It often takes a few tries for Jerry Roy to roll his wheelchair through the narrow door frame to get to the bathroom of his home, but on this day his wheels keep getting stuck. He eventually gives up.
“I can’t get through,” he calls.
With the help of a home care worker, Roy gets a push and his wheels scrape against the wooden door frame. Inside the bathroom, he can’t turn his wheelchair around, roll into the shower or reach across the countertop. It’s inaccessible.
Jerry and his wife Linda Roy are trying to make their home in Belle-Baie, north of Bathurst, fully accessible so they can continue to live there for as long as possible. But they’ve run into obstacles paying the hefty price tag for the renovations — and government help isn’t keeping up with rising costs.
Advocates for New Brunswickers living with disabilities say the couple’s story is far from unique, with people in this province facing a maze of paperwork and limited options to stay in their homes.
Jerry, 73, is retired and uses a wheelchair to get around after having a stroke. Linda, 63, has rheumatoid arthritis and receives a disability pension. She needs a walker to get around.
They’ve both been living in their home in the community of Beresford, part of the newly formed municipality of Belle-Baie, for a decade. For the past few years, they’ve been trying to modify their home to make it accessible. They also have a home care worker.
The couple bought a ramp off Kijiji for $850 to access their front door, but they still have to climb three steps to reach it.
Grants ‘just not enough’
The Roys turned to the Homeowner Repair Program for help. It’s jointly funded by the federal and provincial governments and is administered by the Department of Social Development. It’s aimed at low-income homeowners and seniors who need to make major repairs and accessibility modifications.
The program offers a maximum forgivable loan of $20,000.
The couple applied for the program, and an N.B. Housing building inspector and two contractors assessed their home. The quote came back at about $47,000 for repairs to a damaged roof, bathroom modifications and a lift to get safely in and out of the house.
The cost for the bathroom alone was estimated at $17,000 and $22,000 for the lift.
“The grants that are offered through the N.B. Housing program are just not enough, there’s just no way that a normal family could even consider doing this,” Linda said.
The hefty price tag goes far beyond the maximum financial assistance available, and the Roys say it is way more than they can afford. They say their combined household income is $32,000 a year.
Now they’re left trying to pick and choose which parts of their home to make accessible.
Linda said the program is not keeping up with the actual expenses of renovation.
“Those numbers have not changed, yet the cost of construction, the cost of labour, the costs in general have just gone crazy ridiculous.”
‘They can’t afford the cost’
Haley Flaro, executive director of Ability N.B., a registered charity that helps people with physical disabilities, said initiatives like the Homeowner Repair Program haven’t kept up with inflation and soaring construction costs.
“If a family needs a front entrance ramp, if they need doors widened and an accessible bathroom, you’re looking at 50, 60, 70-thousand dollars,” she said.
More than 26 per cent of New Brunswickers are living with a disability, according to the organization.
During consultations on New Brunswick’s housing plan, Ability N.B. recommended the province increase the caps available for accessible housing modifications.
Flaro said a growing number of people with middle and low incomes are falling into a “grey area,” where they can’t afford renovation costs, but don’t qualify for sufficient funding.
“They’re remortgaging their houses, they’re selling things, and many people are trying to move from their home into rental housing — which is another challenge — because they can’t afford the cost of the modifications,” she said.
“People are taking out lines of credit, taking out controversial loans. It’s very difficult for people to remain in their own homes due to the lack of funding available for housing modifications.”
Flaro said when people can’t make modifications to their homes, they often end up in nursing homes or at the hospital for extended stays.
“It is cheaper in most cases to help people stay at home longer. We also have an affordable housing crisis in New Brunswick.”
No increase in 4 years
CBC News asked for an interview with Jill Green, the minister responsible for housing and social development, and was told she was not available.
Spokesperson Rebecca Howland said the New Brunswick Housing Corporation is currently reviewing all programs, including eligibility criteria.
“Providing affordable, safe, and adequate housing options to individuals, families and seniors in housing need is one of the province’s top priorities,” she said in an emailed statement.
Howland said to be eligible for the homeowner repair program, a property must be valued below $175,000. She said the funding limit for the program was last reviewed and adjusted in June 2019.
Linda said she and her husband have decided to forget about the lift for now and pay for the damaged roof through homeowners’ insurance.
The repair program is offering them $13,500 to renovate the bathroom, including widening the room and doorway and adding a new fully accessible shower. That leaves the Roys on the hook for the remaining $3,500. They are planning to take a government loan for that amount.
Without a lift to safely enter and exit the home, Linda wonders how long they’ll be able to keep living there.
“The mandate is for the seniors to stay in their homes, but yet they’re not giving enough for us. So a lot of people would have to end up in a nursing home — we don’t want to be separated.”