President & CEO, Habitat for Humanity Canada
October 16, 2020
(Based on presentation to UN Habitat in Towns: Collingwood World Summit,
September 1, 2020)
In late February this year, just as COVID-19 began creeping into our lives, I joined Habitat for Humanity Canada. I was excited to become part of an organization working in 70 countries to help low-income families build strength, stability and self-reliance. Like my colleagues, I know that homes help build strong and stable families and communities, and I want to help build a world in which everyone has a decent and affordable place to call home.
When it comes to community building, this is an exciting time for towns. Even pre-COVID, the growing unaffordability and congestion of larger urban centres had made towns an attractive option for retirees. This pandemic has now made towns an even more attractive option, and one that is more viable for working people no longer tied to city workplaces. Things like water, natural beauty and cultural activities will be important attractors, but there is one thing that will make towns successful and that is people. People create ideas, people create jobs and people create communities. But they cannot do those things if they don’t have a safe and affordable place to live.
At Habitat for Humanity, we see firsthand what a huge difference it makes for a family to have a place they can call home. Looking at the experience of Habitat families, we see that having safe and affordable housing allows them to flourish and fully contribute to their communities. In addition to improving their housing, these families secure better and more stable jobs, more education and are more self-reliant. Not surprisingly, having a safe and affordable home dramatically improves a family’s overall wellbeing. A study of Habitat families conducted by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) in 2013 found big increases in the families’ happiness (86%), family life (89%), health (70%), and the confidence and extracurricular participation of their children (65%). Cleary these are the people we all want in our towns – people who are achieving their potential and able to build the social and economic success of our communities. The contributions they will make in our towns will pay off for generations, but we must pave the way for them to make those investments, and that includes housing. By investing in housing, we are investing in bricks and mortar but also in the families and communities we need.
All orders of government must invest in housing, and collaborate in doing so, but there are four tools that towns in particular can use to boost their people resources through housing:
1. Create an affordable housing strategy that reflects the needs of your town, even if your region has a strategy.
2. Create access to land that is affordable. This may include differentiating property taxes and development fees to allow homes to stay affordable in perpetuity. It could also include freeing up surplus government lands for affordable housing, perhaps including buildings vacated by retail or rarely used parking lots.
3. Look at revising building and zoning regulations to encourage and accelerate affordable housing. This could include providing incentives for the developers and the construction industry to innovate to meet community needs like sustainable building techniques including modular housing, meeting the growing need for homes where seniors can age in place, and building homes that have safe and easy access to food, jobs, transportation, education and services.
4. Leverage community agencies and volunteers. Community organizations like Habitat for Humanity make ideal partners, allowing municipalities to harness incredible volunteer skills, time, money and knowledge. Many towns also rely on retirees and other volunteers to run big events and to help determine community responses to issues like COVID-19. Engaging these resources bolsters municipal resources and can help meet other goals, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals, supporting mental health, and advancing the recommendations of Ontario’s Age Friendly Studies.
Many things are uncertain right now, but one thing that is crystal clear is that more people than ever are looking at building their families’ futures in towns rather than cities. Municipal governments intending to capitalize on this interest will want to consider the housing implications for newcomers and current residents alike, to make sure that it provides a boost to all.