Pathway 9 in Profile: Accessible Housing for All

By Jessica Dix

There are many factors that come into play to make a community truly sustainable.  Issues like economic well-being, social supports, health and conservation are all important considerations.  Having safe, affordable housing is a key factor in being sustainable – and one Cochrane residents are committed to achieving.

Pathway 9:  Everyone has a roof over their head.

Target: By 2029, there is a variety of tenure and housing types on the market (rental, own, rent-to-own, attainable housing).

When it comes to matters of community, sustainability and housing people, the Cochrane Society for Housing Options (CSHO) is the leader of the pack. This organization takes sustainability to heart and uses a model with economic, social and environmental concerns at the forefront of decision-making.

The CSHO was officially registered as a non-profit agency on June 3, 2003. The agency’s growth began much earlier in 2000, as the Affordable Homes Task Force. The task force was set up by Family and Community Support Services (FCSS), as they saw a need for this type of agency in the community. A housing needs assessment strategy was completed in 2002 and revealed that Cochrane was in need of an organization to assist in the creation of diverse housing options in Cochrane.

Today, the CSHO operates with the following Mission Statement as their guide: The CSHO promotes access to safe, suitable and diverse housing appropriate to the incomes of Cochrane citizens. They achieve this through research, education, and by facilitating the development and management of a continuum of housing options. As an organization the CSHO believes that access to safe, affordable and suitable housing is a basic human right and that no individual can be successful without appropriate shelter. Corinne Burns, the Housing Coordinator for the CSHO, says she “works based on a people, planet, and then profit model” that allows her to prioritize the projects taken on by the agency.

The CSHO has several projects underway, but the most well known of these is the HomeStead. HomeStead is a 21-unit rental apartment building in downtown Cochrane. Rental rates are set at 10 per cent below market rates to ensure affordability. Potential tenants must complete a waitlist form that includes a detailed profile of the person. Suitable tenants must meet several qualifications such as income level, quality references, and a detailed plan for their immediate future.

“The tenants of HomeStead are just like you and I; they are family, friends, neighbors, they are anyone and everyone,” Corinne says.  The tenants of HomeStead have a variety of backgrounds that have brought them to the building, having experienced issues like sickness, divorce, injury, domestic violence, unexpected pregnancies and many other challenges.

The building typically experiences a moderate turnover rate.  Some tenants will stay as little as three months, while others will stay as long as needed, which could be years. The HomeStead plays a big part in the CSHO’s efforts to ensure everyone in Cochrane has a roof over their head.

In addition to providing affordable housing options in Cochrane, the CSHO is a supporter of partnerships. The CSHO is invested in three projects, all facilitating a diverse range of home ownership options in Cochrane:

1.  The CSHO has partnered with Calgary Habitat for Humanity to provide affordable housing for families through the Pope Avenue Project.  You can go to www.habitatcalgary.ca for more information.

2.  The CSHO has also partnered with Trico Homes and Habitat for Humanity to offer the PEAK Home Ownership Program, to offer down payment assistance.  This project will help make home ownership more attainable for a broader range of people.  You can go to www.peakcalgary.ca for more information.

3.  The CSHO is also working to develop a second mortgage assistance program. This project will contribute to the issue of housing over the long term, and will hopefully provide a greater diversity of ownership options in Cochrane as well as strengthening the economic feasibility.

The CSHO also works closely with the planning department in Cochrane to ensure that all new residential developments include some affordable housing.

When asked about the success of the organization, Corinne stresses the continued need for an organization such as the CSHO in Cochrane because of the unstable nature of the housing market. She also notes that due to the recent economic slowdown, the housing market has become more diverse in terms of affordability – and that is good for Cochrane residents because it has made housing more accessible.

The most significant accomplishment Corinne notes for the CSHO is “the shift in attitude the organization has made possible in the community.” As little as 10 years ago, affordable housing was an issue no one wanted to discuss, much less tackle, due in large part to the negative view of the issue. Today, the CSHO works closely with both the Town and the development community.

Affordable housing is no longer a “taboo” issue, but is now understood by many residents to be the responsibility of the community. The lesson here is that while the projects taken on by the organization will have varying levels of success on paper, the most important successes are those that bring the community together as a sustainably minded group of individuals who wish to make their community a better place to live.

The CSHO is taking action in Cochrane to contribute to the Pathways in the Cochrane Sustainability Plan (CSP) — their agency’s mandate makes their work a keystone of success for other groups.  Earlier this year, they received funding from Sustainability Partners Uniting Resources (SPUR) to help start up Home Reno Heaven, a fundraising business that sells gently used home renovation materials, appliances and exercise equipment.  Profits will be use for housing related programs and services.

“The CSHO is grateful for the support it has received from its funders, community organizations, businesses and the residents of Cochrane,” Corinne says, noting they have made the group’s work possible.

As a member of the CSHO and a long-time sustainability enthusiast, Corinne has some words of wisdom for those individuals, businesses and organizations that wish to take action in their community.

First, she says, “be prepared for frustrating challenges as they will definitely surface, but they are rarely something that cannot be overcome with determination.”

Secondly, Corinne suggests that “whatever the project, the mindset must be that failure is not an option so keep going no matter what.”  To problem solve, if one way doesn’t work, try something else.

Thirdly, Corinne notes, “it is important that every project should be able to pay its own way.” This means that the project should be developed in such a way that it generates enough revenue to meet operating costs. Corinne speaks from experience when she says, “grant money and charitable donations are ‘gravy’ in the sense that they are unreliable as funding priorities change.  Never let the success of your project hinge on outside income.”  Grant dollars should be used to enhance existing programs or for the start-up costs of new ones.

Instead, she suggests creating a project that can be self-sustaining economically.

Perhaps the most important thing that can be learned from the story of the CSHO is that nothing is unchanging.  Each individual, business and organization must be open to new ideas and willing to change as the needs of the community change.  The CSHO will continue to tackle the issue of accessible housing as long as the issue exists.

Jessica Dix is a student with The University of Calgary and a volunteer for SPUR.