Manitoba homes for people with disabilities sit empty

Manitoba houses destined for people with disabilities are sitting empty after the province adopted the National Building Code, delaying construction and driving up costs of homes.

Changes in building code cause costs to skyrocket, community groups unable to foot bills

Aaron McKelvie is waiting to move into this home. His move-in date has been delayed due to changes in the building code. (CBC)

Manitoba houses destined for people with disabilities are sitting empty after the province adopted the National Building Code, delaying construction and driving up costs of homes.

The amended code requires commercial grade fire systems in homes purchased or built by community groups for people with disabilities.

The change means the groups must add things like strobe lights, sprinklers, louder alarms, special dry wall and fire panels to the homes before any of their clients can move in. 

But disability advocate Jennifer Hagedorn said the safety requirements go too far.

"It’s heartbreaking to try and explain to individuals why they can’t move into their home," said Hagedorn, executive director of Visions of Independence, one of more than 100 groups across the province that support people with disabilities in homes in the community.

The new rules caught Hagedorn and others off guard, delaying move-in dates for their clients by more than a year and costing up to $100,000 more per house.

"It would feel like a hospital, which is exactly what we’re trying to prevent. We want it to be a home, and those codes don’t allow us to provide that environment," she said.

Client dies waiting for home

Visions of Independence purchased a three-bedroom bungalow from a woman whose daughter was wheelchair bound.

The home is fully wheelchair accessible, with wide doorways, ramps and counters cut to fit a wheelchair.

'I want to move out and I want to live my own life and honestly see where it takes me from here.'—Aaron McKelvie, waiting to move in to home

But that home is collecting dust.

"We’re not going to spend the money or make the upgrades. .. until we’re 100 per cent certain there’s no way around it," Hagedorn said.

Hagedorn has clients who have lived their whole lives in an institution, waiting for their own homes.

"They haven’t had a home. They haven’t had a bedroom. They haven’t had their own entrance way or dining room or kitchen, so it’s beyond life altering to have a chance to live in the community as you and I do," she said.

At least one of Visions of Independence’s clients has died waiting for that chance.

Hagedorn’s staff selected a man to live in the bungalow, but after his move-in date got delayed, he died waiting.

Waiting lists grow

While Hagedorn’s group and others wait for the provincial government to sort it out, waiting lists are growing. 

St. Amant, a community group in St. Vital that also places people with disabilities in houses, has seen its waiting list double since the changes came into effect because it’s taking longer to get the houses ready due to the new building code requirements.

"It’s something that perhaps strayed too far and makes it very challenging for service providers but more importantly for people with disabilities to have choice to have homes they are proud of and represent their needs and personalities," said Leanne Fenez,  director of the community residential program for St. Amant.

Fenez also pointed out individuals have 24-hour personal care support.

Manitoba adopts National Building Code

In 2011, the province adopted National Building Code changes that classify these homes as commercial buildings, like a strip mall or a nursing home.

"The pendulum has swung too far when they forget that it’s a home," said Susan McKelvie, whose son Aaron lives with an intellectual disability.

The 29-year old is living with his parents and itching to move out.

"I want to move out and I want to live my own life and honestly see where it takes me from here," said Aaron.

Aaron McKelvie looks at photos of the home he wants to move into with his mother and father. (CBC)

"I’m fed up right to the bone, and people ask, ‘When are you moving?’ I wish I could say I do know when I’m moving out, but I would be lying."

Aaron was supposed to move into a three-bedroom bungalow under construction by St. Amant with two roommates in the summer of 2012. 

But Aaron’s still waiting because changes to building regulations continue to cause delays. 

"It’s discrimination because these people can’t live in the community like everyone else and that’s always been the goal," says Aaron’s father Stuart.

Aaron said the process has made him feel left out because he sees other people moving out without these kinds of problems.

"How come I can’t be like one of those people? How come I can’t blend in with everyone else?" said Aaron.

Fenez worries the building code changes and the delays that accompany them are having a negative emotional and mental effect on people with disabilities.

"I’m worried it doesn’t make people feel like they are as welcome in the community as you or I," she said. 

"It’s hard for [people with intellectual disabilities] to understand why all of a sudden these regulations come into force."

Province reviewing codes

A spokesperson for the minister responsible for people with disabilities, Jennifer Howard, said the changes are a "concern."

The province pays for the homes for people with disabilities. It’s also footing the bill for the homes while they sit empty.

"A working group will be reporting back in coming weeks and their recommendations will be used to alleviate the current obstacles for Manitoba's care facilities as quickly as possible," said the spokesperson.


Ryan Hicks is in his final year as a law student at McGill University and is a former Quebec political correspondent for the CBC. In 2018, he won the Amnesty International Media Award for his reporting from Guatemala about the root causes of migration from Central America to the United States.