On April 16, 2018, UNITI, the partnership of Semiahmoo House Society (SHS), Peninsula Estates Housing Society (PEHS), and The Semiahmoo Foundation (TSF), hosted its fifth annual Food for Thought Dinner in the Treehouse Great Room. UNITI considers its “owners” to be members of the community, and annually consults with a sector of the community at this dinner. In 2018, the guests were people associated with housing and they included developers, city staff, housing experts, and other housing stakeholders. The guests were asked to answer the following three questions:
- What are the signs of a healthy and inclusive community?
- What are the housing challenges that people with a disability face and what needs to be done to overcome them?
- What is the role of UNITI in building a healthy and inclusive community
The conversations at the tables were lively as guests shared their ideas with Board members, senior staff, and self-advocates. These ideas were recorded by note-takers and the information was then organized into themes for each question (Appendix A). This executive summary will be used by the Board in examining our Ends (mission) and by Senior Staff when reviewing current operational practices.
What are the signs of a healthy and inclusive community?
One of the key discussion points for this question was around “reciprocity,” the idea that healthy and inclusive communities have opportunities for all people to contribute, both personally and as a part of larger organizations. This is a shift away from the paradigm of charity, of “haves and have nots” who each have a role as giver or taker. The idea of reciprocity fits well with some of the recent UNITI endeavours: Chorus, an apartment for people who have disabilities AND the general population of Surrey, and WISE Employment Solutions, which matches employers and employees, are both examples of relationships that leverage the talents of people with disabilities and UNITI staff for the benefit of the greater community.
While it was pointed out that there are barriers to healthy and inclusive communities such as profit margins for developers and NIMBYism of some neighbourhoods, it was also clearly noted that there is a shift in attitudes, “a new normal,” that is enabling more inclusion for people who have disabilities. Physical accessibility, “the right and ability to access everything from transit to housing,” was talked about as part of the solution to isolation. Financial cost of participating in the community (housing, transportation, recreation) was noted as a barrier to inclusion, with Surrey’s new Affordable Housing Strategy being seen as part of the solution.
Having a positive quality of life as a result of surroundings (nature, landscaping, housing), safety (sense of community, knowing one’s neighbours), emotional wellbeing (pets, active lives), and having options (where and with whom one lives) was also discussed.
What are the housing challenges that people with a disability face and what needs to be done to overcome them?
Financial barriers were noted as a major barrier to finding the right housing for people who have disabilities. These include both the lack of income/resources for people and the lack of affordable housing options in Greater Vancouver. Accessibility was also noted as an issue—many homes are not accessible for someone who has mobility issues, and those that are accessible are often not affordable.
The attendees also saw a need for more innovative housing models that are also affordable and a role for all levels of government in supporting this. It was noted that there needs to be policy change at all levels to support this (an example of this that pertains to UNITI is the CRA rule that charitable organizations cannot own or operate affordable housing and non-profit organizations cannot charge market rent).
Social attitudes about disability were seen as a barrier to housing—people need “to be more educated about people with disabilities.” It was also noted that people long for community so considering housing in isolation from connection to community does not make sense. The need for partnership to build inclusion was noted, as was the needs of an aging population that shares many of the same challenges as people who have disabilities.
What is the role of UNITI in building a healthy and inclusive community?
There were many great thoughts about how UNITI could play a role in building a healthy and inclusive community. These included taking a lead in engaging people, partners, and the general community in breaking down barriers. This could come in the form of advocacy with politicians (it was noted that this is a municipal election year…), creating awareness through multiple platforms, and partnering with the Self-Advocates of Semiahmoo (SAS). It was also noted that UNITI should continue to learn from other organizations and individuals.
Attendees discussed the need for UNITI to continue to create housing similar to Chorus and to be innovative in its approach. This could include everything from supporting tenants who need financial assistance to partnering with other housing organizations.
The leadership of UNITI was a theme that ran throughout the evening. People want UNITI to share its vision of inclusion with the community and to inspire others to engage in building a healthy and inclusive community.
On behalf of UNITI’s Board of Directors, Senior Staff, and Self-Advocates, we’d like to express our gratitude for our guests and the wealth of knowledge and ideas they shared with us during our fifth Annual Food for Thought Dinner. Our commitment is to use the information our guests shared to develop policies and practices that will help build a healthy and inclusive community that values all people.
Doug Tennant, CEO UNITI
Rich Gorman, Chair Semiahmoo Foundation
Ian Jarvis, Chair Peninsula Estates Housing Society
Colleen Mc-Goff-Dean, Chair The Semiahmoo Foundation