CBRM Council: Rapid Housing

Alyce MacLean, project manager for housing development with New Dawn Enterprises, appeared before CBRM council on January 31 to ask the municipality to transfer surplus municipal property to her organization for the construction of supportive housing for people struggling with mental health and addictions issues. (If you are wondering why it has taken me this long to report on the January 31 council meeting, see my library story in which I make a full confession.)

Photo of Alyce MacLean

Alyce MacLean

MacLean told council the project, which would see 40 units of supportive housing constructed in North Sydney, Sydney Mines, Glace Bay and New Waterford—areas of the CBRM she says are in “dire need” of such facilities—has been in the works for “the better part of 10 months.”

It started, she said, in October 2022 when the federal government launched its Rapid Housing Initiative (RHI), offering funding for “deeply affordable” housing—that is, housing that costs less than 30% of a household’s before-tax income—targeting vulnerable populations including those dealing with mental health and addictions issues.

New Dawn was prepared to apply but was advised by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CHMC), which oversees the program, that it would be unlikely any of the $1.5 billion up for grabs in the first round of funding would go to Nova Scotia and if it did, it would go to Halifax. And indeed, Halifax received funding in both Round 1 and Round 2, which, MacLean explained, was open only to projects that had been turned down for first-round funding.

Vulnerable populations targeted by the Canadian government's Rapid Housing Initiative.

Source: Rapid Housing Initiative

New Dawn is now preparing to apply for the third round of RHI funding, which opened in November 2022 and closes on March 15.

I want to say something more about supportive housing, but I’m going to begin with the details of New Dawn’s project and its request to council which, not to keep you in suspense, was approved unanimously. (Two councilors were not in attendance, District 7 Councilor Steve Parsons, who sent his regrets, and District 10 Darren Bruckschweiger whose extended leave for medical reasons council approved during the same January 31 meeting.)

Vote on sale of properties to New Dawn at 31 January 2023 meeting of CBRM council


The Project

New Dawn, as noted, wants to build 40 units of supportive housing in areas of the CBRM outside of Sydney, where the organization already operates 28 such units under its Supported Housing for Individuals with Mental Illness or SHIMI program.

MacLean defined supportive housing as:

Deeply affordable housing that is secure, safe, permanent and that also is coupled with support services for tenants.

Those services run the gamut from “a social worker who comes in once a week” to “daily interventions for help with daily living,” depending on the needs of the tenants.

The units will be 1-, 2-, 3- and 4-bedroom to accommodate both individuals and families. The units will be scattered around the municipality because, as MacLean explained, “best practices” for supportive housing say such units should be integrated into communities rather than concentrated in large developments that can become stigmatized. The units will also be located near important amenities like bus stops, grocery stores and pharmacies

New Dawn’s co-sponsor is Pathways to Employment and its contractor is DORA Construction which will supply “panelized” or “modular” units that can be constructed rapidly, as per the housing initiative criteria. (Funding recipients must complete their projects within 18 months of approval. DORA built Sunflower Court, the RHI project sponsored by Adsum  for Women and Children, in Lakeside, NS.)

Sunflower Court

Sunflower Court, Lakeside, NS. (Source: DORA Construction)

MacLean said New Dawn is in talks with the Department of Community Services over operating funding for the units and is in the process of establishing a more formal service support network for tenants involving five local organizations.

New Dawn has received $250,000 towards the project from the federal government’s Reaching Home program.

MacLean said New Dawn’s application is “a bit of a long shot,” as it will be competing against projects from across the country, but added that it really can’t be overstated “how rare it is to see a government funding program as generous as RHI.” The ability to secure most, if not all, of the capital for a project ensures low operational costs for “a very long time,” she said, because there will be no mortgage to finance.


The Ask

MacLean said RHI applications are weighted according to a number of criteria, including the percentage of the project that will be cost-shared.

Photo of Sheila Kolanko, CBRM property manager, from LinkedIn

(Source: LinkedIn)

New Dawn, she said, recognized that the CBRM does not have capital to invest in the project, but as cost-sharing includes in-kind contributions, the organization asked the municipality to sell it 11 properties already declared surplus for the sum of $1.

Property Manager Sheila Kolanko explained to councilors that if the properties in question were being sold at market value, the matter would not have come to council, but because New Dawn wants to take ownership for $1, council approval was necessary.

MacLean provided a list of Property Identification Numbers (PIDs) for the lots in question and I looked them up on the CBRM’s surplus property map to see their assessed value and as you can see, 10 were assessed at a total value of just $127,700 (one property didn’t list an assessed value). I can’t speak to the market value, but I can say, because Kolenko said it during the meeting, that they’d had “a couple of requests” relating to some of the properties in the past two years, but the would-be buyers had lost interest.

PIDCommunityAssessed Value
15176415Sydney Mines$12,000
15696685Sydney Mines$12,000
15032469North Sydney$6,500
15000284North Sydney$23,000
15564818North SydneyN/A
15399223Glace Bay$13,000
15416340Glace Bay$16,000
15399116Glace Bay$13,000
15398613Glace Bay$15,000
15487309New Waterford$8,700
15273543New Waterford$8,500

Kolanko said New Dawn is “first in line” for these properties, although she also noted that these sales were not just a question of “first dibs,” that the municipality had the right to consider what would bring the most “social and economic benefit” to the community.

CBRM Planning Director Michael Ruus said the planning department is following the policy it always follows when dealing with surplus property. Kolanka said after receiving New Dawn’s letter of interest she had sent it to various municipal departments for review (90% of reviewers have already responded) and she will also be having discussions with staff regarding any municipal infrastructure located on the properties.

As New Dawn wants to buy the properties for $1, she said she would have to look at their assessed values to see if a public hearing is necessary (she said she thought it would be).

Ruus and Kolanko both said the department would work to expedite proceedings to meet New Dawn’s March 15 deadline.


Two Streams

MacLean explained off the top that there are two streams of RHI funding, Cities and Projects, and New Dawn has applied for both.

In addition to the project we’ve been discussing, the organization has applied to the CBRM, which is one of 41 Canadian municipalities guaranteed funding under the Cities stream, for a second project, to be undertaken in partnership with the Ally Centre of Cape Breton.

Canada's Rapid Housing Strategy logo and photo of houses under construction.

This project would involve the construction of  20, 1-bedroom, 500-square-foot units. MacLean said they are currently in talks with the province about operating funding for this development, too.

The CBRM’s call for proposals closed on January 26 but council has yet to select the organization(s) it will work with on its own RHI project. (CAO Marie Walsh said during an earlier council meeting that a project should be chosen by mid-March.)


Supported Housing

MacLean directed anyone interested in New Dawn’s 20-year history of providing supportive housing to a case study by affordable housing expert (and CBU prof) Catherine Leviten-Reid, Pamela Johnson and Mike Miller called, “Supported Housing in a Small Community: Effects on Consumers, Suggestions for Change.”

It’s a small study, as the authors acknowledge, involving interviews with 14 existing and two former SHIMI tenants, but it brings the difficulties faced by many in our community into very sharp (not to say uncomfortable) focus.

Photo of a sunny room with two windows.

Sunny room. (Photo by epSos.de, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The case study was published in 2014, well before this most recent housing crisis, but it shows the private market was already a nightmare for people with few means and mental health and addictions issues even then. Some of this was expressed through interviewees’ dislike for landlords:

Participants…who obtained housing in the private rental market also spoke consistently and negatively about their landlords, whom they described as uncaring. For participants, this uncaringness was reflected in the physical state of the housing provided, as well as in the willingness of landlords to rent to anyone, regardless of their respect for the apartment or other tenants. One individual noted that “landlords in [name of town] don’t care. They won’t fix their apartments up and when a place is cold they will not try to fix it up.”

But you can also get a sense of the state of the premises some local landlords are renting out by reading the incredibly modest list of amenities that make life better for the tenants in their SHIMI homes:

Participants expressed appreciation for their new living environments and conveyed that it was ordinary occurrences of everyday life in these neighbourhoods that represented integration to them: hearing children play, watching churchgoers, and chatting with nearby neighbours about pets. This integration was facilitated both through the location of the housing, and through housing features, such as windows and porches. In the same vein, physical features such as washers, dryers, and natural light were strongly emphasized by consumers as ones that contributed to a sense of normalcy, underscoring that what might appear to be smaller details in a supported housing initiative may have particular salience for tenants.

I really recommend the paper, it’s just 13 pages long and while it is not entirely uncritical—it notes some aspects of the system in need of improvement—it makes clear why building more supportive housing should be a priority for the CBRM.