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October 02, 2017

Creative housing for people with intellectual disabilities

Greg Bechard is an affordable housing entrepreneur and the executive director of Elmira Developmental Support Corporation. Over the last decade, with the support of his board of directors, Greg has developed a unique business model for affordable housing. The model blends student opportunities, community development and new technology. The result is Field of Dreams, an innovative approach to community living.

Located in Elmira, Ontario, Field of Dreams offers supportive yet independent living for people with intellectual challenges. Tenants moved into Phase 1 in 2014, Phase 2 in 2016, and more will move in when Phase 3 opens in January 2018. Each building has 4 to 5 men and women with intellectual disabilities and 2 to 3 “Good Neighbours.”

The Field of Dreams’ Good Neighbours are successful scholarship applicants from Renison University College and the Masters of Social Work program at Wilfred Laurier. Students have their tuition and rent covered as they live in supportive relationship with the other tenants. More recently, Greg also started welcoming community members as “Intentional Neighbours” in exchange for a subsidized unit in the building.

Robyn Horst began as a scholarship recipient of the Good Neighbours program and is now an Intentional Neighbour. She fondly recalls a time when her car broke down and one of the tenants drove her to the mechanic.

“We’re genuine friends,” she says. “The tenants help me just as much as I help them.”

The Good Neighbour scholarship concept first came to Greg in 2009, when he was speaking to students in a university social work class. He asked how many of them had worked at group homes, and most raised their hands.

The innovative approach has sparked inter-generational friendships and allowed the buildings to run entirely through rent revenues without additional government subsidies. Average annual support costs for each tenant are $7,000 a year, a fraction of the costs for someone with similar abilities living in a regional group home.

“A blend of best practices”

The success of the model is based on the abilities of each individual, family and community support, technology, the Good Neighbours concept and — as a last resort — paid staff.

“It’s just a blend of best practices,” says Greg, who based the model on 43 years of affordable supportive housing experience.

All of the buildings follow a similar configuration: six 1-bedroom and one 2-bedroom units. Each unit is customized with technology to suit the tenant. For example, a unit could have a device that dispenses medication at specific times of day.

Greg knows he’s created something sustainable, adaptable and very relatable. He’s committed to the future expansion of Field of Dreams and believes the model can be applied to affordable housing developments across the country.

“We have created an old-fashioned neighbourhood,” he says. “It’s a neighbourhood of support, where neighbour looks out for neighbour and issues of safety and loneliness and isolation are addressed through the relationships formed in the housing community.”

This project received funding from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and the Ontario Ministry of Housing through the Canada–Ontario Investment in Affordable Housing Agreement. It was also made possible thanks to funding from the Region of Waterloo.