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Amid a nationwide housing shortage, what will it take to build more accessible homes?

Toronto resident Cathy Birch doesn’t know where she would live if it wasn’t for social housing.

Birch, who has had multiple amputations and uses an electric wheelchair to get around, said she’d probably be in long-term care if she hadn’t been able to land a unit through Toronto Community Housing two decades ago.

That’s because navigating through the private market — where there’s already a severe shortage of affordable homes — is only made more difficult when someone is looking for one that’s accessible, too, she said.

“You shouldn’t have to go to a social housing provider to get an accessible unit,” said Birch, who’s also part of Toronto Community Housing’s resident-led group focusing on accessibility, R-PATH.

“Everybody has a right to have a home that functions for them.”

In addition to the housing shortage and affordability crisis, advocates say people with disabilities are contending with less inventory because most units aren’t built with accessibility in mind.

They’re calling for changes in municipal, provincial and federal building codes to mandate accessible features in residential buildings, additional incentives for developers to build more accessible units and more public education on why accessible homes are needed in the first place — all things made complicated by the costs involved.

“Changing building code is a long game,” said Luke Anderson, co-chair of the Accelerating Accessibility Coalition, a recently formed network of non-profits, developers and advocates that “aims to create a more accessible Canada.”

“We don’t want to wait,” he said. “We want to start now.”

A man looks into the camera for a photo.
Luke Anderson, co-chair of the Accelerating Accessibility Coalition, is shown in Toronto in November 2022. The group has put together a tool kit for developers as a way to get ahead of the anticipated demand for accessible housing. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

What makes a home accessible? 

Accessible units look different depending on a person’s disability. People with a physical disability could benefit from things like wide doorways and passageways, while those with sensory or developmental disabilities may need modifications such as soundproof walls.

And while existing housing units can be retrofitted to accommodate disabilities, that often brings more problems and a heftier price tag compared with designing an accessible home from the start, said Shelley Petit, chair of the New Brunswick Coalition of Persons with Disabilities.

She said it’s important that people with disabilities are considered as soon as planning begins, keeping in mind “universal design,” which are principles that ensure anyone can easily live in and modify their homes as they age. “It is the No. 1 way to not just work on the problem today, but to make sure that this problem doesn’t continue to be an issue,” Petit said.

The design and construction of housing units are overseen by provincial and territorial building codes, along with municipal regulations, the federal government says, with most building codes containing accessibility provisions for multi-unit residential buildings.

A woman with long reddish-brown hair wears a blue jacket.
Marnie Courage of Winnipeg is a board member of the non-profit Universal Design Network of Canada. As the country’s population ages, she says, the demand for accessible housing will only grow. (Submitted by Marnie Courage/Enabling Access)

But Marnie Courage, a Winnipeg-based accessibility and inclusion strategist and board member of the non-profit Universal Design Network of Canada, said these codes fall short. They don’t apply broadly across the housing sector to single-home dwellings and fail to mandate principles of universal design throughout, she said.

“People who are actually renovating or constructing new buildings are not incentivized to actually create environments that have the accessibility features that many individuals … require,” Courage said.

How many accessible units are being built?

According to the 2021 census, there are currently some 16 million private dwelling units in the country. However, there aren’t any formal numbers on how many accessible units there are and how many more are needed, Anderson said.

“Even if we were able to index all the existing housing stock, in two minutes, that’s changed,” Courage said.

What is known is that by the federal government’s latest numbers, at least one in five Canadians identify as having a disability. That number is only expected to increase as the population ages, further compounding the demand for accessible housing, Courage said.

While accessible units are getting built, it’s a fraction of non-accessible units, said David Pereyra, project and outreach co-ordinator with the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University in Toronto.

For example, through various housing programs funded by Ottawa’s National Housing Strategy, generally 10 to 20 per cent of units must be accessible — something Pereyra said only maintains the affordable housing deficit.

“Doing the math is easy,” he said. “It’s not enough.”

A man with brownish hair and a grey beard, wearing a blue and grey sweater, stands in front of a church with tall buildings in the background.
David Pereyra is project and outreach co-ordinator with the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University in Toronto. He says despite the lack of consistent legislation mandating accessibility in home construction, Canada does relatively well in mandating accessibility in the public realm. (Sinisa Jolic)

What barriers exist to building more accessible homes?

According to the latest federal data from 2017, people with disabilities are more likely to live in rented and subsidized homes than the population as a whole. And of those with physical disabilities, almost 45 per cent require at least one type of aid, assistive device or accessibility feature within their home.

The main barrier to building accessible housing is cost, said Kevin Lee, CEO of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association, because a key part of building accessibly means allotting enough space to move around.

“It would be nice if it were that straightforward, but … unfortunately it is more expensive,” he said.

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The complicated part of modifying national building codes is that not everyone will appreciate the changes, Lee said, adding that what works for some people with disabilities might not work for others.

“Balancing public-policy desires with the challenge that we have already with the housing affordability crisis in Canada is … a tricky one that we’re all working together on.”

In an effort to build a case study for more accessible housing, Anderson said the Accelerating Accessibility Coalition is working with Accessibility Standards Canada and Sunnybrook Research Institute to collect data from the real estate industry and people with disabilities on how many units are needed and why.

“There really isn’t a whole lot of understanding about why this is important,” he said.

How can we get more accessible homes in the pipeline?

The Canadian Board for Harmonized Construction Codes (CBHCC), which is responsible for developing the National Building Code, said in an email to CBC News that it’s considering expanding accessibility provisions to include homes, and is looking into requirements for adaptability and visitability in multi-unit residential buildings.

“The accessibility of buildings and the built environment will continue to be a priority for the CBHCC as it develops the 2025 editions of the National Model Codes,” the statement says.

While changing building codes remains the ultimate goal, advocates say they aren’t waiting for that to happen. The Accelerating Accessibility Coalition has put together a tool kit for developers as a way to get ahead of the anticipated demand. 

“If we are going to be building those units with our standard way of going about the construction process, we’ll find ourselves perpetuating this issue,” Anderson said.

A picture of someone's living quarters, featuring a dining space, a kitchen and a living area.
An example of accessible design in a residential home from Universal Design NL. Accessible features include a level-entry and a bright, open room. Universal design principles ensure anyone can easily live in and modify their homes as they age. (Universal Design NL)

Additionally, industry standards are adapting to include more universal design principles in their guidelines. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation has its own universal design guide to help developers.

Meanwhile, Courage, of the Universal Design Network of Canada, points to guidelines from the CSA Group and Accessibility Standards Canada on accessible design for the built environment and accessible dwellings, both published this year. The latter is something she calls “groundbreaking.”

“Most of it speaks to the public spaces,” Courage said of the existing industry advice on designing with accessibility in mind. “No one has dared to go inside of the unit.”

Pereyra, of the Inclusive Design Research Centre, said despite the lack of consistent legislation mandating accessibility in home construction, Canada does relatively well in mandating accessibility in the public realm, with provisions on such things as washrooms, entrances, exits and elevators.

To close the gap, he said, governments can also incentivize developers to build more accessible units through more funding, grants and tax breaks.

Lee, of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association, agrees that these kind of methods could work, adding that while implementing all of those best practices will inevitably be costly, accessible housing will continue being built, as “the industry is always ready to respond to a market demand.”

But Cathy Birch said the demand is being unmet, and she hopes that situation changes, with more developers finding ways to build affordable units to scale.

“Some of them are on board … but we need more of them,” she said.

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