Niche Affordable Housing Models, Collective Resource Sharing…and Bernie Sanders?

Shelby Challis

A report released last month on Canada’s National Housing Strategy details the findings of nearly four months of public consultations with housing experts, stakeholders, and Canadians from across the country. The report identifies priority areas, and highlights ideas on how to redefine solutions to our housing crisis. Some of the priority areas included repairing affordable housing stock, improving the living conditions of vulnerable people and indigenous communities, and re-examining existing laws and policies related to affordable housing.

In response to these consultations, the federal government has committed to releasing their comprehensive National Housing Strategy in 2017. However, while there is consensus on the need for urgent action, this has not been met with similar consensus on what that course of action should look like.

One affordable housing solution that has received little attention throughout these discussions is the community land trust model (CLT). The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) defines CLTs as “locally based, private non-profit organizations that acquire and hold land for the benefit of a community” for the primary purpose of building permanent affordable housing. CLT housing options are more affordable than at-market housing because the CLT arrangement removes the cost of the land from the cost of the housing unit. In addition, CLTs are typically controlled by their own membership, which contains leaseholders and other residents in the community, while a board of directors oversees the activities of the organization.

chtThe Champlain Housing Trust (CHT) in Burlington, Vermont is just one example of a successful CLT. While there are over 250 similar trusts across the United States today, CHT is the first affordable housing trust in the world to receive municipal funding. The trust owes part of its success to the former mayor of Burlington (whose name might sound a little familiar): Bernie Sanders. Bernie provided the community housing trust with the financial and political start-up capital necessary for it to gain stability as a non-profit model.

bernie-sandersAs a result of Bernie’s investment, lower-income residents were able to purchase their homes at a lower cost than what was available on the commercial market. Housing also continued to remain affordable because owners had to agree not to resell the property at market rates, and accept only a limited return on their investment. Thirty years later, the trust has over $290 million in assets, manages a portfolio of 2,800 price-controlled homes, condos, co-ops and rentals, and owns over 120,000 square feet of commercial space and non-profit facilities.

Despite this success, CLTs have not received significant uptake across Canada. One example of a CLT, however, is Toronto’s Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust (PNLT), which was created in 2015 to address growing concerns over the displacement of the community’s most vulnerable residents. While there has historically been a large stock of rooming houses within the area, in recent years that stock has begun to fall into decline. This decline can be attributed to the increasing market pressures associated with urban gentrification. As a result, almost no affordable rental projects have been developed within the Parkdale community for the past fifteen years.

parkdale-community-land-trustThe goal of the PNLT is to lease the land it purchases to non-profit partners so that they can then build additional affordable housing units within the area. The PNLT has joined forces with a community partner, Working for Change, along with a private sector partner, John van Nostrand Development (JVND), in order to develop a neighborhood-based strategy for the retention, renewal, and development of existing and proposed new rooming houses within the Parkdale community.

Montréal’s Communauté Milton Parc (CMP) offers another example of a successful Canadian CLT model. Created in 1987, CMP is the largest co-operative in North America, and emerged through the community action of local residents who opposed a redevelopment project that sought to transform a six-block neighbourhood into a predominantly commercial space. With the help of CMHC funding, this community purchased a number of the buildings and turned them into housing cooperatives and corporations. One of the initiative’s primary objectives was to ensure that the homes would be affordable to low- and moderate-income households in perpetuity. Due to the strong sense of community among this diverse population, this CMP has remained effective in ensuring the perpetual affordability and non-profit status of its housing stock.

The limited number of community land trusts in Canada has resulted in a small network, making it difficult to collaborate and share resources among the existing CLTs.

While CLTs have demonstrated success, there are some common challenges that they continue to face. The first challenge is the lack of broad community understanding of CLTs, which leads to a general lack of support for these initiatives. Second, it has been challenging for CLTs to obtain and maintain the necessary funding required to cover general operating expenses, especially as the cost of housing continues to increase. Lastly, there is a capacity challenge. The limited number of CLTs in Canada has resulted in a small network, making it difficult to collaborate and share resources among the existing CLTs.

While consensus on the necessary action required to address the current affordable housing crisis will be difficult to obtain, there are local actions being taken within communities across the country every day. These actions have, and will continue to have, a lasting impact on the communities that they have been put in place to serve. Community land trusts may not be the silver bullet housing solution, but at least they are pointing us in the right direction.

Shelby Challis is a Policy Analyst with the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. She is an SPPG alumni, having completed her Master of Public Policy in 2016 at the University of Toronto, and holds an Honours BA in Political Science from the University of Toronto.

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