Monday’s official opening of South Surrey’s Chorus Apartments – a pioneering project combining independent living units for people with developmental disabilities with units of affordable rental housing – was really only a formality.
As Semiahmoo House Society executive director Doug Tennant explained, the 71-unit, $15.4 million building, at 2350 153 St. – a partnership of Semiahmoo House, Peninsula Estates Housing Society and the Semiahmoo Foundation, along with significant funding contributions from the federal and provincial governments – has already been occupied by eager residents for two months.
Among many politicians, dignitaries family members and well-wishers attending the opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony were Surrey-White Rock MLA Gordon Hogg, who spoke on behalf of the province, Surrey-Cloverdale MLA and Minister of Children and Family Development Stephanie Cadieux, and former Semiahmoo House executive director Paul Wheeler, who first put the project in motion some 13 years ago.
But it was Michaela Robinson, herself a tenant with developmental disabilities, who said best what the realization of the long-time dream to provide a housing option for Semiahmoo House clients has meant.
“People ask do I like living at Chorus – I love it!” she said, to loud applause.
“It has changed our lives in ways we could not have imagined. Speaking for all tenants – we have gained a new independence.”
Robinson also expressed gratitude to staff and volunteers with Semiahmoo House and others who had contributed to the project along the way for being responsible “for our well-being, health and happiness.”
“I’m growing,” she said. “Not in size, but in character. My disabilities don’t define me, my abilities define me.”
Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation affordable housing consultant Rob Jaswal, speaking on behalf of the federal government and Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities Carla Qualtrough – who was not able to attend – paid tribute to the development as a “very innovative project” that meets what CMHC would like to see for other similar projects, in terms of its inclusive nature and its sustainability.
Tennant told the crowd that Chorus, which provides 20 units for those with disabilities and 51 units at affordable rental to individuals of low or moderate income, demonstrates that inclusivity in development is possible.
The name Chorus, he said, represents “a diversity of voices” that can be even stronger when brought together.
“This is a model that will work,” he said. “This kind of housing needs to be repeated.”
He added that the three main organizations behind Chorus would be looking at other projects in the future that would include more housing based on community need.
While the project initially encountered some pushback from neighbours, Tennant said, opposition eventually dwindled to three, one of whom changed his mind after meeting with potential occupants, while the other two remained concerned about the parking impact of the building.
“The other worry was, once we were going to build it – what if nobody else wants to show up, what if nobody else wants to live here?” he said.
“We didn’t do much advertising but people were knocking down the door. One woman said she’d waited all her life to live in an inclusive apartment building.”
Tennant raised laughter when he described the reaction of one of the tenants with a disability to her newfound independence.
“She told mem ‘I have to tell my mother to stop texting me every hour,'” he said. “It’s OK, mom, you can stop worrying.”
Others at the opening to add their congratulations were native elder Gil Poitras, a member of the Semiahmoo House community; Derek Gent CEO of Vancity Community Foundation, another partner in the development; Semiahmoo House board chair Rich Gorman; Seonag Macrae, CEO of Community Living B.C.; Armin Amrolia, executive director of development strategies for BC Housing; Surrey Coun. Mary Martin and Surrey Board of Trade CEO Anita Huberman.