Everybody should have a home: a place of safety and happiness that they can decorate in their own style, invite over friends and family, and relax after a tough day. Unfortunately, for many people who have developmental disabilities, this is not a reality. In fact, for most people who have developmental disabilities, there are not many options for what they can call home. Many end up living with their families for most of their lives or living with other people in a variety of home share situations. For some, these preceding options work exceedingly well, but for many they do not.

Think about the variety of housing you have had in your life. I have lived in single family detached houses, apartments, townhouses, and basement suites (in no particular order!). Although I now live in a detached house, I will most likely be downsizing to a smaller living option in the not-to-distant future. I have choice and variety in my living options, and I believe that all people should have access to the same choice and options.. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many people who are supported by Semiahmoo House Society.

Ten years ago, Executive Director Paul Wheeler and the Semiahmoo House Society (SHS) Board decided to do something about this lack of housing options for people supported by SHS. In 2004, a large group of people we supported and their families were brought together and asked about their vision for living accommodations. The vast majority of people and their families that were consulted said they wanted to live in the community, in an apartment, with support provided as needed. We took this as our marching orders and over the past ten years we have acquired the resources necessary to build an inclusive apartment that would benefit not just the people we support but the general community as well.

In Canadian author Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, the protagonist’s grandfather states that “a man without land is nothing” and this motivates Duddy to do whatever he can to acquire land. While SHS would not condone Duddy’s sometimes underhanded actions to get land, we certainly realize that one of the ways not-for-profit organizations can take control of their mission is through owning and leveraging land. With this in mind, starting in 2004, we purchased four separate residential lots abutting our flagship “Treehouse” administration and services building on 24th Avenue in South Surrey.

Our initial plan was to have a development company build 55 market strata units with 12 to 15 of the units belonging to SHS after construction. This plan changed when our development company came to us with the news that we could afford to build a rental apartment building that our foundation, The Semiahmoo Foundation, would own in perpetuity. We were excited by this prospect as it would mean we could keep this valuable property as an asset to the organization while creating an inclusive living situation that benefited the people we support and the general community.

Our current plans, which recently passed third reading with the City of Surrey, feature a 71 unit building with 20 units for people who have disabilities and 51 units at affordable rental rates for the general community. We have received support in grants and loans from various funding agencies, including BC Housing and Vancity Community Foundation. We hope to break ground at the start of 2015 and have the building ready for occupancy less than two years after that.

The pressing demand for innovative housing projects is clear to me. We have had over 100 people express an interest in the 20 suites we will be renting and leasing to people who have disabilities. The old options of staying at home or living in a group home no longer satisfy young people with disabilities who want the same living possibilities everyone else in society has. At Semiahmoo House Society, we will continue to consult the people we support and their families and develop housing options that people will be proud to call “home.”

By Doug Tennant, UNITIII

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