Canada Housing Benefit: Creating equity in housing for people with disabilities
Canada’s National Housing Strategy, A Place to Call Home, includes a $4 billion commitment to a Canada Housing Benefit. Scheduled to become available in 2020, this benefit is being created to help make housing more affordable - including providing financial assistance to help with the cost of rent. Each province and territory will be involved in designing the Canada Housing Benefit in their region, so it will likely look different depending on where you live.
My Home, My Community recognizes the potential that the Canada Housing Benefit could have for people with developmental disabilities. In 2012, 15% of adults with disabilities in Canada were living in households in core housing need, compared to 9% of persons without disabilities (CMHC, 2018). Many people with developmental disabilities still have to choose between quality housing with supports and inclusion in the community. If the Canada Housing Benefit is going to create equity in housing for people with disabilities, it needs to be designed with their unique needs in mind.
Canadians with disabilities have “hidden” costs related to their housing that are not experienced by people without disabilities. Physical accessibility requirements, a need to be close to services and supports, or an additional bedroom for overnight support staff can make finding a suitable place to rent more difficult and more expensive.
We’ve started researching creative ways that the Canada Housing Benefit could address these challenges by including a disability supplement in its design. Our report, Making the Canada Housing Benefit work for people with disabilities, explores the wide range of potential designs for a disability supplement. We’ve looked at how a supplement could help fill the gap between what individuals can afford and the actual cost to rent an appropriate home in different markets. We’ve analyzed the pros and cons of these different designs, studied real-life examples, and identified important considerations. Now we’re using this information to urge decision-makers to create a Canada Housing Benefit that will create real equity for people with disabilities.
Understanding inclusion in housing
In November 2017 the Canadian government released the National Housing Strategy (NHS). The Strategy is focused on improving access to safe, affordable housing. It commits $40 billion over ten years to reach specific goals. One of its goals is to create 2,400 new affordable housing units for people with a developmental disability. It also recognizes housing as “a cornerstone of inclusive communities.”
It’s exciting to see housing getting the attention it deserves. From a long history of institutionalization, to residential living that still limits individual freedom and choice, Canada has a long way to go before people with a developmental disability have the same options in housing as everyone else.
Many families know from personal experience the difference that housing can make in their son or daughter’s life. The right housing can open doors to a life that is full of meaning, connection, and contribution. Plus, research has shown that community inclusion is important for well-being and good health.
With this in mind, My Home, My Community looked at the aspects of housing that contribute to inclusion.
What defining characteristics make housing inclusive?
Are there ways to help building developers and funders intentionally create housing that is inclusive?
We defined housing inclusivity as “the degree to which a person’s home either contributes or presents barriers to their participation in the broader community”.
By reviewing academic articles, studies and reports we found five housing-related areas that impact inclusion. We also learned that one area alone isn’t enough to make inclusion happen. All five need to be considered and measured to create inclusive housing:
· Person: We need to consider the individual. What is their income? What are their needs for support? What allows that person to live in their home and take advantage of opportunities in their neighbourhood? Things like personal supports, choice and control, social connection, and safety are all related to this area.
· Household: We need to consider the household as a whole. This may mean a family, roommates, or a person living alone. As a group, do they have the support and tools they need to access housing that meets the needs of everyone in the home? This includes looking at whether housing is suitable (has enough bedrooms), is affordable, and provides renters with long-term security (won’t be forced to move).
· Dwelling: We need to consider the physical building and if it creates any barriers to participation and independence. This means considering whether the house is adequate (needs any major repairs) and is accessible.
· Structure: In buildings that have several homes (apartments, condos), we need to look at how the building impacts accessibility, and opportunities for social connections. This includes resident and social mix. Social mix is about purposefully including diverse people in a building and encouraging them to make connections with people from other groups. From a disability perspective, resident mix means the ratio of people with and without disabilities living in the same building. Structure must also consider the ways that buildings are designed to encourage social connection (common spaces) and links between building management and available community supports and services.
· Neighbourhood: We need to consider how the neighbourhood is physically built and what social opportunities, amenities and service options it provides. This includes how close the home is to services and social opportunities (walkable, access to public transit) and whether it is safe.
We used this information to create a tool that can help measure the inclusiveness of existing housing and new housing that is being planned. The Housing Inclusivity Framework takes these five areas and adds measurement tools that consider the unique needs of people with a developmental disability. We recognize that simply being present within the community is not enough for an individual to experience inclusion. That’s why the tool looks at ways to remove social barriers as well as physical ones. We’ll be field testing the tool in the coming year to make sure it works in real communities. In the meantime, you can learn more about our research on understanding inclusion in housing. We know that by building more inclusive communities, everyone benefits, and we’re working hard to make this happen!
Inclusion is key to better housing solutions
For decades, people with developmental disabilities have had their choices in life limited - the most well-known example being choice over where they live. Before the 1980s, institutions were the most common living arrangement for people with disabilities in Canada. Parents were strongly encouraged by medical professionals to ‘place’ their loved-one in an institution and continue on with their lives. Tucked aside and away from the public, people with disabilities experienced horrible neglect, abuse and violation of their rights while in institutions. Many are still living with the harm caused.
When most large institutions closed in Canada, due to advocacy efforts by people with disabilities and their families, people were moved into ‘group homes’ or other settings where smaller groups of people with disabilities are placed together. These kinds of living arrangements are still very common today, and are often seen as the only alternative option to large institutions. Although created with good intentions, in many ways these congregate arrangements still limit the choices of people with disabilities - by controlling where and with whom they live, as well as their daily routine (what and when to eat, what time to get up and go to bed, when to bathe, what activities to do, who can visit and when, etc.)
People with disabilities and their families knew that something better was possible and have worked hard to make “something better” a reality. Instead of group-based living arrangements, families began exploring individual housing options, spread out in everyday neighbourhoods. These inclusive options not only offer people with a developmental disability the choice and dignity they deserve, but make the community a better place for everyone to live.
Although many now agree that inclusive housing is the best option to ensure that people with developmental disabilities are able to fully participate in the community, there are still barriers standing in the way.
Approximately 30,000 adults with developmental disabilities live in congregate care facilities and group homes. Approximately 10,000 adults under 65 with developmental disabilities are forced to live in hospitals, nursing homes and similarly unsuitable long-term care environments due to a shortage of housing and support options.**
We’re working to develop housing solutions to change this. Unlike other models of housing that aim to ‘place’ people in whatever space is available, we believe that inclusive housing is the essential ingredient to creating better housing options that promote freedom, dignity, and belonging.
My Home My Community is based on the principle that people with developmental disabilities deserve the same housing options as everybody else - and with the right supports, are fully capable of living independently, working, volunteering and participating in the regular life of their communities. We’re working with self-advocates, families, and experts in housing, disability and inclusion to create new models of inclusive housing for people with a developmental disability, and finding creative ways to make them happen at local and national levels.
We’re doing this work because we know that having a home of your own is about much more than just having a roof over your head. A real home means choice, safety, financial security, and meaningful opportunity to be part of the community. Plus, there’s huge demand for better housing options by people with a developmental disability and their families.
By using existing resources in creative ways, we can develop enough inclusive, affordable housing so that no one with a developmental disability is forced to settle for housing that denies them their freedom and dignity. My Home My Community offers us a way to share these creative options with families across the country, so we can learn from each other.
Research has shown us that when we give people who are isolated real opportunities for inclusion, our neighbourhoods become safer, our communities more vibrant, and our society more connected. We’re exciting to share our work with you because we know that when we build inclusive communities, everyone benefits.
**Meeting Canada’s Obligations to Affordable Housing and Supports for People with Disabilities to Live Independently in the Community, submission to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities for the 17th Session, March 2017.
Registered Disability Savings Plans: Opening the door to untapped housing potential
The Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP) was introduced in Canada in 2008 with the intention of helping people with disabilities and their families save for the future. The RDSP, which offers matching grants and bonds** from the Federal Government, is designed for long-term savings. It allows persons with disabilities to save money (up to $200,000) without impacting their provincial or territorial income assistance.
While an important financial tool, the RDSP has strict rules about eligibility, when money can be taken out, and how much can be withdrawn. The 2018 report Breaking Down Barriers: A critical analysis of the Disability Tax Credit and the Registered Disability Savings Plan showed that making sure people can access the money in their RDSP when they need it is critically important.
RDSPs hold a lot of potential for individuals with a disability, but their current design is keeping them from being used as effectively as possible. My Home My Community (MHMC) is working to change that.
With funding from the National Housing Strategy under the NHS Solutions Labs, our new initiative Exploring the RDSP for Homeownership and Housing Stability is examining options to make RDSPs more useful for people with disabilities and their families, specifically when it comes to housing security.
At least 24,000 Canadians with developmental disabilities are in core housing need, meaning that the place they live is unsuitable, inadequate, or unaffordable. Around 100,000 more are living in vulnerable housing situations. People with developmental disabilities often need housing that is not only affordable but also accessible. Accessibility includes how the house is built, and also how close the home is to community services and the disability supports a person may need.
Given this reality, we’re exploring what changes would be needed so people with a disability could use the money saved in their RDSP to pay for safe, stable housing. This includes opening the door (pun intended) to home ownership, among other options.
Allowing people with disabilities to use their RDSP money toward buying a house is an exciting idea for many reasons:
It provides stability. People living at home with aging caregivers could establish a home of their own, knowing their living arrangement is safe and secure.
It gives people control over their money. Trusting people to use RDSP money in whatever way best meets their unique needs is part of treating people with disabilities with dignity.
It makes more options affordable. Instead of being limited to subsidized housing options, access to RDSP money could make market rent affordable for more people with disabilities. This could help address homelessness and housing insecurity.
It gives people choice about where they live. For decades, people with disabilities have been forced to live in institutions or segregated spaces due to lack of real options - having choice is incredibly important.
It creates opportunities for being included. Living in everyday neighbourhoods and being part of the community enables people with disabilities to become part of social, cultural, and economic life.
We believe that people with developmental disabilities deserve the same housing options as everybody else. We think that the RDSP is one way to make this happen.
My Home My Community is excited to be partnering with self-advocates, families, and experts in housing, disability and inclusion on this work. If affordable, accessible housing is important to you, we invite you to keep following for updates about our progress.
**RDSP bonds are federal government funds available to eligible RDSP recipients who meet a low-income threshold. RDSP bonds do not require a personal financial contribution.