 study by the CMHC found that accommodating accessibility features in new developments raised the required area of the property by less than 10 percent, and expenses by six to 12 percent. But, even if the costs were higher, Kron notes,
“Good design is good design, right?”
“I use the analogy of back in the ’70s, when seatbelts were [made] mandatory,” he says, pointing out that people were skeptical of the cost and necessity of seatbelt implementation at the time. “Now, it’s a culture that everybody puts on their seatbelt. You don’t even think about it.”
Considering the myriad legislation at various levels of government, it’s clear there are efforts being made
to address the accessible housing crisis. But stories like Kerr’s are far too common. On the other side of the country, Lori Pederson’s experiences are strikingly similar—she’s faced these problems for the last 25 years.
Pederson, who contracted juvenile-onset Rheumatoid Arthritis as a child and has required 25 orthopedic surgeries over the course of her life, has been off and on B.C.’s social housing waitlists since the 1990s. Her income and employment status changed over the years: she spent a decade living in accessible co-op housing, and then for 15 years was able to live in her own apartment. In 2015, Pederson had to move back into inaccessible rental accommodations following income changes and lay-offs, and the struggle to find adequate housing began again—and despite being unable to afford accessible housing in Burnaby, she was told consistently that her income, which was below $40,000, was too high for housing support. Only in March of this year was she able to find subsidized, accessible accommodations, after a 2019 increase in maximum income level for people eligible for public housing in B.C., which is now capped at $50,000.
Pederson feels the parameters of who is eligible for housing support don’t match the lived realities of people with disabilities who have low or middle incomes, especially in cities like Vancouver or Toronto.
“Try and find a market-based apartment for under the price of $2,000 that’s accessible. That when you go in the front door, you can actually get in with your wheelchair. I’ve never been able to,” she says.
When the co-op housing sector was hit by funding cuts in the 1990s, Pederson knew that things were going to get worse. “It was commented on that this would ruin life for people of low income and disability […] and indeed, that’s exactly what happened.”
Austerity policies over the last two decades have shaped this crisis: overall, there’s been a drop in social housing provision since 1990, and when paired with cuts to other social supports over time, more and more people with disabilities have been put in precarious housing situations.
Until the layers of this crisis are addressed—unaffordable housing, inaccessibility, inadequate development standards and the lack of a national understanding of barrier-free infrastructure—people like Kerr, Pederson, and thousands of others will continue to live in limbo, with inaccessible temporary accommodations, and in anticipation of moving up the social housing waitlist. But they shouldn’t have to choose between housing and their work, families, or support systems—not when there’s so much that can be done closer to home.