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Author: Jeff Neven, Indwell    Original Post Date: October 4, 2019

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.

This post was written ahead of the Hamilton Café Pracadémique on Community Housing Sustainability in the context of business transformation and workforce development (originally posted October 4, 2019).