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Accessibility issues complicate housing crunch for some

No relief until Cheakamus Crossing comes on stream after Paralympics

A house may not be much of a home, but it’s almost always a shelter, one of life’s more fundamental needs.

Christian Rhude is in on the prowl for both, but he’ll settle for the latter. Disabled and restricted to a wheelchair for most of his 31 years, his housing needs are more complicated than those of the average Whistler local. Whereas most people pour over the classifieds in search of an available room, Rhude is on the hunt for an accessible one, something he’s been hard pressed to find since returning from Australia.

“What I’m looking for, first of all, is the kitchen, the bedroom and the bathroom to all be on the same level,” he says. “Outside the building, I need to be able to get from the accommodation to a bus stop.”

He had something like that before heading to Australia. But it wasn’t perfect. Located in Bayshores, he spent $350 a month on cab fares because he couldn’t wheel through the snow.

Complicating Rhude’s situation further is his dog, which he’s had for five years. Trained in accessible methods, the dog has become a close companion, a partner in both sport and life.

“I am not willing to give him up,” says Rhude. “I admit it puts me at yet another disadvantage, this one self imposed. However, in the past, I have always been able to work out a deal in regards to the pet — carpet cleaning, damage deposit — but you can rarely make a deal on something accessible.”

And so now he lives in Whistler Blackcomb staff housing — without his dog, and only temporarily to boot.

It’s not a money issue. A freelance producer and senior host for Whistler-Blackcomb’s reservations centre, Rhude’s finances aren’t holding him back.

“I’m just on the end process of purchasing a two-bedroom in the Cheakamus Crossing,” he says. “But I still don’t have anywhere to live for the next two years.”

For Gord McKeever, chair of the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA), Rhude’s plight represents yet another angle in the resort municipality’s housing prism.

“It’s like all the housing challenges right now,” he said. “There are no easy answers for everybody, whether it’s seasonal workers or people with mobility challenges. At this point, it’s an opportunistic situation, where if something compatible is available then there’s as much luck as anything there.”

Cheakamus Crossing is supposed to relieve some of this pressure. A legacy of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, it’ll have purpose built accessible units, but they won’t be available until after the athletes come and go in 2010.

“In terms of the community providing that type of facility, it’s the athletes’ village where we’ve specifically targeted that,” McKeever says. “But until now it hasn’t been the top priority in terms of planning. It was only in this last year or two that the WHA board made the commitment.”

Pete Crutchfield says the athletes’ village is an important part of the solution. While a symbol of heightened awareness, the village is also a reminder of ignorance, if only because its accessible features are directly tied to the Paralympics.

“The Paralympics have been huge for increasing awareness for accessibility,” he says. “Most of the stuff going on now, I have no reason to believe it would be going on without the Paralympics.”

Crutchfield calls himself incomplete, meaning he can get out of his wheelchair if need be. He’s lucky, especially given his housing at Whistler on the Lake, where stairs and other features would be an impediment to someone like Rhude.

According to McKeever, Rainbow was supposed to be part of the solution, though financing delays have held the project back. Still, he says the planners are increasingly aware of the issues and they influence developers whenever possible. Take Fitzsimmons Creek, he says, where the WHA board pressured the developer to include an elevator from the parking lot to the actual complex.

“The whole issue of accessibility is something that’s been on our priority list, on our radar screen, for a long time,” he says. “But it was the athletes’ village, especially in the context of the Paralympics, that really created an opportunity.”

Meanwhile, Rhude isn’t feeling bitter. Hailing from Calgary, he’s also lived in London, England, and this is the first time he’s found himself so unfortunately challenged. Still, he recognizes the municipality’s efforts, to say nothing of the sloping geography developers work with.

“Everywhere kind of has its own specific challenge,” he says. “Most of the time, it’s just as simple as having stairs on inclines.”

McKeever says the WHA hears Rhude and is sensitive to his plight. But there’s only so much the board can do.

“Like a lot of our housing solutions,” he says, “it’s the next year and a half that will be a big challenge.”