When the Weber family deeded a two-acre parcel of farmland on what was once the outskirts of town to Elmira District Community Living (EDCL) more than 40 years ago, they had hoped to help provide housing to people living with intellectual disabilities. It didn’t happen right away, but fast-forward to the present, and the land has become home to a thriving community, one that’s about to get bigger.
The Field of Dreams housing project celebrated the grand opening of its newest building in Elmira. It’s the third in a series of apartment buildings designed to provide those with intellectual disabilities a place to live and thrive in town. The project has gained considerable attention for its innovative approach to affordable housing, being featured in the 2017 Canadian National Housing Strategy.
“There were two housing projects featured in the federal document, and ours was one of the two for the whole country,” said Greg Bechard, executive director of the EDCL and Elmira Developmental Support Corporation (EDSC) which operates the housing. “Obviously, people think what we’re doing is a good thing.”
At the core of the housing project is the “good neighbour” concept, which not only allows the home to be entirely self-sustaining monetarily, but also helps tackle some of the biggest issues for people living independently with intellectual disabilities.
“The two biggest, apart from affordable housing for people who live with a limited income, and particularly people with intellectual disabilities who generally speaking, their source of income is a pension … are the issues related to safety and security, and loneliness and isolation,” said Bechard.
“Many parents who have children still living at home who have a desire and the ability to live more independently, [but] parents are often reluctant to let their children go because they’re fearful for their safety. And they don’t want their children to be lonely and isolated.”
The conventional solution has been to hire full-time caregivers, but that can be exceedingly expensive and often unnecessary. So instead, the Field of Dreams has the good neighbour option.
“What we do is we create quality housing in a good part of the community, and through the good friends and neighbours [it] addresses, very passively, the issues of loneliness and isolation, and safety and security,” said Bechard.
“And many parents have said to me that this has given them the permission to let go, to let their children go and experience the next stage of their life. That independence and sense of having your own home and the pride that comes with that.”
The good neighbour is just that – someone who lives alongside everyone else in the building and provides a level of support and friendship to the other tenants that allow them to live independently. Because they aren’t paid staff but just fellow tenants, the housing project is entirely able to support itself on the revenues collected from rent.
“We receive no dedicated funding to maintain, operate the housing that we’ve created. The business model is self-sustaining. So in other words, it’s not dependent on ongoing funding to make it work,” said Bechard.
There are seven homes in the apartment building, six one-bedroom and one two-bedroom units, and plenty of communal spaces like a family room, patio and barbeque to share – not unlike a condo.
About two or three of the units in the apartment are occupied by people taking on the role of the good neighbour. There are no time sheets to fill out or schedules dictating how the good neighbour should act, but they move into the Field of Dreams housing with an understanding that they are part of a larger community. Bechard explains that he hopes the friendships and bonds will grow organically between the different tenants.
Attending the December 14 grand opening were Holly McIntre and Tyler Kehl, two of the good neighbours moving into the new building, who said they were excited about being involved.
“It’s a really neat concept of community,” said McIntre, about the idea behind the housing project.
“I’m just honoured to be a part of this. It’s exciting,” added Kehl.
The opening of the third building marked a huge milestone for the Field of Dreams project, which was only possible because of donations from the community. There is only one more building to go in the project, and Bechard notes that some donors are already getting involved.