Creative co-op approach shows that new units might be hiding in plain sight

Solving the province’s affordable housing crisis re- quires a focus on mission rather than money, says the head of the Nova Scotia Co-operative Council.

“Too often, the discussions about housing solutions focus on profitability required by the developer rather than the needs of the people requiring housing,” says Dianne Kelderman. “Of course, any initiative has to make fiscal sense, but they don’t all have to deliver blue chip returns.”

She points to two recent projects in Central Nova Scotia spearheaded by the Council as mission-driven examples that can be replicated in communities across the province.

In New Glasgow, following consultations with residents in need — and interested community stakeholders — the Council bought the former Tara Motel and converted it into Coady’s Place, a 36-unit co-op housing site where people’s rent is based on 30 per cent of their annual income.

“It’s a cooperative owned and managed by the Nova Scotia Co-operative Council,” said Kelderman. “I’m not suggesting it doesn’t take a lot of work to get a project like this rolling, but when people can take control of their own housing destiny, you are well on the way to building a sustainable community.”

The project is similar in nature to the recent Afford- able Housing Association of Nova Scotia’s conversion of the Travelodge Suites in Dartmouth to create 65 units; every room at Coady Place was renovated to add a kitchen.

The facility is named after Father Moses Coady, a priest credited as the founder of Nova Scotia’s co-operative sec- tor and the Antigonish Movement. He committed his whole life to helping move people out of poverty.

With governments acutely aware of the affordability crisis following the COVID-fueled spike in housing prices, finding the money has not proven to be the big challenge. The federal and provincial governments are pouring mil- lions into programs. Coady Place, for instance, received support from all three levels of government and has se- cured financing for the construction of an additional 20 townhouse-style units on the property for families.

And in the spring, the Council will begin work on the conversion of a former municipal building in Pictou — once the local jail — into 15 more units. The 132-year- old three-storey building is located in the downtown area, within walking distance of amenities.

Renovations will cost $1.5 million and Kelderman says it’s a special bonus that the project can repurpose an existing historical building rather than start fresh and send rubble to a landfill somewhere.
Figures held by the Nova Scotia Department of Housing indicated there are 6,569 households waiting for housing, with the average wait time for a placement sit- ting at around two years.

Catherine Leviten-Reid, an associate professor of community economic development at Cape Breton University, estimates the province requires about 33,000 more deeply affordable public and non-profit and cooperative rentals.

As of December 2022, there were 11,202 public housing units in the province and more than 1,700 households in co-op housing.

The Digby and Area Housing Coalition has its own affordable housing conversion project. This past summer, it purchased the 15-unit Siesta Motel in downtown Digby, with the goal of converting it into affordable housing units in the fall.

Community engagement coordinator Michelle Levings says purchasing the property took considerable planning, dedication and financing to secure the deal.

The Siesta Motel was built in 1954. Initially, it was just two or three cabins, but it expanded over the years and had been well-maintained. In addition to providing housing, the property will become the hub for community outreach initiatives like tenancy advocacy programs and workshops for anything from healthy eating to navigating the tenancy market.

The Digby and Area Housing Coalition was started in July 2021 due to the “desperate” need for housing in the Digby area. The non-profit organization was able to access money for a down payment on the property through the Society of Our Lady Saint Mary, as well as financial sup- port through the Digby CBDC. Nova Scotia Housing also helped with the purchase by paying for the appraisal, inspection and legal fees. They are now working with a consultant to push into the renovation phase.

Securing grants to finance the required upgrades is challenging, says Levings, at least in part because homeless- ness is “invisible” in rural areas.

Digby Mayor Ben Cleveland says the town is supportive of the effort but believes there has to be a closer look at the root of the problem.

“We can build affordable housing, but why are those people at that stage in their lives? What can we do to help them? It’s a multi-layer issue.”

The foundations required for developing a community-based affordable housing initiative

Prove The Need: You can’t depend on perceptions or anecdotal evidence. You need the facts

Get Access To Land Or A Building: It’s often faster, easier and cheaper to convert an existing structure, but circumstances vary from project to project

Include Experts: Always seek advice. Your group needs to feature an expert in something, whether it’s finance, construction, housing or social services. No one is going to give to a project that doesn’t have the right people.

Engage Community Partners Early: Not everyone wants affordable housing in their neighbourhood. You want to work with the community, not fight it. If you develop champions early, they’ll fight for you when challenges arise.

Commit To No Surprises: Communicate early and often to the community and the local politicians. No mayor or MLA likes to be sideswiped by an issue in public.

Develop A Viable Plan: What’s the initiative going to cost? Where is the money going to come from? Does the end meet the initial goals? If it’s not viable, is there another model that can be investigated?

Create A Governance Structure: Who is responsible when a sewer backs up, there’s a problem with a tenant or there’s a security issue?

For more information
Contact Nova Scotia Co-operative Council
Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia
Digby and Area Housing Coalition DigbyAreaHousingCoalition
Nova Scotia Housing Programs

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