The challenges of creating affordable housing often appear to be huge in large urban centres, but they also affect smaller communities across the country. To meet the needs of those districts, the non-profit New Commons Development, which is dedicated to housing development for non-profit, co-operative or public-sector organizations, has created the Small Communities Initiative.
There is no doubt that the housing market in large cities is very different from small community markets. That does not mean that it is easier or more affordable to live outside major urban centres, however. We have to look at the big picture.
“We’re not seeing rents in the district of Sparwood (B.C., pop. 4,200) that are looking like Vancouver rents at $2,500 a month for a two-bedroom apartment,” says Dion Whyte, director of the Small Communities Initiative. “But that doesn’t mean that for somebody living in the district, a two-bedroom apartment at $1,600 a month is affordable. The gap between income and cost of living is still just as significant in some of these communities as it is in larger urban centres.”
That’s why the SCI has a mandate to build housing that will be forever affordable in small or rural communities, in partnership with local organizations that will own and administer it.
Statistics Canada defines a “small population centre” as a community of 1,000 to 29,999 people. Rural areas include fewer than 1,000 people and a population density of less than 400 per square kilometre.
“Our proposals just look very different from what other development consultants would look like. We won’t charge you anything to look at the opportunity and work up a basic strategy,” Whyte explains. “If we work [on a project], our pay comes later.”
The Initiative is currently working on a dozen projects in British Columbia and Nova Scotia. These include the Elk Valley Family Society project, with 30 homes in Sparwood, and the Kaslo Housing Society project, with 10 homes in Kaslo (B.C., pop. 968).
Whyte adds that other projects are being prepared or in the consultation phase in Ontario, the Yukon and New Brunswick.
In addition to development work with small communities — and working on its own growth — ICS is currently updating the Step-by-Step Guide to Developing Affordable Housing for the Rural Development Network in Alberta. They are also building a network of developers and organizations from rural areas that are looking to advance housing projects in their communities.
The SCI received a grant of $150,000 from the Community Housing Transformation Centre to fund its creation. The SCI business plan forecasts that revenue from its construction projects will allow it to be self-financing by 2024.
Tools for a particular reality
The reality of small and rural communities is paradoxically determined by both decline and growth.
According to Whyte, “We see more people [… and] more business moving into larger urban centres. We see a bit of a decline in the resource-based economy in some of these smaller communities. [But more recently,] we’re seeing almost a migration back to small communities because of the markets in some larger urban centres. And we also see that small communities are still so fundamentally important to provincial economies, to local economies.”
This renewed interest is putting pressure on small communities, many of which lack adequate infrastructure or the capacity to adjust to population growth.
The Resource Guide lists existing materials developed by different organizations that can be useful to those developing affordable housing projects in small communities. It also lists major Canadian resource and support organizations, such as the Centre and provincial housing groups.
The research brief examines the challenges and resource gaps that these communities face in creating housing. It consulted 35 people from across the community-housing sector, who were collectively involved in more than 200 projects across Canada.
“Some of the overarching themes or emerging findings [are] around the lack of opportunity with knowledge-sharing for these groups,” says Whyte. The study also reveals “a general lack of operating experience and capacity to demonstrate strength as an organization when they’re trying to secure funding and approach funders. And just a lack of expertise around the development work itself that often sees them stuck and unable to get projects moving forward.”
Study participants expressed the need for more players such as New Commons Development and the SCI in the sector landscape to help them overcome their challenges, Whyte notes.
“What is needed is a partner—not just a consultant—who is willing to participate, who shares risk with the local partner, and who has the expertise in the development process to guide and do it with them. It makes them learn through the process.”
By working together in this way, local groups can become stronger, and better positioned when other projects arise.