Government and advocates are leaning on private builders for accessible housing; will they listen?

An example of accessible design in a residential home, according to the UniversalDesignNL website. Accessible features include a level-entry and a bright, open-room.  ( - image credit)
An example of accessible design in a residential home, according to the UniversalDesignNL website. Accessible features include a level-entry and a bright, open-room. ( - image credit)

The minister in charge of accessibility says it'll take years for accessible housing in Newfoundland and Labrador to catch up with demand — and it'll take private sector money to get there.

"We have right now, I'll call it a short wait list for people who are looking for accessible units," said John Abbott, the minister responsible for the Status of Persons with Disabilities and Newfoundland and Labrador's Housing Corporation. "But it will take some time because we just don't have any new units coming on stream in the short term."

Both advocates and government officials are urging landlords and builders to focus on accessibility in the province which will seen the need grow as its population ages.

Just a fraction of all rental units on the market are built with accessible standards in mind, according to Nancy Reid, the executive director of the Coalition of Persons with Disabilities Newfoundland and Labrador.

"We get calls every week from folks who either live here in the province already or want to move to the province and are really trying to figure out how to actually find a place to live," she said.

"It's a really, really narrow area right now to find spaces that are available for folks."

Abbott said the problem will "require a significant investment in new housing in the province by government, by our nonprofit system, and by certainly the private market, which we largely depend on to provide that."

Public side stretched thin

Reid said many of the private units in the province are old — older than the 1982 Buildings Accessibility Act — and were not built with much consideration for accessibility.

According to Abbott, the situation is similar with the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation's holdings.

"Largely the housing units that we have were built in the 50s and 60s, they were designed for that period. They're not necessarily great for the current period."

About 600 of the corporation's 5,500 units are either fully or partially accessible, he said, and there is a wait list to get into new ones.

He said the corporation will refit existing units where possible — it spent $125,000 on that last year — but that's not as cost-effective as building new units.

Backlog in private construction

Abbott said the COVID-19 pandemic slowed housing starts across the country, and the sector is just now returning to its feet.

"We're in this transition period, and it's going ... to take a number of years to work through all this demand that is just been really pent up over the last couple of years," he said.

Reid says that as construction speeds up, builders should see the benefits — both personally and financially — of building with accessibility in mind.

"If I have a home that's on the market and can be rented only by somebody with a certain ability level I'm limiting my availability to folks," she said.

Not everyone living with a disability will need accommodation for mobility, she said. But a majority of people who use aids like wheelchairs weren't born with that need.

She says that's a reminder that you can't predict the future, and you should try to build and plan with accommodation in mind. She says making that decision the first time is not as expensive as rebuilding a house to fit new needs.

Newfoundland and Labrador's aging population only adds to the calculation.

"We all want to get old. It's a wonderful thing to actually age, you know, it's certainly better than the alternative," she said. "And if we have the privilege of aging, it also means we have the opportunity to acquire disability because we live longer."

"I think it's a real win for builders and for the rental market as well. We know the opportunity is there and we know that the need is there. I just hope that people respond."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador