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Non-profit struggles to fill vacant accessible family home on the Sunshine Coast

A wheelchair-friendly family dwelling is available in the Habitat for Humanity village in ts'uḵw'um on the Sunshine Coast, but nobody is applying.
Douglas Dunn stands, key in hand, in front of a wheelchair-accessible unit at the Sunshine Coast Village development in ts'uḵw'um.

In a sea of waitlists for affordable housing on the Sunshine Coast, one unit in an unassuming development in ts'uḵw'um (Wilson Creek) stands empty, like a life raft with no takers.

Habitat for Humanity Sunshine Coast is in the “very unusual” position of having to consider what to do if a wheelchair-accessible family unit under construction isn’t filled due to a lack of demand, executive director Douglas Dunn told Coast Reporter. “We can’t seem to find anybody.”

Low-income working Sunshine Coast families who have wheelchair accessibility needs have been invited to apply for at least six months, according to Dunn, and Habitat has been “very aggressively” trying to recruit since September. So far, the only application submitted didn’t qualify.

Dunn said the organization expected “huge demand” for the suite and was surprised when almost nobody applied. “In the Metro Vancouver area, when they have a suite available there’s a lineup.”

The two-bedroom unit is part of a fourplex – the last building in Habitat’s Sunshine Coast Village development on the south side of Highway 101 in ts’ukw’um, bringing the total number of family dwellings at the site to 16.

Interior work is nearing completion and Habitat has selected families for the three other units, with a move-in date of Dec. 1. The wheelchair-accessible unit stands vacant.

Hard to measure demand

There is fantastic need for affordable housing on the Sunshine Coast, but much of the existing housing stock is geared towards other populations.

Sunshine Coast Lions Housing Society Property Manager Joane Ryan told Coast Reporter 428 people are on a waiting list for subsidized rental housing at the Greenecourt development in Sechelt, which has 111 units. The housing is reserved for seniors and adults of any age with disabilities. Existing wheelchair-friendly units are occupied.

Mountainview Court subsidized housing in Sechelt offers 21 units, but according to manager Sarah Noon-Ward, both of its accessible units are tenanted, there is no active waiting list and none of the units are suited for a family with wheelchair accessibility needs.

The 42-unit Kiwanis Village property in Gibsons has 70 people on its waiting list, but units are intended for seniors, property manager Bob Merilees said, and its accessible units are occupied.

As for why it’s been difficult to fill the Habitat unit, Douglas speculated the cost of living is so high on the Coast, “people who fit that profile… probably just aren’t here.”

You don’t see the number of people in wheelchairs here on the Coast as you would in the city,” he said.

That conclusion is based on discussions with accessibility non-profits including the Disability Foundation, Rick Hansen Foundation and Disability Alliance BC.

There is no organization on the Sunshine Coast exclusively mandated to support people with physical disabilities.

Kelly Foley, housing coordinator for affordable housing alliance Cover the Coast, told Coast Reporter there is a “huge demand” for affordable accessible suites and noted the need is particularly intense for seniors living on fixed incomes.

A lack of accessible and supportive housing options for people with “physical activity limitations” was highlighted in the 2020 Housing Needs Assessment Report for the Sunshine Coast, though it didn't quantify the need for family dwellings specifically. It also identified 34 units for people with disabilities, but did not differentiate between physical and mental disabilities, or whether the units can accommodate families.

Habitat program fills ‘specific niche'

Dunn noted for typical homes, “we don’t have to work very hard to get a number of applicants,” however it can be “sometimes challenging to find the right applicants.”

Habitat offers an affordable home ownership program that caps housing costs, including strata fees, property taxes and mortgage, at 30 per cent of a family’s gross income.

Applicants must qualify as low-income, have resided on the Sunshine Coast six months prior to applying, be primary caregivers for at least one child, among several other conditions.

Habitat housing isn’t social, supportive or low-income housing. “We are in a very specific niche between those programs and market rental and market home ownership,” he said. “We’re providing low-income, working families that boost.”

The suite itself “easily” costs $10,000 more than the other units in the fourplex, due to the added expenses of wheelchair-friendly appliances, counter level switches, roll-under counters, grab bars, a wheel-in shower, wider doorways, and other adaptations.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), a project funder, lists more than 110 adaptations for a unit to qualify as accessible housing.

While the board hasn’t decided on options if the unit isn’t filled by early 2023, Dunn said he would recommend the organization open applications to families without accessibility needs.

“Of course, we’re not going to let an affordable housing unit here on the Coast go wanting. But we really would prefer not to put a [non-disabled] family in when there could be somebody who could really benefit from it,” he said.