Housing key for people with disabilities, panel agrees

From left, panelists Rob Cressman, Jijian Voronka, Remo Agostino, Nancy Singer, Bryan Keshen and Adam Vaughan LOUIS THOMAS PHOTO
From left, panelists Rob Cressman, Jijian Voronka, Remo Agostino, Nancy Singer, Bryan Keshen and Adam Vaughan LOUIS THOMAS PHOTO

Affordable housing is a key starting point for improving the lives of low-income people and those with disabilities.

That was the key message from six speakers at an affordable housing panel event held Feb. 25 at the Al Green Theatre.

The event was one of many that took place during Toronto’s inaugural Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, hosted in February by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre.

The panelists – representing the private, non-profit and government sectors – addressed the current landscape of affordable housing in Toronto, and the challenges and best practices in providing affordable and accessible housing to people who need it.


The discussion was moderated by Alex Bozikovic, architecture critic for the Globe and Mail.

All of the speakers emphasized the need to provide people with disabilities affordable places to live that are modified to meet their needs and integrated into the community.

Rob Cressman, director of social housing for the City of Toronto, said the need for affordable housing in Toronto far outstrips the city’s current stock of units.

The municipality has about 94,000 social housing units, but only about 2,000 have been modified to support people with physical disabilities.

“Our wait list for social housing in Toronto is about 95,000 households, and of that, about 600 households are specifically waiting for units modified for wheelchairs,” he said.

The city has been working to remedy this, but “we can’t do this alone,” Cressman said, adding it requires a commitment from all levels of government.

Adam Vaughan, MP for Spadina-Fort York, said Ottawa no longer approaches the issue of affordable housing as a “crisis,” but as “the solution.”

“Housing is the most effective tool we have to get at a range of challenges all governments face, be it health care, poverty, social marginalization, people with disabilities, aging, refugees,” he said.

And while the Liberal government is committed to investing $20 billion in social infrastructure over the next decade, much of which Vaughan said will go to housing, he argued there should be a charter of rights for people with disabilities at the federal level.

The conditions people with physical, developmental and psychiatric disabilities are often forced to live in should be considered a major factor in their overall quality of life, said Jijian Voronka, national peer lead of the At Home/Chez Soi project, a study from the Mental Health Commission of Canada that aimed to determine whether a “housing first” approach – in which people are first provided a place to live, then offered other supports to meet their individual needs – works.

She and her brother became homeless as teenagers, she said, and she feels that acquiring a subsidized housing unit saved her life. Her brother, however, committed suicide at age 21, a tragedy she largely attributes to his poor living conditions in a halfway house.


People with disabilities must be consulted by policymakers, and more effectively, Voronka stressed.

“Now they consult [them] when they already have a road map… laid out… People in power have to learn from people with disabilities, and [the latter] have to understand the knowledge policymakers are sitting on,” she said.

Bryan Keshen is CEO of the non-profit agency Reena, which promotes inclusivity and independence for people with developmental disabilities.

It operates a community residence and purchases units in buildings to accommodate some of its clients with disabilities, but Keshen said the non-profit sector shouldn’t be the only one providing this type of housing.

“We tend to be better landlords because we consult people with disabilities. But we don’t want to be property managers… We need more options,” he said.