Updated Nov. 2, 2023.
The federal government introduced its Rapid Housing Initiative (RHI) in 2020 to address the pressing need for affordable housing across the country. RHI challenged housing providers and builders to provide homes with a tight 12-month timeline from contribution agreement to project completion. In subsequent rounds of funding, that timeline was extended to 18 months, though Big Block has proven with multiple projects we can tackle rapid housing in a year.
In Saskatchewan, three rapid housing projects have been developed under the first two rounds: the Central Urban Métis Federation Inc. Community Homes in Saskatoon and the Silver Sage Housing Corporation Horse Dance Lodge / misatimosimôwin mîhkowâp in Regina — both supported from concept to completion by Big Block — as well as the Cress Housing Corporation Īkwēskīcik iskwēwak building in Saskatoon, designed and built by 3Twenty Modular.
All three projects were completed on time, and that 100% success rate is a huge win for the rapid housing projects in Saskatchewan!
However, recent data reported by the Canadian Press shows projects elsewhere in the country are struggling to meet the government’s ambitious timelines.
According to the most recent data from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, only 14% of the 10,265 units approved under RHI rounds one and two have been delivered nationwide.
This substantial delay in the construction and delivery of affordable homes shows there is a need for greater efficiency and collaboration to ensure the successful implementation of housing initiatives.
In June 2022, CMHC indicated the magnitude of the housing supply gap requires doubling current housing production across the country: an additional 3.5 million homes over and above what is projected will have to be built by 2030 to bridge the housing affordability gap.
That brings the total units that still need to be built in Canada this decade to 22 million — and until all the units are ready for occupancy, the people who need homes the most are still going to be struggling. With a record population growth of more than 1 million new people nationally in 2022, immediate action is required to ramp up housing supply exponentially for the nearly 40 million people who call Canada home.
In March 2023, the CMHC announced another initiative to address the housing crisis in Canada: the Housing Accelerator Fund (HAF). This $4-billion incentive funding program for municipalities and local governments aims to boost housing supply across Canada by 100,000 net new homes, with a focus on low-carbon and climate-resilient communities that are affordable, inclusive, equitable and diverse.
To be considered for funding contributions, eligible municipalities and local governments including First Nations, Métis and Inuit governments must apply with action plans that outline their commitment to supply growth targets and effective initiatives to expedite housing supply and development approvals.
Applications are now closed, and the government is reaching out to some applicants for more details. The CMHC has provided Resources for Housing Accelerator Fund Applicants, specifically designed for municipalities aiming to enhance their affordable housing plans.
The program presents an exciting opportunity to apply learnings from the Rapid Housing Initiative and implement long-lasting systemic changes that will continue to expedite housing supply. By learning from successful examples, encouraging collaboration, and streamlining bureaucratic processes, communities across the country can work towards ensuring that future housing of all types, including affordable housing projects, are delivered rapidly and efficiently.
Big Block has played a crucial role in the first two rounds of rapid housing achievements in Saskatchewan, delivering 71% of Saskatchewan's RHI units. Drawing lessons learned from experience in the private sector, our integrated design-build process and advanced construction approach has successfully expedited the development process.
The successful completion of RHI projects in Saskatchewan, including those built by 3Twenty Modular, has required a reimagining of the status-quo process traditionally favoured for housing projects. Productive process innovations like integrated design and modular construction are rooted in community and trusted relationships. This shift in methodology aims to streamline bureaucratic processes and reduce red tape, facilitating the timely delivery of affordable homes.
Recent reports and recommendations from the largest cities on the prairies, including Calgary, Saskatoon, and Regina, indicate the nature of work to be done for systemic change.
The City of Calgary Housing and Affordability Task Force recognizes the need to make housing easier to obtain for people in need, as well as making it easier for developers and housing providers to build that housing. The Task Force says the city needs to ensure affordable housing meets the needs of Indigenous people and equity-deserving populations, and that living conditions are improved for renters, giving them a safe place to call home.
On the development side, the Task Force recommends the City of Calgary promote collaboration in the housing sector, and increase land availability and investment for housing providers, making it easier to build housing.
The weak housing-specific policies brought to light in Alberta’s provincial election in May 2023, indicates protecting housing affordability and affordable housing will remain in the cards for Alberta cities, but Albertans aren’t alone.
In Saskatoon, City Council has applied for HAF with a set of initiatives for the City’s Housing Action Plan. HAF is projected to support an additional 1,300 multi-unit housing units to be permitted by 2026, 675 of which would be affordable to low-income households.
One of the 13 initiatives focuses on accelerating the development of complex care housing to provide an enhanced level of integrated health and social supports for vulnerable populations. While this initiative is still in development, it aims to meet the specific needs of people who have complex challenges, and its success will require partnerships from all levels of government and community partners.
The City of Regina's Housing Action Plan also recognizes that some of the fundamentals need to change if the city wants to diversify housing options, increase affordable housing, and enable an additional 1,100 housing units by September 2026. Part of the action plan includes updating the Development Charges Model, which aims to update growth forecasts, adjust assumptions, and provide certainty for funding housing.
Notably, one of the City of Regina’s action points include streamlining approval processes, which is one of the biggest areas of concern we have about building rapid, affordable housing on the Prairies.
At Big Block, we’ve seen firsthand how pressure of the RHI magnifies and highlights any remaining efficiencies to be gained during the development process — and permit review is a standout area we’ve noticed that has yet to be streamlined. This is a systemic issue in the homebuilding industry that is certainly not unique to municipalities in the Prairie provinces or modularized projects.
The permit process is informed by building code requirements at the national level, individually adopted at each provincial level, and further regulated at the municipal level, but fragmentation manifests in interpretation and jurisdictional overlap that sets projects back by weeks and in some cases, months.
“I am hopeful that the rollout of the HAF will support continued collaboration with local governments, housing providers, and industry leaders,” said Nick Sackville, Big Block’s VP of Community Development.
“Big Block is advancing delivery of innovative solutions to end the housing crisis more efficiently with each project we complete. We must work together to share knowledge and streamline processes for improved productivity.”
When measuring the success of the RHI and HAF, it is crucial to focus not only on the number of units approved but also on the successful delivery of completed projects. Lessons learned from successful ventures under the RHI, such as the integrated and advanced design-build approaches exercised by Big Block and 3Twenty Modular in Saskatchewan, should be considered and incorporated into new initiatives and action plans to ensure timely and effective construction of HAF-incented housing units.
Big Block is intrigued to see how local governments across Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba step up to do their part in shaping streamlined approaches to improve housing development productivity across the prairies over the coming years.