Semiahmoo House Society Inclusive Apartment Project

By Doug Tennant

 SHS Apartment Image (1)

Fifty years ago, there were really only two places for adults with developmental disabilities to live in Canada: with their family or in an institution. In 2014, we know that the best place for people to live is in their community, but, sadly, there are still too few living options for people who have developmental disabilities. Many adults still live at home with their parents, others share homes with families in their community, but very few have the option to live in a home of their choosing with people they want to live with. As it is now, many families are being pushed into crisis as they support their adult children into their 20s, 30s, and beyond.

Ten years ago, Executive Director Paul Wheeler and the Semiahmoo House Society (SHS) Board decided to do something about the lack of housing options for people supported by SHS. In 2004, a large group of people we supported and their families were brought together and asked about their vision for living accommodations. The vast majority of people and their families that we spoke with said they wanted to live in the community, in an apartment, with support provided as needed. We took this as our marching orders and over the past ten years we have acquired the resources necessary to build an inclusive apartment that would benefit not just the people we support but the general community as well.

In Canadian author Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, the protagonist’s grandfather states that “a man without land is nothing” and this motivates Duddy to do whatever he can to acquire land. While SHS would not condone Duddy’s sometimes underhanded actions to get land, we certainly realize that one of the ways a not-for-profit organizations can take control of their mission is through owning and leveraging land. With this in mind, starting in 2004, we purchased four separate residential lots abutting our flagship “Treehouse” administration and services building on 24th Avenue in South Surrey. Our initial plan was to have a development company build 55 market strata units with 12 to 15 of the units belonging to SHS after construction. This plan changed when our development company came to us with the news that we could afford to build a rental apartment building our foundation, The Semiahmoo Foundation, would own in perpetuity. We were excited by this prospect as it would mean we could keep this valuable property as an asset to the organization while creating an inclusive living situation that benefitted the people we support and the general community. Our current plans, approved for rezoning by the City of Surrey, feature a 71 unit building with 20 units for people who have disabilities and 51 units at affordable rental rates for the general community. We have received support in grants and loans from various funding agencies, including BC Housing and Vancity Community Foundation. We hope to break ground at the start of 2015 and have the building ready for occupancy less than two years after that.

The pressing demand for innovative housing projects is clear to me. We have had over 100 people express an interest in the 20 suites we will be renting and leasing to people who have disabilities. The old options of staying at home or living in a group home no longer satisfy young  people with disabilities who want the same living possibilities everyone else in society has. We are fortunate at SHS to have other property that we can build on in the future. What we have learned and continue to learn with our current inclusive apartment project will be put to good use with our future projects. We will also share what we have learned with other not-for-profit organizations who have land and are looking for ways to leverage that land to fulfill their mission.

Doug Tennant is the Executive Director of Semiahmoo House Society. To find out more about the organization and this project, go to