Developing Community Owned Housing in Small and Rural Communities

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Research Findings of the Small Communities Initiative

A shortage of affordable and appropriate housing is a common issue in communities across Canada. As government initiatives usher in a new era of investment in the supply of such housing, it has become increasingly apparent that small and rural communities face a unique set of challenges that hinder their readiness to participate in such investment programs and, therefore, develop new community housing.

Launched in 2019, the Small Communities Initiative (SCI) at New Commons Development focuses on building and preserving affordable housing and other assets in small and rural communities by partnering with co-operatives, non-profits, and public sector partners situated exclusively outside of major urban centres. This is done by harnessing development expertise, capital, and aligned interest in order to build the capacity of the community housing sector in small and rural communities.

In 2020, SCI undertook research to develop a strategy for maximizing the impact of its work and to serve as a resource for other actors in the sector working to attract the financing and investment required to develop new housing in their communities.  Two new resources were made available to the sector as a result of this research:

  1. A resource guide highlighting existing tools, resources and supports for community housing organizations working to attract the necessary financing and investment to realize their projects; and
  2. A research brief entitled “Developing Community Owned Housing in Small and Rural Communities” that identifies challenges experienced in developing community housing in small and rural Canadian communities, existing gaps in available resources and supports, and opportunities to create new tools and resources needed to mobilize the community housing sector in small and rural communities.

The resource guide and research brief were developed in consultation with a multi-stakeholder group of expert advisors including the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, and with local and regional actors in the community housing space from across Canada.

A number of challenges, resource gaps and opportunities to further support the community housing sector in small and rural Canadian communities were identified and are summarized below alongside two emergent cross-cutting themes.

Cross Cutting Themes Impacting the Success of Small and Rural Community Housing Providers:

  1. The Importance of Knowledge: including access to specialized knowledge regarding financing, development and operations, mechanisms for knowledge transfer within and between local housing groups, and effective knowledge of available resources and supports.
  2. Scale as a Barrier: including potential for housing providers in small communities to have a smaller “pool” of available expertise, more limited staffing and financial resources, and challenging economics for smaller scale projects.

Challenges facing community housing providers in small and rural communities were found to include the lack of in-house expertise to guide development and operations, difficulties attracting and paying for external expertise, the capacity of volunteer-run non-profits to to sustain a development effort that can take several years or more to realize, hindrances resulting from onerous and ever-changing processes required by lenders and funding agencies, and a lack of available funding relative to the observed need.

Suggested tools, resources and supports that could be developed to further support the development of community housing in small and rural communities included providing greater lending support for affordable housing development projects outside of government programs, improving relevance and accessibility of government funding programs, building knowledge resources in the sector, facilitate a platform for easy information access and project tracking, enable regional partnerships and amalgamations of capacity through funding and professional support, and strengthening the network of professional experts with targeted growth and tailored services.

Having analyzed the research findings and gaps identified, where will the SCI go from here?  In addition to continuing to provide non-profit real estate development services through New Commons Development in partnership with community housing providers, the Small Communities Initiative has identified the following priorities:

  1. In an effort to build knowledge resources in the sector: We are working alongside the Rural Development Network to update, activate, and circulate their Step-by-Step Guide to Developing Affordable Housing, as it may serve as a valuable resource for building community-level knowledge capacity and access to a standardized toolset to support development efforts.
  2. In an effort to enable regional partnerships: We are working with BC Non Profit Housing Association to explore the creation of a network of small and rural community housing providers as a platform for knowledge and information sharing and to enable efficiencies in the development and operation of new housing. An interactive session with New Commons Development is planned for September 2021.  Stay tuned for further information from BCNPHA on this important event.
  3. In an effort to support lending for affordable housing outside of government programs: We are in the business planning stage for the development of a housing trust that can enhance leveragability of community housing assets and “step in” to development where opportunities exist and local actors either lack capacity or do not exist.
  4. In an effort to provide accessible information: We have developed a Resource Guide with informational resources and sector supports that we hope will help organizations get started and get connected to others in the community housing network.

The SCI Research Brief and Resource Guide can be accessed here. For more information on the Small Communities Initiative please visit https://newcommons.ca/small-communities/ or contact Dion Whyte at New Commons Development (dwhyte@newcommons.ca).

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