Extreme weather events are becoming the new normal as our climate changes. Rising temperatures particularly in the summer, fierce storms in the winters, and poor air quality are just some examples of how climate change is affecting the West Coast. As non-profit housing providers, we need to be aware of how extreme weather events affecting our tenants and shelter guests, and come up with ways to support them. We do this through direct tenant supports and by retrofitting our buildings to make them more resilient and energy efficient.
Lookout Housing and Health Society provides shelter and housing along the continuum of housing from emergency shelters to low-end of market units. We also have outreach teams who support people experiencing homelessness, who may not be accessing our shelters or the other programs we offer.
The past few summers have hit record level temperatures on the West Coast. For example our Deep Woods outreach team, delivered water and other supplies to individuals living deep in the woods and monitored their health for signs of dehydration and other heat related health issues. Also, Lookout has an open door policy, where people experiencing homelessness can access our programs for heat recovery and respite.
Many of our tenants have various health challenges and need to be monitored, as extreme heat can affect their moods, agitate existing health conditions, and affect their overall health. One of the ways we supported our tenants was to together come up with ideas to help cool there space in extreme heat such as using ice and supplying them with fans so they could set up “swamp coolers” in their units to stay cool during the heat of the day. These are just a few examples of how we have developed processes to support our tenants in the context of climate change.
Resiliency in the non-profit sector means, ensuring our tenants are better able to cope with extreme weather events. By working together we can better serve our tenants and communities through education, partnerships and ongoing support from our funders and fellow housing providers.
A safe, secure, and affordable home is important for the well-being of all Canadian households and, in particular, enables marginalized groups to thrive in their communities. But what happens when housing – that most critical of foundations – is unaffordable?
BC’s affordability crisis is particularly hard on rental households. The Canadian Rental Housing Index, development by BCNPHA and our partners, shows that nearly half of all rental households in BC (43%) spend more than 30% of their income on rent and utilities; more than 21% spend over 50%, well beyond the standard benchmark for housing affordability.
Along with rent, energy consumption plays a key role in housing affordability. But the data shows us that non-profit housing in British Columbia has an alarmingly high per unit energy consumption rate that is 60% higher than that of market housing. The sector’s overall energy use is approximately 1,113 e-GWh and the level of deferred maintenance is estimated to be at least $800 million.
What do these energy consumption figures mean for the sector’s ability to respond to a changing climate? Put simply, the combination of the non-profit housing sector’s aging buildings, equipment disrepair and deferred maintenance means significantly higher energy consumption, higher costs and lowered affordability. The effects of climate change – extremes in temperature, droughts, increased rainfall, storm surges, erosion – push the capacity of our aging assets up to and beyond their limits. This puts our already vulnerable groups at even greater risk of housing instability and homelessness.
We can address these challenges through a few key measures. By addressing deferred maintenance and prioritizing energy conservation and resilient buildings, the non-profit sector could reduce their carbon footprint by 52 kilotonnes of CO2 emissions annually, and save $20 million on energy costs.
We can do this by maximizing the energy-saving opportunities available through new government funding streams. In response to BCNPHA’s Affordable Housing Plan for BC, the province allocated over $1.4 billion to housing repair, and $6.6 billion to redevelopment over 10 years. Ottawa also committed funding to repair and renewal in the community housing sector. With a clear focus on resilient, adaptable buildings that adapt to a changing climate, fluctuating energy costs, and housing needs over the next 60 years, we can begin to mobilize the sector to minimize their energy consumption and be ready for the forces of climate change.
Scaling Up for Sustainability: The need to build capacity in the community housing sector. -- Jeff Neven
At Indwell, we get a call almost every day. The calls come in from municipal governments, faith groups and from not-for-profits. They are calling us because they are desperate for us to provide affordable and supportive housing to their communities.
In a way it is wonderful to receive these calls, as they are a testament to the success we have had with our housing model at Indwell. But these calls are also deeply concerning. The need for this kind of housing is so great, and yet there are just a handful of organizations that are offering it. Where is the capacity of the sector to meet the demand?
At Indwell, we have had to scale up rapidly. In 2001, our budget was barely 100,000 dollars and we housed five people. Over the next three years we are on track to begin construction on approximately 1,000 units of housing. But it is not enough for one, or a handful, of organizations to scale up. The whole system needs to scale up so that there is an entire ecosystem of organizations capable of meeting this need.
There are many challenges we need to confront to build up the capacity of the community housing sector. One of them is building a robust and energetic workforce. Back in the 1970s, when the federal government was in charge, our workforce was large. When responsibility for community housing was downloaded to the provinces, the workforce was cut. It was cut once again when housing was downloaded to the municipalities. In order to scale up, we need to attract the best and brightest talents in fields such as finance, construction and urban planning. This is difficult when the resources and opportunities that attract top talent are so much greater in the for-profit sector. But on the other hand, there is also an opportunity for organizations like ours that are growing rapidly; the opportunity to pick, train and develop new staff into our organizational culture. People are seeking to work in a values driven organization that fosters hope and purpose, not only for their tenants but within their staff as well.
The reality of our sector is that there is a lack of resources. But there is nothing like desperation and need to drive innovation. Innovation is what has allowed Indwell to scale up. When grant funding for a new build didn’t flow until two years after occupancy, we developed a social impact loan program that has now become a pillar of our financing. We are now adopting new builds and retrofits to Passive House standards, which are considered to be the most rigorous voluntary energy-based standard in the design and construction industry today. Not only does this reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it keeps utility costs low. This cost saving is passed down to tenants and is a big factor in how we keep rents affordable.
Each day, our sector falls further behind. Our current course of action and infrastructure priorities are not working. We need to develop new solutions to solve the challenges that we are facing and let us scale up to meet the housing needs that are only going to continue growing.
“Resilience” is a buzzword often used by government entities to suggest the ability of non-market housing providers to rely more on own-source revenue, but in the current policy environment in Ontario it is hollow. Under the current system, rent-geared-to-income housing providers without charitable status can’t raise funds. I want to invest in the buildings our tenants live in and expand our capacity to serve more people; in short, I want to be part of a resilient community housing sector. Right now that is effectively impossible. If the organization runs a surplus, it is clawed back by the provincial government through the service agreement. Want to build a reserve fund to plan for the long term? Sorry, we’ll take that from you. Want to refinance your existing property to develop new units? Nope, no dice.
Where is the incentive to innovate? Why would I ask my staff to invest valuable time in developing community partnerships to use our common space if rental fees will get sucked right out of the organization? Saving money for the taxpayer is not the only consideration for housing providers to find creative solutions.
We are in a scenario where the mandate of the organization does not reflect its reality. This creates a stagnant environment that allows the private sector to come in and say, “we have a solution”. Yet despite being the largest recipient of “affordable” housing dollars in the country, many private sector units built with government support are remarkably unaffordable.
So where do we go from here? We need to move away from rental supplement agreements that depend on landlords, which are subject to the same discrimination that exists throughout the market. We need to move toward affordable housing benefits provided directly to tenants, which can be used with private or non-profit housing providers. And we desperately need a modernized framework that allows non-profit housing providers to raise money. We need legislation that allows them to keep the revenue they generate, build up reserve funds and tap equity to expand their operations. That’s what the path to resilience looks like.
Transforming the sector starts with the board and mission of every organization
Canada has a lot to learn from the rest of the world. We are not the first country to go through the expiry of long-term government operating agreements for the community housing sector – in fact, we are one of the last wealthy countries to do so. I have worked at every level of housing in Canada and have worked with colleagues around the world. What I learned internationally was that the end of government operating agreements did not spell the end of the community housing sector; rather, it was the rebirth of a sector that needed to make changes and ensure its survival in the future.
After several years of supporting others in this work, I was tired of talking about transformation and wanted to go do it, which is why I joined Inter Faith Homes – a “large” non-profit with 576 units in 5 Ontario cities. I quickly discovered that having a staff team grappling with transformation is important, but ultimately is not good enough. At the end of the day, the people who make a lot of the decisions are the board. If you don’t have the right board, you’ll never transform. In order for a legacy community housing sector to get to the new world you have to have a board of the future, not the past.
The board of the past may have a sense of what they signed up for in the beginning, but it is not what they are seeing today. There are new demands – more rules, more legislation, new technology, a requirement for more energy efficient buildings and a sophistication that didn’t need to be there 35-40 years ago. They often want to talk about what they lost or the way they think things should be rather than where they are and where they want to go. Are you sitting on a board of the past? Or are you dealing with a board of the past? There is a way to the future and it either involves changing mindset or taking a step back to let others take your place.
Smart organizations in the sector have figured out that you need a skills-based board. You need best-in-class governance. You need the heart of a charity with the mind of an entrepreneur and you need people who can oversee the organization in the same way shareholders oversee private sector boards. You are running a business that has significant assets attached to it and you need the competencies to manage that: you need lawyers, you need human resources professionals, you need developers, and you need people who understand real estate finance. At a lot of non-profits, people join the board because they want to help, so they are there for the right reasons. Often that was good enough in the past, but it is not the same for the future.
I learned from organizations that went through this type of transformation internationally – the situation of having to stare their future in the face – that mission is what mattered, but that you couldn’t get to the mission unless you had the solid feet of business underneath you. In some cases, the mission became, “What does government tell us to do?”, but that is incredibly limiting. Our sector needs to be much more resilient than that. It has to learn to operate outside of government edicts and it will always operate longer than a political term. You have to look at the mission through the eyes of business. How do I get to the mission with a business mindset? Once you have that in place it gives you the freedom to act. Whether your mission is helping people with mental health issues or building communities or whatever it is, it no longer matters what government does. The ball is in your court now. And then you can tell government what they should be doing and how they can help you meet your goal.
Through Calgary Housing Company, The City of Calgary provides homes to almost 25,000 low and moderate income Calgarians on the traditional territories of the Blackfoot people, the Nakoda people of the Stoney Nation, the Beaver people of the Tsuut’ina Nation, and the Metis Nation of Alberta, Region Three. Supported by The City’s Corporate Affordable Housing Strategy, we build relationships, partner and collaborate with stakeholders to deliver affordable housing solutions that suit the local context.
Our data shows an overrepresentation of Indigenous households in need of affordable housing, and this need will continue to rise. It is critical that we collaborate with our local Indigenous communities and stakeholders to identify and deliver affordable housing solutions that address gaps and challenges, and are culturally relevant and appropriate.
We are at the beginning of our journey with truth and reconciliation. As part of this journey, we are co-creating an environment where Indigenous leaders and stakeholders can come together to identify what The City’s role should be in the delivery of affordable housing for Indigenous Calgarians. Principles of reconciliation such as co-creation, respect, inclusion, mutual trust, and truth-telling are embedded in our approach to creating this equitable space. To move forward on our journey, we must come up with meaningful and innovative solutions that are supported and driven by the community. We have much to do, and we have much to learn.
DeMille Place Inc – Seniors Apartment, Hampton, New Brunswick
The community I live in may not fit the rural picture that most Canadians have in their head. The Town of Hampton, New Brunswick population 4000 sits halfway between Saint John and Sussex and serves as a bedroom community for both.
Our church St Paul’s Anglican has provided support to the community since 1811. Most days we feel like a young community built around schools and sporting activities. I am a 1961 baby boomer who is now starting to think about other issues like housing and aging.
Our church was blessed to have land, which led us to contemplate how it could be put to a greater use. So, in the spring of 2016 we began to explore ideas. The need we identified was for senior’s apartment housing. Lack of it, is forcing people to move from our community.
Today we have a 21-unit building under construction, it has been built to be affordable, accessible and energy efficient. Sometimes it is hard to believe this has happened.
Myself I am not a naive person but as I now sit back and recount in my mind how we got to this point and the many hurdles we overcame I am amazed.
Our dedicated team of people has worked diligently now for over 3 years. A not-for-profit corporation was created to do this project. We spoke to people, visited other projects, collaborated with government agencies, worked with town administrators, created a plan with our design team, and tried to learn all we could before we started.
Yes, we have many learnings and lessons to share. Yes, we had days when we thought this project might not happen but it has.
This month we have begun the process of interviewing people to become tenants in our building. The joy and excitement from those who will be living in this new building has reminded us of why we started this project.
This was truly a good idea. We are thankful it has happened.