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Access, availability and design: Can Danielle Svec find affordable, accessible housing in Toronto?

Danielle Svec
Danielle Svec - Voula Monoholias
They smack of a prison. Not her disability. Not her worldview. Certainly not her job prospects. But her benefits? They're a two-faced warden, well-meaning but impractical, forever erecting enclosures around her many endeavours.

Danielle Svec is 36-years-old. She's a spirited person. Her cerebral palsy is not a hope-suck, not some lightning rod for self-pity and inactivity. For most of her life, she lived with her parents in Brampton, isolated from any kind of active social life and far removed job opportunities.

"I worked in Toronto," she says, "and I travelled from Brampton to Toronto two days a week. And it took me over two hours each way."

She worked for Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Centre. To get there, she'd have to take Peel Region's Trans-Help system -- after booking a few days in advance -- and then transfer to Toronto's Wheel-Trans, which she needed to book 24 hours ahead.

Eighteen months ago, Svec put the commute behind her. She abandoned service-limited Brampton for Toronto -- with all its subway access and job proximity -- thanks to a program called the Gage Transition to Independent Living. Now, she works as an adjudicator for Wheel-Trans, is in a relationship, and is two months away from the end of the program, when she'll have to find housing in an increasingly cost-prohibitive city. Or else go back home.

"The reality is it's a program," she says, "and you have to leave and don't know where you'll go."

Enter that warden. Svec is on Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). Because she works, ODSP takes 50 per cent of her earnings. If she saves too much money, she'll lose a portion of her benefits. Her rent allotment is about $450, this in a city with average rents of $1,000. If she works full-time, the benefits evaporate completely. But what about her scooter? ODSP shelled out a few grand so she could have it. Few people make enough money to manage medical expenses like that on top of all the other swollen costs of living.

"You don't really get ahead," she says. "You make just enough to get by. If you want to save money for a house, you can't do that. It's just the way the system is."

And then there's the type of housing Svec needs. It has to be accessible. A townhouse off College and Dufferin with rickety wooden steps and impossibly narrow hallways? That's no good for her. And the 2025 deadline for accessible housing set out by the 2005 Accessibility of Ontarians with Disabilities Act? That's fourteen years from now.

Meanwhile, almost two million Ontarians are disabled. According to the Canadian Council for Disabilities, a quarter of low income households fall into that category. The Disabled Women's Network says that over half of all disabled men are unemployed, compared to 75 per cent of disabled women. The Martin Prosperity Institute found that lack of employment among the disabled costs the province's economy $4.8 billion a year. And so any discussion of affordable housing becomes infinitely more complicated when titled through a lens of accessibility.

"The major challenge is availability," says Tania Thomas, an administrator with the Gage program. "Housing doesn't come up very often. Once someone moves into permanent housing, it's only if they die or if they get transferred to long-term care that housing would come up for our clients."

The program is run through West Park Healthcare Centre. It has 10 accessible units in a building up at Yonge and Eglinton. A lot of the program participants are younger than Svec; on average, says Thomas, they're about 20 years old. They stay for six month or longer, with constant attendant services, developing skills that speak to their needs, and experiencing the opportunity of a metro environment. But, as Svec so calmly notes, it's a program -- and programs end.

"What tends to happen," says Thomas, "is we may have to send a client back home."

Much of this is about a category of human rights called "economic and social." What are the country's obligations under the Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, of which Canada is a signatory? What about the other international treaties, like the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Canada also signed?

There isn't a lot of mainstream discussion about this. Both the NDP and the Liberals had platform planks calling for full implementation of the Convention if they emerged victorious from campaign 2011. But the issue didn't generate headlines. Also underway in Ontario is the Social Assistance Review, which, among a slew of other things, will be examining ODSP and making recommendations for change.

The numbers of disabled will grow as baby boomers reach their senior years. In some cases, this particular group enjoys a financial advantage not available to people in Svec's position. If the money is there, people can commission the likes of Diane Ing, owner of DesignINgenuity, an accessibility retrofit designer.

"The number one part of a typical renovation is getting in and out of the house and going with a ramp or porch lift," she says. "For the inside, the most important thing to a client is to have an accessible bathroom."

The costs, for those who can afford them, tally into the tens of thousands.

None of this dampens Svec's optimistic spirit. She herself has made contributions to program consultations, most notably through the People's Blueprint Panel, a Peacock Poverty project designed to funnel feedback into the province's policy review.

"There's still a lot to be done in terms of access and making sure it's equal for everyone," says Svec. "But we have come a long way with standards that are coming with Ontarians with Disabilities Act. But there still needs to be a lot done. People need to ask us what we want, as opposed to being told, 'You can do this, but not that.'"


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