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Great accessibility starts at home, group tells Woolwich council

Great accessibility starts at home, VisitAble Housing Task Force tells Woolwich council

Providing homebuyers with more options – no stairs, wider hallways and doorways – would be a great way to begin making homes more accessible, according to the Social Development Centre of Waterloo Region.

Such moves would be a positive step in creating a more inclusive communities, the group’s executive director, Trudy Beaulne, told Woolwich councillors last week.

The VisitAble Housing Task Force convened a meeting in the fall of 2014 with municipal planners, building inspectors, engineers, builders, and developers to talk about this initiative – VisitAble housing. The attendees raised questions, which the centre did some further research on and created the research report, which was distributed to council.

“There were a couple of very specific asks we had [to council] that to most people seem a little vague and nebulous, but to make sure when they update their official plan … to look at having stronger language around VisitAble housing, more specific use of that language and defining the standards for them to be looking at developments that are in progress or soon to be done and for them to not just encourage it, but to consider whether they can provide some incentives to the developers and builders to incorporate this,” Beaulne said.

They’re also planning a forum for Mar. 23 to give more opportunity to the decision makers and other stakeholders to talk more about how to make it happen.

A VisitAble home is defined by three features: a no-step entrance to the main level, wider doorways and hallways on the main level, and a minimum of one half bath on the main level that can be used by someone with a mobility aid such as a wheelchair.

Woolwich Township’s 2012 official plan does reference building accessible homes under assisted and special needs housing, where it states “the township will encourage new housing, which is accessible by people with challenges.”

The taskforce would like to see VisitAble housing become the standard when the township updates its official plan. They’re also asking them to develop specific guidelines for building housing that is VisitAble, encourage development projects to incorporate it as the standard for all housing, and provide incentives for developers and builders who want to build this type of accessible housing.

“We had first introduced it to the city of Waterloo and they’ve incorporated it into their official plan and the Region of Waterloo and they incorporated it, language that sort of referred to it or encouraged it, but they’re more specific in their affordable housing selection criteria for tenders for that. They actually have included VisitAble features and accessible features as part of the requirements, although not as strongly as we might want them to do so. We’ll be asking them to be tightening that up a little bit,” Beaulne said.

They weren’t able to make much progress on compiling a list of examples of existing VisitAble housing in the region because they spent so much time doing the technical document. She says they have some pictures and locations, but they weren’t able to find the time to go and verify. They did come across some clearly VisitAble housing designs of houses built in Elmira in the ’90s. She spoke to the homeowner of one of them and they said it was one of five standard designs shown to them at the time.

“If we could get some additional dollars that would be what we would do is actually pull that information together and have a much more concerted effort because one of the problems is if you don’t know what we already have we’re assuming that there’s none, but that’s not true. We are finding examples that are intended to be VisitAble or it just was what seemed to be a nice people friendly design. And to pull together that information to get something that would then become an inventory and a guide to people who want to build something that’s more than just about policies, more about the features,” Beaulne said.

They also created a guide for realtors and for homebuyers which  allows them to do a room by room assessment of the accessibility features and determine whether or not a home meets the three features of a basic VisitAble design.

The guide is incorporated into the realtor’s MLS system so they can be explicit about whether a home is or is not VisitAble and what features it has. She says if consumers are asking for it then builders will be paying more attention.

“Certainly in our travels, 10 years ago even the issue around wider doorways and wider hallways was a bit of a push, but it seems like those wider doorways and hallways are becoming their own standard. It’s not so unusual to find homes being built that way, without a lot of extra effort. It would only cost a few extra hundred dollars to build a home with wider doorways and hallways. It comes down to an average home between $200 and $300,” Beaulne said.

No one stakeholder group can make VisitAble housing the standard on its own. She says it’s kind of like the chicken and the egg. There needs to be a stock of these types of homes available that people can recognize as VisitAble and know what to ask for when they’re house hunting. But builders and developers won’t build homes this way unless someone’s asking for it.

“There are builders and developers who are prepared to build it, and there are some local builders who have indicated an interest. And it would be very helpful if there were either consumers who were waiting for them to do it or local authorities encouraging them or giving incentives to do it. This take up is something that no one player can do on their own,” Beaulne said.

She says this type of housing helps create an inclusive community environment because there are a number of people who have a difficult time with stairs, whether it be an injury or a disability. Taking away that barrier means fewer people are excluded and they can be welcomed into other peoples’  homes.

“It is a basic community benefit, the reduction of the cost. What happens if people have accidents, they have hip surgery, they have something that happens that stairs make it difficult for them to return home? There are people going into long-term care facilities because they have stairs at home and the costs of that are a much bigger issue that if we actually were able to add that all up we’d be quite shocked at how much it’s costing us because we have stairs,” Beaulne said.

The VisitAble forum will be held at RIM Park on Mar. 23.

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