With a $2,000 down payment, the possibility of home ownership
Calgary housing initiative combines smart architecture with a clever loan program to combat Canada's affordability crisis
Earlier this year, Rae Lemke Sprung and her husband, Craig, got a surprise $2,000 tax rebate and used it to buy a house. You read that right: $2,000 for a house. The Sprungs, both in their late 20s, previously thought about home ownership the way most young urbanites do: as a vague, distant prospect.
"We thought, maybe we'll do that someday, when we grow up," Ms. Lemke Sprung says. At the time, they lived in Calgary's Parkdale neighbourhood, where they rented a basement apartment she describes as "better than what a lot of people get."
Here's what "better" means in a Canadian urban centre: missing doors, windows painted shut, ancient appliances and a master bedroom overlooking an enclosed stairwell. It was hardly an ideal family home and, shortly after filing their tax return, the Sprungs learned they were expecting.
That July, they moved into their own three-storey townhouse in Bowness, a once-independent municipality that has since been swallowed by the ever-growing city. Many of their neighbours also got their houses with $2,000 down payments – a stunning achievement in Calgary, where the average home costs nearly $500,000. Their community, called Arrive at Bowness, is a kind of living laboratory where smart architecture and a clever loan program are brought to bear on the affordability crisis. The initiative merits a closer look: perhaps Canada's urban-housing problem seems more intractable than it really is.
At the centre of this project is Attainable Homes, a Calgary non-profit founded in 2009 when housing prices, buoyed by the oil boom, suddenly went skyward. "Vacancy rates were close to zero," recalls John Harrop, the organization's president. "Businesses couldn't recruit workers from outside the city. We came along to get people out of the rental market and into their own homes." The City of Calgary, Attainable's sole shareholder, gave the company $1-million in seed money, which the province quickly matched. The organization hasn't received public funds since then.
The program offers interest-free, forgivable loans to buyers making $80,000 a year or less. That income cap increases slightly for people with dependents. Buyers don't repay their Attainable loans; instead, they remit some of their equity, but only when they leave the program.
The Sprungs received approximately $14,500 from Attainable, which, combined with their $2,000 input, gave them a 5-per-cent down payment on a $328,000 property. The home belongs to them and nobody else. They handle their own mortgage and will pay nothing to Attainable until they sell the place; if they do so at least three years after buying, they'll be required to return only 25 per cent of the appreciated value. Buyers who sell earlier will have to remit a larger amount of money. Attainable doesn't recover its outlays on every deal, but a growing market keeps it in the black.
In addition to providing loans, the company sometimes plans the communities in which its clients live. For Arrive at Bowness, Attainable worked with Partners Development Group, which specializes in affordable homes. They constructed 50 two- and three-bedroom townhouses, of which 39 were sold below market rate, at prices ranging between $319,000 and $345,000. Sales on the remaining 11 units helped offset costs.
Jade Mahon, vice-president of sales and marketing at Partners, says her company uses economies-of-scale to keep prices low. "In the last couple of years, we had 400 builds going on at once," she explains. "Our home-owners don't pick their light fixtures or faucets, because we buy in volume." At Bowness, customers can choose between two kitchen colour palettes – a warm beige or icier grey – each with fibreboard surfaces and stainless-steel appliances. The spaces aren't customized, but the baseline quality is good.
Despite these economical workarounds, Attainable and Partners invested in architecture, a measure that rarely interests developers outside the luxury market. Jesse Hindle is the co-founder – along with his wife, Laura Alvey – of Hindle Architects, the boutique firm commissioned for the project. He understands his vocation in pragmatic terms. He isn't a newbie or a scrappy underdog – he and Ms. Alvey are currently doing interior work on Calgary's Telus Sky building, designed by Danish rock-star architect Bjarke Ingels – but he doesn't have the grandiosity of some of his peers.
"Local architects in Calgary typically don't get hired to do mass housing," Mr. Hindle says. "There's a perception that we bring unnecessary complexity and costs." He wants to show that design needn't be the enemy of thrift.
At Bowness, the houses are arranged in two nested L-forms, which bracket a public park. The hinges of the Ls are open, creating an easy path from the exterior homes to the interior green space. The development is a buffer between industrial and residential zones. To the northwest, just past the park, you'll find bungalows with vinyl siding. To the east lies a Canadian Pacific Railway line and the sprawling Sunnyside Greenhouse, which draws thousands of visitors on weekends.
The homes fit nicely within these surroundings. Each is a simple gable with a stucco base and, on the second and third levels, corrugated aluminum siding, a cheap, low-maintenance material that complements the nearby conservatory. To break up the façades, the architect set recesses with coloured stucco – rusty orange, maroon and red – that matches the Canadian National Railway cars. Instead of your standard-issue residential downspout, with its rounded edges and curves, Mr. Hindle picked square, angular pipes, which fit with the industrial tone. Such accents give the project cohesiveness while adding virtually nothing to the cost.
The interiors are narrow and versatile. The downstairs floors include a single-car garage and a front-facing space – Ms. Mahon calls it "the bonus room" – which might become a study, a den or a guestroom. The kitchen-living area sits one floor up, and the bedrooms are an additional floor from there. The finishes may be simple – vinyl tile, wall-to-wall carpeting – but the amenities are a cut above the baseline standard: low-flush toilets, high-energy furnaces, and Lifebreath heat recovery ventilators, which reduce utility costs and purify air.
These touches are more pragmatic than luxurious, but in the design world, pragmatism can be an overlooked virtue. "We're not trying to make something iconic. That's never our first thought," Mr. Hindle says. "Architecture most of the time is only touching the tops of the hills. But if you're making good communities, you have to focus on the things people don't notice: background, city building, contextual fabric." The Bowness project is attractive but not monumental, inexpensive but not tawdry and context-sensitive but hardly bland. It won't grace the cover of Dwell magazine, but it looks nice from your car window as you drive along the Sarcee Trail from Calgary to Banff.
Most importantly, the houses are built to be used. Unlike many custom units, they're not vacation homes or investment properties, even though their owners will eventually reap a return. When installing their bookcase, the Sprungs had a moment of hesitation to which any renter can relate: Will the landlord get angry about the holes in the walls?
"Suddenly, it occurred to us," Ms. Lemke Sprung says, "that we own this house. We're free to make it ours."
Editor's Note: The original online version of this article misidentified the last photo. This version has been corrected.