How this underused housing model could help solve the affordability crisis

In Chatham-Kent, a new community trust is aiming to buy land, build homes, and alleviate the region’s housing woes
By Mary Baxter - Published on Jan 23, 2020
The Opportunity Villages Community Land Trust plans to build at least 30 modestly sized, affordable homes on nearly a hectare of brownfield in Chatham’s east end. (Courtesy of the Opportunity Villages Community Land Trust)

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After having owned a fixer-upper in Bothwell, a tiny community in east Chatham-Kent, for five years, Rose Linseman wanted to sell. A move to nearby Chatham (also part of Chatham-Kent) would bring her and her daughter closer to Linseman’s architecture business — but, during her time in Bothwell, the average home price had more than doubled. Linseman, 36, couldn’t afford the move, and she knew that others were facing similar challenges. “It’s very difficult for other people, too,” she says.

So she decided to take matters into her own hands. Last April, she approached Chatham-Kent’s mayor to pitch an affordable tiny-home community. She was then put in touch with Karen Kirkwood-Whyte, a councillor and a former executive director of United Way of Chatham-Kent: together, they formed a working group to fine-tune a proposal that ultimately became the Opportunity Villages Community Land Trust.

Community land trusts are non-profits that aim to acquire and maintain land for specific uses, such as affordable housing or urban farming. “It really is about making something that’s going to be sustainable for the very long term and can scale up,” says Terry Johnson, a member of the trust’s volunteer board.

For its first project, Opportunity Villages plans to build at least 30 modestly sized, affordable homes on nearly a hectare of brownfield in Chatham’s east end. The group has obtained a low-interest loan, and the seller is offering “a good price,” says Johnson, who declined to disclose financial details. The deal is expected to close in March, and ground-breaking is slated for spring. 

The trust plans to sell the homes, which Linesman helped design, for 25 per cent below market rate (or, $130,000 to $180,000), says Johnson, a savings made possible by the fact that the trust will retain ownership of the land. It’s not yet clear how building ownership will work: it could involve a leasehold or life-lease property, a share in a co-operative, or a condominium. “We’re finessing the details to find out which is the best way to do this,” says Johnson. Whatever the model, residents will be required to live in their homes; if they later sell, they may need to share equity with the trust.

This past December, municipal council agreed to contribute $200,000 toward construction costs and $180,000 in in-kind incentives — such as waiving planning-application fees, building-permit fees, and development charges. The development will require only a minor zoning variance. “We’re very excited by the support we’re getting from the municipality,” says Kirkwood-Whyte.

While there are only a handful of such arrangements across the country, Susannah Bunce, an associate professor of human geography at the University of Toronto Scarborough, notes that community land trusts aren’t new. “It started in the 1960s, in the United States, as a way for African-American tenant farmers to gain access to land,” she says. Since then, they have become a tool to address housing-affordability issues, largely in the United Kingdom and the United States. There are 14 in Canada, most of them in large cities. Including the forthcoming Chatham-Kent project, Ontario has six — one in Hamilton, one in Ottawa, and three in Toronto, she says.

And more are on the way, says Joshua Barndt, executive director of Toronto’s Parkdale Neighbourhood Community Land Trust. He credits the 2017 National Housing Strategy, which includes low-interest loans and capital-grant funding for the development of affordable housing, for sparking interest in the model. “Low-interest financing can really make a difference,” he says. “It allows you to make housing affordable.” He also notes that, in addition to lower housing costs, land trusts allow for the prioritizing of specific local needs: “Through the community ownership of land, we can put community members in control.”

Kirkwood-Whyte sees another benefit. She expects that, when people move into Opportunity Villages’ first homes, they’ll free up existing rental units for others in need — including, potentially, those who are homeless.

Bunce notes that the model does come with some challenges. “It’s really hard to get land,” she says. Most land trusts rely on public agencies to provide it. “Sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes it’s a little bit more challenging, depending on how supportive municipal government is about that particular land-trust organization,” she says.

Even after a trust is established, there are risks. Bunce says that one community land trust in Winnipeg folded 10 years after its 1996 launch because it had trouble securing the funding needed to renovate and maintain the buildings it was providing to tenants on a rent-to-own basis. The land was subsequently sold, she says.

David Amborski, director of the Centre for Urban Research and Land Development at Ryerson University, says that land trusts in rural communities may have an easier time acquiring land but that they might lack access to partners, such as non-profit housing organizations, that could help with the complicated development process. “It’s almost creating something from scratch,” he says.

Opportunity Villages will work with financial lenders to clear the way for homeowners to access mortgages for the homes. “We’re actually anticipating we’re going to have them sold very quickly,” says Barbara Do Forno, the board’s treasurer. “We’re anticipating we’re going to have a lineup, and we are not going to be able to fit everyone in the first time.”

With that in mind, the Opportunity Villages team already has its sights set on other possible projects, including in Wallaceburg and Wheatley. “We’re being very ambitious,” says Johnson. “We want to get to the point where everybody in Chatham-Kent, or everybody in western Ontario, has a roof over their head.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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