This is the second instalment of a Global News series called ‘On The Brink,’ which profiles people who are struggling with the rising cost of living. In this story, two Halifax women talk about the challenges of finding an accessible place to live amid the worst housing crunch the province has seen in decades.
April Hubbard knows what it’s like to be on the brink.
A wheelchair user with a degenerative condition, Hubbard hasn’t left her 10th-floor Halifax apartment since March.
“My entire world is these four walls, and they feel smaller and smaller each day,” she said.
Hubbard, 38, has lived in her apartment building for five years. When she moved in, she had been looking for a home for six months and it was the only “semi-accessible” apartment she could find at an affordable price range.
But she said there have been a “lot of issues” with the building’s accessibility. There are only two elevators for the 22-storey building, which are prone to breaking down.
She also said she and her former roommate had to “fight” with building management to get accessibility changes made to the bathroom, such as changing the door to open outward instead of inward.
“That took six months of fighting, and (the roommate was) living in the building and going down to another floor to shower on a different floor for months because they wouldn’t make changes to our apartment,” she said.
Hubbard said she also has difficulty getting in and out of the building’s front door, which does not have a ramp. She also has had to deal with issues like flood damage and mould.
Even when she first moved in, she knew that this living situation wasn’t sustainable. So she began looking for a new accessible apartment in 2018 — and she’s been looking ever since.
“And now, as we come into 2023, post-pandemic, there’s even less out there,” she said.
‘A really lonely feeling’
Every accessible one-bedroom apartment she can find is in the $2,000 range or more. “For someone like me, who can’t work regularly, that’s never going to be an option,” she said.
Even now, paying under market — $1,570 for a two bedroom, though she notes she’s lived there since before the rent cap and new tenants are paying around $2,000 — it can be a struggle to make ends meet.
“Every month I have to figure out where I’m going to find that money to be able to pay for rent,” she said. “I know if I didn’t have a roof over my head, I would end up in hospital and likely dead very quickly.”
She said the lack of accessible, affordable housing leaves people with disabilities feeling like they’re “not welcome” in Halifax.
“When I talk to my other friends who are wheelchair users, we all kind of just understand that we’ll never be able to afford to move, and you’re just trapped where you are now,” she said.
“And it’s a really lonely feeling.”
Karyn Parkyn has faced similar challenges in finding accessible housing.
In 2018, she began experiencing problems with her leg and ended up moving in with her mother in the Annapolis Valley, where her room was in the basement.
“The problems with my leg continued and I ended up having to have an amputation above the knee,” Parkyn said.
“And I was pretty much held captive in my mother’s basement for almost two years because I had to bum up three flights of stairs to get up to where they were.”
Her mother developed dementia and was no longer able to run the house, so she moved in with other family and Parkyn went to stay with her oldest daughter in Halifax.
Again, it wasn’t ideal — there, Parkyn had to “bum up” 20 steps to get inside. Soon she began experiencing problems with her right leg and was admitted to hospital, where she had a bypass done.
Parkyn ended up staying there for months, because she couldn’t go back to her daughter’s as she couldn’t handle the stairs.
“I was stuck in the hospital while I found a place to live,” she said. “And it took seven months for us to find the apartment we have now, something that was wheelchair accessible and affordable.”
‘This is not the Nova Scotia I grew up in’
Those seven months were lonely. She was separated from her friends and family, including her three children: a son and daughter, both adults, and a teenage daughter.
“It was very hard on all of us. It was during COVID and the hospital was on lockdown a lot of the time, so I couldn’t get out to see my family and my family couldn’t get in to see me,” Parkyn said.
“And it was just miserable knowing that we were going through this for no other reason than I couldn’t find a place to live.”
Parkyn said her social worker and her occupational therapist ended up helping her find an accessible home, and one she can afford — under $1,000 for a one-bedroom.
“Can’t beat that in this city,” she said, though she added that money is still tight even with the under-market rental rate.
“Without my subsidy, I couldn’t live here, because it would take my entire disability cheque to live here,” she said.
Parkyn acknowledges she was “lucky” to be able to find an affordable home that met all her needs, especially because she knows there are many more people like her out there.
“I wasn’t the only one in that hospital that was living there because they had nowhere to go. There were several of us,” she said, taking note of the province’s “ridiculous” rental prices and low vacancy rate.
“This is not the Nova Scotia I grew up in. This is not the Nova Scotia that I’m proud of.”
With a lack of wheelchair-accessible emergency shelters in Halifax, Parkyn is concerned about what what happens when people with disabilities become homeless.
“Where would we go? We’d have to go back to the hospital, and pretty much be in jail again,” she said. “And it’s ridiculous.”
In October 2021, the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal found that the Nova Scotia government’s failure to offer “meaningful” access to housing for people with disabilities amounted to a violation of their basic rights.
The landmark decision said there is systemic discrimination in the province against people with disabilities who are seeking housing in the community, and the failure to offer accessible housing is demonstrated by long wait lists.
The province tried to appeal, but the case was dismissed in April 2022.
The original human rights case was launched by three people with intellectual disabilities who spent years confined in a Halifax-area psychiatric hospital despite medical opinions stating they could be housed in the community. One of the complainants, Sheila Livingstone, died during various delays in the case.
Hubbard said there have been accessibility gains in the province in recent years, but there still aren’t nearly enough housing options for people with disabilities.
And stagnating disability assistance rates amid skyrocketing inflation have made finding a place to live even more difficult in recent years.
“The amount is so small that it doesn’t even cover the current rents and hasn’t been raised in decades,” she said.
“So we can’t even afford to live in today’s rental market, let alone feed ourselves and have medication costs and mobility costs.”
Prioritizing having a roof over her head, Hubbard said she has gone without medications, taken on extra work, and changed her diet to ensure rent is paid.
Those tough decisions have long-term health impacts that add up, she said.
“We’ll probably have long-term effects, but if I don’t have a roof it’ll have immediate effects,” she said.
“We need to work with government to find solutions, where we’re not only creating more accessible housing, but also coordinating these programs so that they’re available when they’re needed,” Hubbard added.
“And people aren’t having to wait decades and dying on waitlists waiting for a suitable place to live.”
— with files from Ella Macdonald