A non-profit group in St. Albert has secured a $120,000 grant from Service Canada's Reaching Home program to turn bungalows into new units of affordable housing.
The St. Albert Housing Society is dedicated to expanding the capacity of affordable housing options in St. Albert by owning properties rented below market rates, while providing additional rental supplements for those who can't afford it.
The society has a goal of increasing the number of units it owns from 27 to 55 in four years, and this pilot project is one step in the right direction, said Cheryl Dumont, board chair. The plan? Turn a bungalow into two units of affordable housing.
"We are very thrilled that we got this grant," Dumont said. "That will help us with the down payment and the renovation costs to create this first project of ours. It's quite exciting."
The society is currently narrowing down locations for their first project with plans to open the doors by June 30 this year, she said.
Housing is affordable when it costs 30 per cent or less of a person's annual income, according to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). For example, if you're paid $42,000 a year, an affordable rate would be $1,050 per month. However, anyone earning less than $30,000 a year would have trouble finding affordable housing in St. Albert.
"There are some individuals that couldn't pay market rent – the $1,400, $1,600 for a two- or three-bedroom apartment, but they're able to afford a one-bedroom at $985," said Dumont, who rents out a unit in her own house at this rate.
The grant will help bring the society's business plan to life during a time when the society is seeing a greater need for affordable housing. Vacancy rates for the 27 units the society owns at Big Lake Pointe is "close to zero all the time," she said.
More people are also reaching out to the society's HOMEConnection program, which provides temporary rent subsidies for those in need to give them time to establish plans and take action to improve their living situation. Ninety-two per cent of the people the society helps through this program are parents with young children. Thirty-two per cent are people moving out of domestic violence situations.
"There's already a great need out there. We know that we need about 4,000 units of affordable housing in St. Albert," Dumont said. "There are people who don't want to buy (a house), there are people that will never be able to afford to buy. And we know we need to take care of everyone."
If the first project is successful, Dumont said the society would explore renovating other locations in the city as a way to expand St. Albert's affordable housing stock.
"Our goal with the pilot is for it to become a project that's affordable and viable to continue on. We could add two or three of these a year to our portfolio, while keeping a larger portion of our revenue for some of the larger projects we're looking at."
Help from the society can make a world of difference. Angela, a mother who is a client with the Housing Society, spoke to the Gazette about her experience leaving domestic abuse. Her name has been changed to protect her safety.
"I know exactly what it feels like when you have been relying on someone your whole life and all of a sudden you're on your own," she said.
Angela said her husband was in control of all the family finances, so when she left with her children, she had to start over with nothing. She could only find apartments that were priced at $1,300 to $1,400 a month in St. Albert, and in-person viewings during COVID-19 weren't possible.
She said she was worried a virtual showing would tip off her ex-husband that she was looking for a new place to live.
"It's very, very hard. A rough journey for sure," she said. "Even a basement suite was almost $1,000."
She was working with a parent coach at the St. Albert Family Resource Centre when she was connected with the Housing Society for help. The society gave her a $300 rental subsidy so she wouldn't have to choose between affording rent or making her car payments. If she hadn't gotten that referral, she wouldn't have known where to turn, she said.
She said she encourages others who may be in an unsafe situation to have the courage to say they need help, and to take care of themselves.
"It took a lot of bravery to confess that I'm in a position that I need help, but help is out there. It's okay, because nothing lasts forever. One day, I will be back on my feet and I will be able to be on the other side where I can help other people," she said. "I really encourage people to ask for help, St. Albert has amazing resources. We just need to be pointed in the right direction."