After looking for nearly eight years, Tim and Natalie Rose had almost given up hope that they would ever find an apartment that could fit their accessibility needs.
Mr. Rose has cerebral palsy spastic quadriplegia and while the Roses, who are in their 30s, had the means to buy a condo at market price, he requires a specific adaptive shower, called a roll-in shower. They were told that any accessible housing that fit their needs had a wait list of 10 to 15 years.
“When we first moved to Toronto together, we looked everywhere for an accessible apartment,” Ms. Rose said. “It did not exist.”
They did their best to make their apartment accessible by taking off the bathroom door and creating a make-shift shower system held together with duct tape.
It was at this point in 2017 that Mr. Rose came across an advertisement by The Daniels Corporation promoting new accessible condos in Regent Park.
A week later, the Roses were in the Daniels’ office signing paperwork for their new condo.
The Roses’ new condo is part of Daniels accessibility design program. The program launched in 2017 in the company’s Regent Park projects and offers condo units built with accessibility in mind from the start. Many features such as roll-in showers, swing door balconies and power operated doors are included in the price of the unit without extra charges. Daniels currently has nearly 100 accessible units in projects across the Greater Toronto Area.
Daniels’ chief operating officer Jake Cohen has been with the company for 17 years and first learned of the company’s need to expand their accessibility work when he was part of the customer service department back in 2010 and 2011. He remembers receiving calls from people after they had moved into their units asking for retrofits to accommodate accessibility needs.
“After you’ve built the building, poured the concrete, put the light fixtures in, put the switches in the places, it’s very challenging to redesign and retrofit those types of spaces to accommodate specific needs,” Mr. Cohen said.
The experience made Daniels rethink their design program to better consider accessibility. They embarked on a study, speaking to people in the disabled community about universal accessibility. They discovered that one of the main issues was the Ontario Building Code.
According to code, new or renovated apartment buildings are required to make 15 per cent of their units accessible. Of those units, the code only requires that the entrance door and at least one bedroom, bathroom, kitchen space and living room space have a barrier-free path of travel. In bathrooms and showers, the code only requires that a wall reinforcement be installed and that a wheelchair has enough open space to turn.
According to the 2017 Statistics Canada Survey on Disability, 22 per cent of Canadians over the age of 15 years has a disability, or roughly six million people. In Ontario, the figure is about 24 per cent, or over two and half million Canadians. More than half of the Canadian population with a disability has a physical disability, with almost half of those requiring some form of accessibility aid built into their home, such as ramps, walk-in bath or shower, lift device or automatic doors.
Mr. Cohen said that the building code’s mandated accessibility features were just not good enough. “One size does not fit all. I think that’s a very real understanding having now embarked on this. We had to work with people on an individual basis.”
Daniels says it looks beyond the code and has multiple accessibility features that are part of the design process at the beginning to address individual needs in a non-cost prohibitive way.
Ronald Buliung, a professor at the University of Toronto whose work centres on disability, is a parent of a disabled child. He became familiar with the Ontario Building Code through a retrofit of his own home.
“The code is centered on the minimum amount of space that we think we might have to allocate to accommodate need,” Mr. Buliung said. “Once it’s been built and made to code, it’s compliant. There’s no incentive to go and change things.”
In an e-mail, the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said the code has been developed “in a way that recognizes that disability can be complex and varied,” and that they have “continued to make improvements to accessibility requirements.” They said additional accessibility enhancements will come into effect in the 2024 edition of the code, including “barrier‐free plumbing facilities such as shower rooms.”
In a June 29 event held with AccessNow, a Toronto-based organization focused on universal accessibility, Daniels presented the results of a study that mapped accessible spaces throughout Regent Park, including Daniels’ buildings, which found that 66 per cent of the 55 new building spaces had a positive accessibility rating.
Maayan Ziv, the founder and CEO of AccessNow, said there is a major gap between the accessible housing that is available and the population of Canadians who have a disability. She said the two main barriers when it comes to accessible housing are that there is not enough housing and the units that are available can’t be customized to fit people’s specific needs.
Ms. Ziv said the work Daniels is doing in regards to accessibility and housing is something that hasn’t been seen in any other housing spaces.
“It definitely offers a different level of flexibility or even just opportunities for someone to feel that they’re able to voice their own needs and for those to be recognized. That, unfortunately, is extremely rare when you live with a disability right now,” Ms. Ziv said.
Luke Anderson, the co-founder and executive director of StopGap, was part of a panel discussion at the Daniels and AccessNow event. In an interview with the Globe, Mr. Anderson said that Daniels’ approach to accessibility and housing is unique to other building companies.
“There doesn’t seem to be a similar kind of mindset with other builders out there, and I think this is a problem as our population is aging,” Mr. Anderson said. “We’re really looking for what Daniels is doing, which is working with someone to suit their individual needs.”
Mr. Anderson co-founded StopGap in 2011 as part of a project to bring ramps to otherwise inaccessible store fronts throughout Toronto. StopGap has been involved with Daniels since about 2014 when they did a “roll through” of one of their buildings and then became collaborators on their accessibility design program.
The Roses said that, before finding their home with Daniels, they struggled to find a place to rent that would allow for the proper retrofitting that Tim needed. Ms. Rose said that with other building companies, the retrofit for a roll-in shower could cost up to $100,000 on top of the price of the unit. With Daniels, the cost of the roll-in shower was included.
After four years of building, with a year delay due to COVID-19, the Roses finally moved into their home in Regent Park in early 2021.
“When we first moved into the unit, I almost teared up when I saw the roll-in shower, like when I saw it for the first time and could wheel in it safely to take a shower and not worry,” Mr. Rose said. “That is life changing.”
The building itself has other accessibility features that make life easier for the Roses. All the doors of their building have door openers so Tim no longer needs to enter through the garbage entrance. The increased accessibility of the Regent Park area means that the Roses can go out for dinner without having to check if they can be accommodated.
Mr. Rose said that the growing disabled population in Canada, accounting for senior citizens and the range of socio-economic backgrounds, needs to be considered in the housing market. “It really is a market that can’t be ignored or that shouldn’t be ignored by building developers because you’re ignoring a pretty massive chunk of the Canadian population.”
Ms. Rose, an accessibility and diversity consultant, said that it is also important to diversify the type of homes available for people with disabilities. He said most housing for people with disabilities is social housing or one-bedroom condos, which doesn’t work for families.
The Roses recognize that they are privileged to be able to buy a condo at market price. Many people with disabilities could not afford a similar unit.
Statistics Canada found that persons with disabilities were more likely to have lower income levels than those without disabilities. Mr. Buliung said people with disabilities are more likely to be underemployed or not achieve their desired level of education.
Mr. Cohen said that Daniels wants to provide an equal opportunity to people who are seeking accessible housing providing condo units with additional accessibility features but not at an increased price.