Kelowna Capital News Jul. 16, 2021

Many disabled people in the city do not have access to safe, affordable and accessible housing

When Spring Hawes moved from the East Kootenays to Kelowna four years ago, finding accessible housing was impossible.

She watched the rental housing market for months before moving to Kelowna for an accessible unit but nothing came up. So she bought a condo in the city and renovated it to be accessible for her as a wheelchair user, a privilege she says not many disabled people have.

“I live in my condo now and it’s a lovely condo, but it’s not necessarily somewhere I want to stay forever… But if I were to move, I would have to do it all over again in another condo,” said Hawes.

Hawes is not alone. Kelowna artist Cynthia Gunsinger spent months looking for suitable housing for her and her autistic son. She eventually found a carriage house in the Pandosy area but only because she knew the landlord.

“It’s who you know. Other than that, it is impossible to find adequate housing, especially if you have a disability,” said Gunsinger.

Access to accessible housing is a challenge for many disabled people in the province. Many units are not built to accommodate disabled people. Landlords may also not understand their duty to accommodate disabled people, especially if they have service animals.

The crisis in accessible housing is also tied to housing affordability in the province. The shelter allowance for those on disability assistance is only $375 per month, way below average rent prices anywhere in B.C.

Community members are looking to solve the accessible housing crisis in Kelowna. Gary and Joan McEwan proposed a fully accessible housing complex at 955 Manhattan Drive. The proposed complex includes a five-storey apartment with eight accessible units and two townhouses at the front of the building.

McEwan’s proposed development is a good step towards a more inclusive community. A World Health Organization study found that improving access to public infrastructure, housing and transportation will benefit everyone, not just disabled people.

But the McEwans have to overcome big challenges before the project can be built. The project requires a rezoning of the neighbourhood to allow for multi-unit housing and an amendment to the Official Community Plan (OCP), something many residents oppose. Many expressed their disapproval of the project at a public hearing on Tuesday, July 13. Some even accused McEwan’s project as a cash grab.

“We got a developer that is guiding and driving planning. To me, that shouldn’t be the case,” said resident Bob Gray.

Many of the comments used ableist language that harms disabled people. Kelowna resident and advocate Heather Friesen expressed her frustration at the ableist comments she heard at the hearing.

“The ableism that they were using to keep their neighbourhood the way it is and they didn’t even realize they were doing it… That’s the part that hurts,” said Friesen.

City councillors also called out the ableist comments.

“A lot of people are unaware of what these words mean. Words become reality, and I couldn’t just sit there and stay silent,” said Coun. Loyal Wooldridge to Kelowna Capital News.

There is still a lot of work to make Kelowna more accessible.

“When we’re closing certain areas, we have to ask how do disabled people access public assets… It’s just something that has to become part of our everyday conversations and our ethos of developing an accessible community because disabled people are underrepresented,” said Woolridge.

The work should not be done by disabled people, however.

“It shouldn’t be expected that disabled people can freely contribute their knowledge and wisdom when everyone else in the room is most often paid. This work should be done by people who are getting paid,” said Hawes.