Eighteen months. That is how long I, Ryan, looked for an accessible house to call my own in Calgary. After an extensive search that came up empty, I decided my only option was to make one. Paralyzed from the chest down after surviving the Humboldt Bronco bus crash in 2018, my housing needs now include accessible features such as ramps, wider doorways and lower countertops. I am working to renovate a home I purchased earlier this year to ensure it is functional and supports my independence, but it is an option not everyone who needs accessible housing can afford.
It’s not news to anyone that Calgary and the rest of Canada are in a housing crisis. According to the Housing Needs Assessment released by the City of Calgary this year, the average price of a single detached home has increased by 37 per cent in the last three years, the average rent has increased by 40 per cent in that same time frame and the vacancy rate has dropped to three per cent. One in five households in Calgary cannot afford their housing.
Imagine how much more complex the challenges are when accessibility is a factor in your housing search. There is a severe lack of information available about the number of accessible housing units in the Calgary market. And not much more is known when considering affordable and accessible housing combined. A 2016 City of Calgary Housing Inventory report indicated that only 3.5 per cent of non-market housing units are wheelchair accessible. Accessible Housing found in their feasibility study conducted in 2021 that there are somewhere between 600 to 1,180 units in Calgary’s affordable housing stock that are accessible, yet approximately 46,000 Calgarians live with a mobility disability and qualify for affordable housing. That number can only be expected to increase with the anticipated population growth of 29 per cent in the 65+ age range in the next five years.
So, why aren’t more accessible housing units being built?
It comes down to cost. It costs more to build housing that is accessible due to the additional space, added features and materials required under the national building code. The cost only goes up as the level of care required for people with disabilities to live as independently as possible increases, including elevators, lifts, non-combustible materials and specialized fixtures.
Like many organizations, Vecova is doing its part to address this shortage by redeveloping one of our sites that would triple the number of people with disabilities we currently serve at that location. However, securing funding is a challenge. While some funders prioritize funding for equity-deserving groups like people with disabilities, the criteria by which projects are selected for funding do not take into account the additional cost per unit that will be required to build at the accessibility level required for some of our most vulnerable citizens. Nor does the funding include housing for individuals who require daily care support to live independently outside of the overburdened health-care system. This makes it difficult for accessible housing proposals to compete for sorely needed funding to build accessible units.
Whether you are a hopeful homeowner searching for an accessible home or a person receiving AISH (Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped) who needs an affordable option with daily supports, there is clearly a shortage of suitable housing options available. As the various levels of government and community stakeholders search for solutions, it is imperative that the critical need for accessible housing not get lost in the conversation.
Kelly Holmes-Binns is CEO of Vecova, and Ryan Straschnitzki is an accessibility advocate and Vecova ambassador.