A single mom with a disabled son says she has found dead ends at every possible avenue for finding accessible housing in London, Ont.
Claudia Akpovoka has four sons, ranging in age from 10 to 19. Her 14-year-old son, Tavion, was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis type 2 (NF2) when he was nine. The rare condition causes benign tumours on the nerves, brain and spinal cord that affect his balance and hearing. He can go months without a tumour appearing, to suddenly being hospitalized for weeks at a time.
Akpovoka is searching for a more accessible home where Tavion won’t be in danger of falling down the stairs or in the shower. He has lost much of his ability to walk because of his illness and has upcoming leg surgery that could put him out of commission for a year.
“It could be really bad. It could get seriously bad,” said Akpovoka, who often takes time off from her job as a developmental services worker to look after her son. “We could be stuck in this unit, and we don’t know what we’re going to do for Tavion.”
Difficulty navigating London’s housing system
The family currently lives in an east-London co-op run by the Ontario Co-operative Association. A representative from the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada confirmed that the co-op only has four accessible units, all of which are full, and it’s very rare for occupants to move.
In 2018, Akpovoka submitted an application to Habitat for Humanity but was told she needed to clean up her credit. She spent the next four years paying off student loans and credit cards. When she applied for a second time, she was rejected because she had cosigned for a relative’s car.
In an email, Habitat for Humanity Heartland Ontario CEO Al MacKinnon said the organization uses a blind process to assess applicants. All applicants must have manageable debt and a good credit score, he said, and are welcome to reapply when their circumstances change.
But when Akpovoka was rejected after years of working on her application, she said she had to move on and look elsewhere.
She then began the process of applying for a unit with the London Middlesex Community Housing (LMCH), which takes its applications through the city’s Housing Access Centre (HAC).
In doing so, she said she was told the waitlist for community housing would be anywhere from 10 to 30 years.
Less than half of community housing is accessible
There are 252 wheelchair-accessible units in the City of London’s community housing portfolio, according to city spokesperson Jo Ann Johnston, and 46 per cent of the buildings in the community housing stock have those units.
Current wait times vary based on demand for the building, the number of accessible units in a building, the size of the unit and the type of application. Wait times do range from six months to over 10 years, said Johnston.
Akpovoka’s story isn’t a surprise to Jacqueline Thompson, the executive director of LifeSpin, a group that helps low-income families, seniors and people with disabilities. The current housing wait list can take years for all types of units in London, she said.
The City of London has plans to build 3,000 more affordable units by 2026, requiring at least 25 per cent to be accessible. However, Thompson said the city needs to reimplement its former definitions for affordable housing to truly help those in need.
“We used to provide housing reserve fund dollars for projects that provided really affordable housing in the first place and 50 per cent of them had to be disabled units. We lost that, and we’re mostly building for individuals and couples who can afford 80 to 95 per cent of market rents,” said Thompson.
“That leaves people on fixed incomes and families with children living in crowded or unstable housing. They have no place to go.”
The city has a higher than the average number of parents on social support in the province, leading to a high rate of child poverty.
Politicians have not done enough to address the issue of family housing because families tend to be hidden in housing that is substandard and overcrowded. Not-for-profits like Indwell are building new affordable developments, but Thompson said she’d like to see the city work harder to address the issue.
“We need housing for one-parent families, Indigenous people, recent immigrants, and people with disabilities. All of those remain unacceptably high, and we’re really not addressing them by building one-bedroom units that are 80 per cent of the market rent,” said Thompson.
Despite her struggles, Akpovoka is holding out hope for a breakthrough.
“I’ve been through a lot by myself as a single mother,” she said. “I think that I’ve met many, many milestones, and I’m able to do this now. So I’m hoping that somebody will hear our story and walk with us to help us get what we need.”