After a grueling pandemic from which we may (or may not) be emerging, the issue of affordability has taken centre stage due to steep price increases and inflation. Housing affordability has become topical, and politicians are grappling with a problem that is not entirely of their making.
However, for many seniors housing affordability is not the main issue. After a lifetime of work and paying off mortgages, most of us have places to stay and are getting by with our pensions. We struggle with the rising cost of living like everyone else, but if we have homes we are house rich and much further ahead than younger generations who cannot even enter the real estate market with its runaway prices and soaring rents.
This is why, as a senior, I consider housing accessibility to be more important than affordability. Why? If I cannot even enter my place, let alone live in it as I age, an affordable house is useless, and the right to shelter are empty words! For me, accessibility is everything.
Thus even if I already have a home, the stairs in it may have become less negotiable, the bathtub now a health hazard, my wheelchair can’t turn the corner in the corridor, and things are getting beyond my reach. I may need a stair-lift or elevator, both of which are costly even with limited government rebates. Some of us just can’t afford such costly retro-fits, so as we become more needy with age, we may be forced to leave our beloved homes for the “long-term care homes” 96% of us dread going to.
We may like to pretend that we’re still young, fit and flexible. But alas, we are not and eventually will face a reckoning. Many of us are unprepared for it, and society has not helped us to do so. Homes are still being built for “normal” families who are able and fit. For the most part, developers resist building homes designed to accommodate people with temporary or chronic disabilities lest it eat into their profit margins.
But it will not! More adaptive homes could easily and affordably be built for all. Following “Universal Design” principles, they could be more spacious and flexible for emerging human needs. They would have few or no stairs, wide corridors, walk-in showers, walk-out balconies, lever door handles, switches at lower heights and adjustable height counters, and even bi-level closets allowing for later installation of an elevator by a senior resident.
Changes like these cost little or nothing up front for apartments, as attested by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC); in fact, building a new apartment costs the same, accessible or not, and accessibility adds to the inherent value of homes for future buyers. Of course, developers and builders must still be persuaded or required to follow universal design. But examples of doing so abound in Canada and abroad, so we can learn from them and change the way we think about housing.
Surely a “home” is much more than a financial asset. If it is a human right and not just an investment, then all Canadians, whatever the needs, must have access to affordable places to live in. But It bears repeating that affordable homes are useless if not also accessible.
Finally, let’s distinguish between cost and value. Affordability is about cost while accessibility is about value. A home is a place fit to live in for me, my family and friends. If the “right to shelter” means anything, housing must be more than merely affordable. It must also be accessible for all – and for life!