Sean Haffey likes being able to cook again in his new apartment.
His last one just wasn’t designed for someone like him in an electric wheelchair. Living there meant he was reduced to microwave meals. Despite its limitations, he had no choice at the time but to move in.
After suffering a stroke that paralyzed him on his left side when he was in his mid-40s, Haffey spent six months in rehabilitation at GF Strong. When that came to an end, he spent a short while in transition housing before moving into a senior’s building in the West End.
He was so young in comparison to the other residents he had to get special permission to move in.
Now, he has a kitchen. The counters are low so he can roll his wheelchair in close. The oven is on a wall and higher than a standard oven that opens from the front. Instead, it has a door that opens to the side — making it safe when handling hot foods for someone in a wheelchair.
He also has a courtyard garden facing south he can easily access by opening a door.
When he’s asked how much better his new place at Alexander House is, Haffey hesitates, then says: “In so many ways.”
Haffey, 51, works as a building accessibility assessor for the Rick Hansen Foundation. He pays $320 a month for his subsidized suite.
It took him three years to get into this wheelchair accessible rental apartment.
Haffey recognizes that his long wait was complicated by the region’s housing crisis.
“I feel very lucky that not only were they able to find a place for me but that it turned out to be so affordable,” he said.
He’s in the unit because of a new program called The Right Fit Pilot Project that matches people in wheelchairs with rental units designed with their unique needs in mind. In the first phase of the program, Haffey is one of five people who have been matched with accessible units administered by BC Housing.
“If it hadn’t been for Right Fit, I don’t know when B.C. Housing would have contacted me,” Haffey said.
“It’s great there is a program designed to make sure that wheelchair accessible units go to people who need them.”
Dalton Finlay, The Right Fit project manager, said one of the challenges finding accommodation for people in wheelchairs was that there aren’t a lot of accessible rental suites in Metro Vancouver.
On top of that, in some cases, people who are able bodied are living in the limited supply of units designed for people in wheelchairs.
“Primarily, our goal is to match wheelchair users with accessible units,” Finlay said.
“There is a very, very low turnover rate when it comes to finding accessible units — something like four per cent a year. They’re very hard to come by.”
According to B.C. Housing, the total number of wheelchair accessible rental units in Metro Vancouver is 430; every year, about 450 people in wheelchairs find themselves looking for accessible subsidized units.
In the past, Alexander House would have gone directly to B.C. Housing for a tenant. If that had happened and given Vancouver’s tight housing market, Haffey’s accessible unit could easily have gone to someone able bodied.
“The people who manage Alexander House heard of Right Fit and said: ‘We’d like to work with you, ” Finlay said.
The Right Fit has a growing database of 60 people in wheelchairs who are looking for rental units.
‘We’re there for the whole process from start to finish,” he said.
“If there is anything they don’t understand or that the housing provider needs assistance with, we’re been there from the get go”
The Right Fit, which started in 2017, is moving into a second phase to include people who aren’t on disability income and can afford to pay more for monthly rent.
If the pilot project goes well, and all signs point in that direction, the idea is to expand it to all of B.C. and then across the country.
“So far, it’s going great,” Finlay said. “It has been picking up. We’re getting more vacancies.”
Finlay knows about the challenges of finding accessible accommodation. His mother is in a wheelchair. It took her five years to find a place to live.
“This line of work hits home for me,” he said. “I’ve seen the struggle. B.C. Housing is great, but the length of wait is too long for people in wheelchairs.”