The idea is simple: provide decent, affordable housing by helping people build it themselves.
That idea – formalized in the non-profit organization Habitat for Humanity – has spread from its beginnings in the United States in the 1970s to Canada, where it was launched in 1985 and has since grown to 65 chapters in 10 provinces and two territories, building more than 2,200 homes along the way.
One of those was a Burnaby townhouse, now home for Margaret Van Essen, a single mom of eight children who in 2009 made it through the group's screening process and found herself lifting drywall and cleaning up the job site to put in the 500 hours of "sweat equity" required before she could move in to her home. She also worked at a Lower Mainland ReStore, Habitat-run retail outlets that sell used and donated building supplies.
"Working at the store was great," she recalls. "But working on the job site was pretty hard – I was trying to get it done as quickly as I could, so you're working right through the winter and the cold."
Since then, she has moved in and paid her monthly housing costs knowing that when she was ready, those funds would be available to her to use as a possible down payment on her own home. She is currently looking for a home to buy. For her and her children, all but two of whom are now on their own, Habitat provided stability and a leg up.
Under the program, people can stay in the home indefinitely. If they decide to move, Habitat for Humanity buys back the home and returns the "equity" built up over the years to the partner family.
The system is designed to be "self-sustaining" – Habitat keeps its building costs low through volunteer labour, sponsorships and donations.
And homes, once built, are available to new purchasers when a partner family moves.
In 2015, Habitat plans a Women Build project in Richmond, B.C. Women Build, a Habitat program that focuses on providing both housing and construction experience for women, began in North Carolina in 1991, was launched in Canada in 2001 and has since built more than 90 homes in Canada. Men are not excluded from building blitzes, but the emphasis is on getting women involved. Habitat is currently raising funds for a planned 400-woman, 10-day construction blitz this spring. The project includes six, single-family homes on a 25,000-square-foot lot that Habitat acquired last year.
The homes will include rental suites – a first for Habitat projects in Canada, but deemed necessary in the Lower Mainland's pricey housing market. The strategy will make the homes more affordable for partner families, create affordable rental housing and, it is hoped, provide a platform for more people to become homeowners.
"The [people] that are being selected as renters in the homes – we hope to set them up for success to become partner families," says Tim Clark, chief executive officer for Habitat's Greater Vancouver affiliate.
Partner families who buy the homes must have a minimum household income of between $35,000 and $65,000 and put in 500 hours of volunteer labour before they move in. A buy-back agreement is part of the arrangement. Renters will also be screened – a minimum income threshold has yet to be set – and required to put in 200 hours of sweat equity.
"We're not looking to create transient rental suites – we're looking for that long-term sense of community that the 12 homes will bring in that area," Ms. Clark says.
A 2012 Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp. study of Habitat housing in Canada found home buyers reported financial benefits – 58 per cent said they were better-off financially since moving into their Habitat home – along with other positive impacts, including "across-the-board" improvements in children's well-being and school performance.
Those results jell with Ms. Van Essen's experience.
"It made a big difference to the kids – coming to a better neighbourhood," she says. "And not renting, mostly. When you're renting, and you have kids, trying to find a place that is decent enough and big enough – it's quite difficult. And the rents are quite high – and you're getting nowhere, you're just paying a landlord."
As its next step in the Lower Mainland, Habitat is looking for a site that could accommodate a multi-unit dwelling, which was not allowed under zoning for the Richmond site. With the federal government out of the non-profit housing sector, Habitat is trying to fill a yawning gap between social and market housing.
"It's taking the working poor," Ms. Clark says, "and giving them a long-term, sustainable solution to that perpetual cycle of poverty."