Stacking funding: How non-profit org CUMFI provides rentals 30% below market rates

December 13, 2021

Updated May 16, 2023

Central Urban Métis Federation Inc. (CUMFI) had been envisioning providing affordable homes for Elders for multiple decades before it became a reality in 2021. The Round Prairie Elders’ Lodge broke ground in April 2021, and the first Elders moved in Nov. 30, 2021.

The rent is 30 per cent below market for some of the suites — a feat that was only possible thanks to support from an astounding six funding sources.

Because so much funding was secured, the rent is very affordable, and the energy efficient design will also help Elders save money on utility costs.

“It was a tough goal but we knew with the different funding partners that it was possible,” said Shaun Dyck, CUMFI's director of housing at the time.

Stacking funding

There are a lot of up front costs to apply for funding for a project of this kind, like getting building renderings, environmental assessments, cost assessments, and research into things like the demand for this type of housing.

“All these up front costs — and especially the design cost — typically not many nonprofits have,” Dyck said.

Seed funding helped cover some of those expenses. CUMFI received $293,077 in accelerator funding from Indigenous Services Canada - Indigenous Homes Innovation Initiative (IHII), and $85,000 in seed funding from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).

A two-bedroom suite at Round Prairie Elders' Lodge.

This seed funding allowed CUMFI to put together applications for other types of funding, like $1.5 million from Métis Nation–Saskatchewan and $178,437 from the City of Saskatoon.

Getting that funding helped show yet more funders that there was something to this project.

“Large projects like this need multiple funders and approvals,” Dyck said. “Interest in a project often helps strengthen the case when you’re applying to other funders. … We were really fortunate with getting all this funding because this project wouldn’t be a reality without it.”

Capital funding for Round Prairie Elders’ Lodge

  • Indigenous Services Canada – Indigenous Homes Innovation Initiative (IHII) contribution: $2,000,000
  • Métis Nation–Saskatchewan contribution: $1,500,000
  • CMHC National Housing Co-Investment Fund loan: $1,609,386
  • CMHC National Housing Co-Investment Fund contribution: $632,845
  • Saskatchewan Housing Corporation – Saskatchewan Co-Investment Program contribution: $632,845
  • City of Saskatoon Affordable Housing Capital Grant Program: $178,437

‘Always our intention to make it really affordable’

He said every time a government agency came in and offered funding, they were able to adjust the rent prices downward.

“If you went through a conventional mortgage and tried to make this work yourself, you’d be charging what the market rent would be. … It was always our intention to make it really affordable.”

In total, Dyck said it took about two years to get all the funding needed, though he said in the grand scheme of things, that’s actually shorter than usual.

“I’ve seen it take years for some projects to get off the ground. For us to basically start fresh from early January 2020 to get land secured and drawings and ready to build in a year — the only way that we got there is working with Big Block.”

A guide to light the way

Dyck said Big Block helped CUMFI complete the environmental assessments, the cost analysis and advised on the applications.

“The Big Block team really helped guide us through a lot of the process of getting our ducks in a row. They’ve got their Kickstarter Kit that describes what needs to be done to get a project like this off the ground.”

As an affordable housing agency itself, CUMFI had some capacity in this area as well but he said he understands the challenges some organizations face when taking on a project of this magnitude. 

“Nonprofits are working day to day and they really don’t have someone there to dedicate the time to get this done. This is where Big Block stepped in to help us get things done and I could see them helping other nonprofits,” he said.

“It’s nice to have an actual builder who’s been through the process to give you that knowledge and that sense of comfort when you’re putting together ideas around cost and revenue and making sure the project is actually feasible.”

‘You need to understand the numbers’

Nathan Evans, Big Block's chief financial officer at the time, said for projects like this, financing is key. 

“You need to understand the numbers,” he said.

You need a financial model that lists the cost to build it, how you’ll service the debt, and that proves the development will bring in the projected revenue. 

The entrance to a one-bedroom suite at the Round Prairie Elders' Lodge.

Will the project get the expected return on investment? Noting that there are different ideas for what a return on investment is, Evans said.

“An investor might want to grow, for non-profits it might be the number of homeless housed, or the number of people they provide housing for. For CUMFI, it might be the number of Elders they can put in suitable housing and don’t have to forgo their culture.”

You can hire an architect to put your dreams down on paper but if the numbers aren’t there, the dream won’t go anywhere.

“You take the big dream and start scaling it back until it’s financially viable,” Evans said.

Expanding the scope of the project

The Round Prairie Elders’ Lodge has a particularly impressive list of funding partners that helped make the project a reality.

It’s a $7 million project and $5.3 million is in the form of non-repayable capital contributions and forgivable loans.

That means 76.5% of the development has been funded with capital contributions and forgivable loans, which is unusual.

Most construction projects require about 25-30% of capital contributions, whether through grants or cash. The remainder is secured through a loan like a mortgage.

“Getting that funding allowed us to widen the scope of the project,” Evans said. “With the addition of the funds through the IHII program, we were able to increase our scope and focus on the cultural aspect. … Without this program, none of those cultural aspects would be on the table.” 

Advice for non-profits at the beginning of the journey

Evans said one of the most important things an organization should keep in mind when pursuing a project of this scale is to have patience.

“It took us a long time to get here,” he said. “Without patience, you might leave an opportunity on the table.”

Dyck agreed.

“Never underestimate the time it’s going to take to make it real,” Dyck said.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to apply to different government agencies to make sure the intent of the project is understood by the people reviewing it and approving it, and it’s really a longer process than people might expect.”

But he offered words of encouragement for other organizations to follow their development dream, especially if you can bring partners on board like Big Block.

“Start thinking about what’s possible in the world of modular building nowadays and working with people that have experience and are wanting to work alongside you to make these dreams a reality.”

breaking news
While Big Block is busy building like Bigfoot...
(Read also: blurry in photographs and causing double-takes when our beast of burden, the crane, makes a flash appearance in the outside world.)

. . . you can scout for more evidence of our expertise in community-minded housing development through our archive of multi-family and mixed-use residential construction projects.