How do community housing organizations ensure survival, growth and anticipate the future? These are issues that Birch Housing, which has been in operation since 1975 in the Toronto area, has been thinking about. It inspired them to go undergo a process to better understand their situation and to reposition themselves with a mission, clearly defined vision, values and directions, with a view to ensure not only survival but growth.
Like many non-profit housing organizations in Ontario (and across the country), Birch Housing’s funding agreements with the government were expiring. As Birch Housing executive director Margie Carlson says, “we can’t just sit where we are because the funding that we get from government is not getting better. It’s getting worse. Our funding is being reduced, costs are increasing. So, we had to find another way to build our own sustainability.”
Since 1975, Birch Housing (formerly known as Inter Faith Homes Corporation) has been providing community housing in the Greater Toronto Area: Toronto, Oshawa, Newmarket, Oakville and London. It owns and manages 576 housing units across nine sites in addition to operating a 10th location. Some 45 years later, in the context of its funding reduction, it needed to thoroughly re-evaluate its operations, its assets and its vision.
A first step toward change was the hiring of Margie Carlson in 2018 as its first executive director. Previously, it was the board of directors that oversaw operations. Carlson stresses the importance of the board’s role in the process, since nothing could have been done if the directors hadn’t been on board, she says.
Birch Housing then developed its first strategic plan for 2020-2023 that clearly set out the organization’s mission, vision, values and directions for three years. The plan states, among other things, that “change is essential for us to stay well positioned for serving the needs of people in the future of this evolving sector.”
With nearly $48,000 in financial support from the Community Housing Transformation Centre, the organization was then able to commission a study to provide an overview of its housing assets.
“We needed to make some decisions about our portfolio,” says Carlson. “So, the point of the study was to look at all of our buildings and the land that they sit on and try to make a determination about whether or not there were redevelopment opportunities. We needed to understand: is there any reason for us to continue in the current built form that we have?”
Birch Housing wanted to assess its assets through the eyes of an outside observer. “What the grant has enabled us to do is to really obtain a very strong understanding of what the market potential is for our portfolio,” Carlson adds.
Because growth is at the heart of the organization’s current concerns. “One of our overarching issues as a housing provider is long-term sustainability in an environment where there has not been growth in our sector. We need to be sustainable over the next 35, 40, 50 years.”
Indeed, since the 1990s, the federal government has invested little in the creation of social housing, and Ontario followed suit. “I know everybody in every province will tell you that they are being underfunded, but we are really being underfunded in Ontario,” says Carlson.
From yesterday to today
According to Carlson, Inter Faith Homes Corporation (the original name Birch Housing) was created because government funding was available at the time. “That’s how they survived for so many years,” she says. But with that funding source running out, the situation is now very different. The survival of the organization post-government funding was critical.
“We entered into [the original] agreement with the government so that we would keep low rents for a period of time, so we could house low-income people. And at the time the government said, we’ll give you capital dollars to deal with it. The problem is [that] government changes and then the people there 30 years later don’t care and they’re not going to give us the money that the original government committed to.”
The lack of adequate financial support for operations and maintenance of aging buildings has forced them to find other ways of doing things and other sources of funding. “I think a lot of non-profits, especially in Ontario, we’re going to be faced with this. You’re either going to continue with this subsidy-reduction model. Or you’re going to be amalgamating with another housing provider.”
Merger, for example, was the path chosen by two major supportive housing providers in Toronto, Houselink Community Homes and Mainstay Housing, which became officially Houselink & Mainstay Inc. in April. But Carlson says the Birch Housing board did not want to go that route.
“We’re not huge, but we need to be three times our size in our current environment, we need to be around 2,000 units to survive in the future,” says the executive director.
To date, four of Birch Housing’s nine properties have been identified as having strategic potential in the housing portfolio study. What form will the change take? It is still too early to tell. Change is a long process. As the organization states in its strategic plan, “The key to our success is to act slowly but surely.”