What is affordable housing? Looking at the housing needs of individuals with disabilities

Truth be told, “affordable housing” is an oxymoron. The right to shelter is one of the most fundamental rights and needs. As a basic right, it should be accessible: guaranteed and sustainable for everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, and ability, among other factors.

Throughout the years – and especially during the recent federal election – affordable housing has become one of the most pressing issues impacting Canadians; the most common thread being skyrocketing real estate prices in densely populated regions like the Greater Toronto Area that pose a barrier to entry into the housing market, let alone the ability to sustain ownership.

Now, if such barrier persists for people who are generally healthy and working in well-paying jobs, we can only imagine the increased strain on vulnerable populations who are at risk of being unhoused due to already precarious housing supports.

But what does affordable housing really mean – and what should it look like in an inclusive community? Though one of the most pervasive barriers, cost is only one factor that needs to be addressed in order to keep vulnerable populations housed and healthy, with dignity.

Let’s dive into the components of affordable and sustainable housing for vulnerable populations, particularly in the developmental services sector:

Is there affordable housing for persons with disabilities?

In 2017, Inclusion Canada identified that over 13% of the country’s population live with a disability – that’s over 4 million people, and over 400,000 adults with significant disabilities who require essential supports. Though a fundamental human right, these realities of housing — especially in markets like the GTA — make it appear a pipe dream for many, and impossible for those in most need:

  • There are twice as many working-age Canadians with disabilities living in poverty than those without disabilities
  • Over 30% of individuals with disabilities live in rental housing, with 45% of them identified low income, making home ownership largely impossible to attain
  • Individuals with disabilities, particularly those racialized, face compounded disadvantages in rental property screening practices due to low income, disability-related behaviours and need for disability accommodations, and highly discriminatory racial stereotypes
  • Low-income individuals — among whom persons with disabilities are over-represented — are at higher risk of rent arrears and eviction due to a lack of a stable income, which then affects future tenancy and leads to never-ending housing insecurity.

Affordable and sustainable housing in the developmental services sector

While access is the primary barrier to affordable housing, the quality of housing must also be addressed. For individuals with developmental disabilities and medical complexities, housing must be built with supportive elements, such as accessibility features.

Further complicating the housing crisis is the lack of transitional care to bridge paediatric and adult healthcare. This systemic barrier causes newly adult-aged individuals with disabilities to lose essential supports and benefits once they turn 18 — long before they are capable of living independently, if their diagnosis and the availability of supportive features and accommodations permit.

But with too few homes and rental properties designed with these accommodations and supports — and combined with the prohibitive cost of private-sector facilities — many are forced to contend with egregiously long wait times for social and supportive housing. In 2018 alone, over 18,200 adult-aged individuals with disabilities applied for supportive housing, adding to 15,700 on the wait list for residential services from the year before. In total, it takes a maximum of 12 years to wait for social housing under the Developmental Services Ontario.

What is supportive housing?

Housing that is affordable, accessible, and supportive — this should be the shared goal for persons with disabilities and medical complexities. Adult-aged individuals must be empowered to live independently and achieve similar milestones like their peers in quality, care-oriented living spaces. A supportive housing model is built with these features that ensure appropriate care and support, along with agency to exercise choice over their needs and lifestyle:

  • Permanent: Supportive housing must be stable, which is largely possible when it is affordable based on their income or disability benefits, and is protected by renters’ rights and responsibilities, including safeguards against eviction
  • Housing-oriented services: Supportive housing must include multi-disciplinary services for physical and mental health, as well as assistance for obtaining disability supports or employment provided by appropriate specialists in the client’s unit or building or elsewhere in the community if they have the capacity to live independently
  • Voluntary and choice-based: Participation in supportive programming should be voluntary, with clients able to choose which services they want to receive, and not a condition for tenancy. However, these support services should also be assertive, with housing and care providers regularly checking on residents even when they don’t request help
  • Independent living: Clients of supportive housing should be empowered to choose from various housing options, such as community-based living, individual apartments, or single-family homes in residential neighbourhoods, with access to public transit, grocery stores, employment and leisure hubs, and other amenities
  • Low barriers to entry: Supportive housing needs to accessible, with little to no systemic screening barriers, such as credit history or requirements like obtaining employment and completing treatment which tend to screen out the people that need supportive housing.

Building inclusive affordable housing

As we look to the future of housing for individuals with disabilities and complex care needs, it is important to remember where these are rooted: in community. A housing model that is embedded in an in inclusive community is one of the best ways to empower and uplift vulnerable populations, and ensure that they thrive.

More than a roof over people’s heads, housing that is stable, affordable, and accessible is the first step to obtaining essential services and supports which not only require a permanent address, but also gateways to various amenities within a community, such as transit, employment, healthcare, and social well-being. With so much focus on the affordability of housing, there needs to be a stronger advocacy for a more sustainable and inclusive model – one that provides for accessibility and supportive features that keep individuals with disabilities and complex needs housed and healthy, and empowered to take part in our communities.

Do you require housing support or residential care for individuals with developmental disabilities and complex care needs? Safehaven provides residential care in community-based living in Toronto and across the GTA, with the goal of expanding to affordable housing and independent living units. Call us at 416.535.8525 or contact us here for more information.