Partnerships, networks, and expertise: How to find the right land for affordable housing projects

December 1, 2022
A group of officials at the Central Urban Métis Federation Community Homes dig in the dirt at the project's sod turning in 2022.

Pictured above: Officials at the Central Urban Métis Federation Community Homes sod turning in 2022.

For Habitat for Humanity Saskatchewan CEO Denis Perrault, finding the right land is key to the success of the organization’s affordable housing projects. 

Habitat is a non-profit home developer that helps working, lower-income families access affordable homeownership through their unique programs, and Denis says the land they’re looking for needs to be somewhere they can build safe, decent, affordable, long-term housing for their partner families.

“We’re careful where we build,” Denis said. “We’re acting in the best interest of these families. We want to build in a community that’s going to see positive growth and is close to schools and amenities.”

Habitat had just such a parcel of land allocated to them by the City of Saskatoon in the Pleasant Hill neighbourhood — but it had been sitting vacant for some time. 

In 2021, Habitat underwent a major merger, bringing together all of the Habitat for Humanity chapters in the province under one banner: Habitat for Humanity Saskatchewan. The move has been a success for the organization, but it also made it more difficult to move forward on plans for the Pleasant Hill parcel as their attention was focused on navigating the merger, completing all of their existing projects, and building a 2023 plan.

When Big Block Construction CEO Alex Miller approached Denis about the idea of releasing that land for Central Urban Métis Federation Inc. and the Saskatoon Tribal Council to use for rapid housing projects, Denis saw the potential — and the alignment with Habitat’s values.

“One of the attributes Habitat shares with Big Block and others is an element of humility,” Denis said. “We knew we weren’t going to build immediately and rather than see that land vacant, we saw a different vision. … It was a win-win.”

Thanks to Habitat for Humanity’s quick actions, two Rapid Housing Initiatives will be completed this year on the parcel of land they released.

The decision had to be made quickly in order to keep the project in line with CMHC’s Rapid Housing Initiative timelines, but Habitat was on board with the larger vision and they made it happen.

Alex applauds Denis on his decision-making and his ability to help the organization make the change in their plans quickly so the RHI projects could be delivered in Saskatoon.

“If he had not done what he did working with the city and the board, if he hadn’t shown that leadership, this opportunity wouldn’t have happened,” Alex said. “Rapid housing showcases partnerships. If it wasn’t for all these people involved, we wouldn’t have a project move-in ready in 12 months.”

For CUMFI Community Homes, Big Block was able to achieve a record-breaking 4.5 month  turnaround time from breaking ground to the first of 14 families moving in.

Getting to shovel-ready

There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to building affordable housing, and even more ways to go about developing it. Increasingly, with the socio-economic pressures of this decade demanding quick, calculated action to curb housing precarity among our neighbours and relatives, organizations are emerging with an appetite for evolving their approach to new construction of affordable and non-market housing. It starts with establishing truer, more strategic, long-term partnerships that support progress from the initial concept through construction completion.

A fragmented assortment of architects, engineers, and consultants is typical of traditional approaches to concepting. However, discerning leaders are finding more streamlined paths to success by choosing to pursue their desired outcomes through modern, integrated development processes that more closely reflect the collaborative, community-centric values of their organization. 

Through integrated design and project delivery, a design-builder like Big Block supports pre-development work, helping early-stage projects quickly gain momentum to turn dreams and ideas into real, buildable concepts and oftentimes support efforts to secure required financing  before a land purchase.

Big Block Site Supervisor Colin Gibson talks to CUMFI President Shirley Isbister at the Community Homes craning.

With 15 years of experience in the housing development industry, Alex is plugged into an extensive housing network spanning the Prairies and beyond through home builders, housing providers, developers, Realtors, city planners, and other connections. He and others at Big Block often have the opportunity to learn about land that may go unnoticed or unconsidered by others. 

The Big Block team are also experts when it comes to zoning and building requirements. They can use their expertise and experience to analyze the land with an eye toward a particular project. Realtors can find land, but they may not know if it’s the right fit for a purpose-built multi-unit residential building, or a particular parcel’s implications on the project outcome.

“As a developer, I will never buy land until I have confidence that a concept with a budget and a successful project can be achieved,” Alex said.

Pre-development is essential to a successful project, not only because it gives the organization confidence that they can achieve their goals, but because one way funding bodies qualify customers is by determining whether the non-profit is ready to use the funding.

“You’ve got to be shovel-ready,” Alex said. “We offer shovel-ready opportunities; we work with developers and Realtors to find a solution that best fits their needs.”

Once the funding is in place, it can be like the shotgun start of a race: Now you can start looking for the right land and move forward with the next steps in the project.

‘Great opportunities’

There are many challenges non-profit housing developers face, including rising interest rates on lending and cash flow, but they’re not insurmountable challenges — Denis with Habitat Saskatchewan says having the right partners in place makes a huge difference.

“Through my experience, the biggest partners we could find were the provincial and federal governments,” Denis said. “At Habitat, we’re thankful for our partnerships with Sask Housing and CMHC, and we’re fortunate to receive donations of land at various locations in the province.”

Despite the challenges all non-profits and housing developers are facing in today’s economy, Denis says Habitat is optimistic about the future. 

“Long term, we see many great opportunities in the cities we operate in,” he said.

They recently wrapped up a project in Regina called Haultain Crossing that is the largest Habitat for Humanity build in Saskatchewan and the second largest in Canada with 62 units. They also have 200 mortgages with partner families across the province, and cash flow support from sales at the ReStore, which sells gently used home decor and home repair items.

But their core strength lies in their community, Denis says.

“We’re grateful for the people of Saskatchewan and our partners, sponsors, volunteers, board members, and staff — we would never be as successful as we are without that support.”

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