The Northern Community Challenge
In many northern communities, there is a lack of widespread economic opportunity and affordable housing which has lead to a lack of economic growth in some cases as well as unsustainable and overcrowded housing units in others. Due to a lower economic growth and other financial priorities, most northern and First Nation communities do not have the funds to adequately address their housing needs. To exacerbate this issue, many of these northern communities do not have the technical capacity to evaluate and determine the best possible solution for their communities at the best possible price and communities in the north may be subject to unscrupulous sales tactics that ensure the budgets provided do not meet the demand in the community for housing. In addition to the lower economic growth and lack of economic opportunities, most northern communities have smaller populations and may not have certified tradespeople to provide local building knowledge and solutions.
In limited size communities, there is a strong value in undertaking training and understanding of housing systems including basic plumbing, electrical, structural and exterior (roofing, siding, landscaping). However, the actual construction is limited to “one-off” projects that may not be replicable, and depending on the skillsets in the community, may result in lower quality homes, which do not last as long and are therefore in need or more frequent replacement. Regardless of the quality of the homes the limited volume of new housing in First Nation communities is resulting in an ever-increasing demand and lack of supply. Northern First Nations have had a historic undersupply of housing which is becoming more critical under pressure from a high population growth rate.
For Municipalities in the North, many of the same challenges facing First Nation communities exist and are further exacerbated through increased population growth and urbanization trends which is resulting in a net migration. For example, in the Municipality of Sioux Lookout, the factors driving housing needs are:
- Historic undersupply of housing becoming more critical under current pressures from:
- Immigration from the South coming for employment
- Immigration from the North coming for employment, and for:
- Health care
- Better living conditions
- Consistently high employment and a boom in employment opportunities
- A relatively young new labour force without the capital or desire to purchase housing
- Many single young, new working people looking to rent/share rental accommodation
- Families moving to town looking to rent housing as an initial step into Sioux Lookout
- Individuals and families looking to purchase starter homes
- Individuals and families looking to purchase more traditional family homes
Northern Community Solutions (NCS) has a strong focus on regional and First Nation benefits, and to have the largest impact on the region in general, the project in Sioux Lookout will serve as a demonstration/promotion project that will allow northern First Nations (or other municipalities) to view different housing manufacturers, building styles and alternative layouts and energy systems. The end goal would be to help them make informed decisions regarding housing options and after this project in Sioux Lookout, NCS will continue working with SLO, northern FN and other municipalities to share knowledge gained and make future projects easier to implement. As a majority of communities in the North are facing a housing crisis in terms of supply and/or price, Northern Community Solutions, views this as an opportunity to work collaboratively to design solutions that will meet a wide variety of needs in communities throughout the North.
What is Affordable Housing?
There remains a debate with respect to the ultimate meaning of affordable housing. Is affordable housing affordable to purchase or rent, or is it affordable to operate? The purchase and rental costs are linked to the capital costs required to build the building and have a direct impact on the operating costs. For example, in a new build construction, if the builder decides to build to above code standards and insulates the building to a higher level, there will be an increase in cost, but also a decrease in operating costs as the building will require less energy to stay at the desired temperature. Conversely, if a builder were to install low quality materials or build at or below the building code, the cost of the building would decrease, but the costs of energy would increase. In addition to the operating costs associated with every building, there is also the cost of financing. While interest rates are at an all time low, the cost of borrowing money plays the largest role in determining the affordability of a new living space and the higher purchase costs, particularly if borrowed will result in larger interest payments. Through an integrated design approach, Northern Community Solutions strives to work with the end user to provide a living unit that is both affordable to purchase, and affordable to operate.
NCS Housing Sustainability Project, Sioux Lookout, Ontario
Northern Community Solutions (NCS) is a social enterprise that is working in partnership with the Municipality of Sioux Lookout to implement housing solutions that meet the needs of low to moderate income residents in the community. NCS has working relationships with modular home suppliers and technology providers that are interested in building a demonstration project in Sioux Lookout that will showcase multiple modular construction options as well as bioenergy district heating and utilization of other renewable and modern technologies. The purpose of the implementation of these neighbourhood “eco-villages” is to reduce the strain on housing in the north as well as to provide long-term sustainable employment and training in the provision of energy services (biomass – harvesting, transportation, and distribution).
Figure 1 – Finland “Eco-Village” Source: https://finland.fi/life-society/finnish-ecovillage-runs-on-future-energy/
The demonstration eco-village will have between 5 and 10 unique houses built by suppliers from North America and around the world. To compare the different building attributes, the Natural Resources Institute of Finland (LUKE) and Lakehead University will be actively comparing the energy efficiency of each building vs. the capital costs to ensure that future customers are aware of the benefits of each option and the positives/negatives associated with each design. NCS has begun working with the stakeholders to execute the vision of sustainable housing futures and their operating objectives include the following:
- Provide scalable and replicable housing models for northern communities in Ontario and later on across Canada.
- Operate sustainable budgets with a mix of commercial and social endeavors, with the operating mandate of ensuring that the enterprise is effective and not reliant on funding for each project.
- Provide housing opportunities for equity building; affordable capital projects that allow participants to purchase their first “home” and leave the rental market; building equity and preparing for retirement or unforeseen circumstances.
- Provide high quality homes that maximize value for neighbours and through a competitive process ensure housing is provided to those who will respect the housing and their neighbours.
- Work with government agencies such as CMHC to provide the broadest forms of home ownership to those who need it, including:
- Fixed low income rental units (likely transferred to local social housing board).
- Rent to own operations with fixed monthly payments resulting in house ownership after 20 years (rules and regulations to be followed including guidelines and standards for clean yard and respect for house/neighbours).
- Low income/first time home buyers housing opportunities by providing renters with unit pricing that is the same as their rent (ie. $1,000/month rent would equal a $200,000 townhouse or similar unit).
- Fair commercial/market pricing for units in the same neighbourhood that will cover the cost of the development and will ensure capital for future developments (sustainability).
- Provide each stakeholder with a value and through impartiality, provide the linkage between end users, funding sources and the housing & technology providers.
Essentially NCS will act as a Social Enterprise Housing Provider. Profits from the developments will be used to build additional homes, neighbourhoods and communities to solve northern housing issues throughout Northwestern Ontario. Unlike Habitat for Humanity, which requires donations each and every year, or non-profit housing which cannot provide custom housing solutions to each client, NCS will be adaptable with a focus on sustainability. For each neighbourhood created, a portion of the housing developed will become units for social housing (sold at below market value) and a portion will be used commercially (sold at market value) to provide funds for the next project. This will ensure that after the initial investment, that NCS will be able to operate independent of government incentives and grants, while providing maximum value for the end users.
Stakeholder Value Proposition
Sioux Lookout – Housing development will be organized by consortium and costs will be covered by funders. All details of the project will be primarily handled by NCS and will not take Economic Development Staff resources for concept development. The project will require Municipality staff for development (infrastructure) services only.
Funders – The housing units will have independent district heating and potentially electrical systems. By offering modular construction companies the opportunity to showcase their products to a local market, the companies will in turn have to offer their houses at a lower cost than they would to a single sourced customer in the north. A housing development of 10 houses will result in an end user price that is significantly lower than market value through NCS compared to a similar development with the houses and energy systems purchased independently – NCS will ensure that the housing suppliers maintain reasonable profit, enabling additional houses for the same investment.
Construction/Modular Housing Companies – NCS will essentially act as a sales representative of the housing manufacturers that are involved in the project and will ensure that all promotional material from the manufacturers is made available to interested parties. In addition, through partnership with the Municipality of Sioux Lookout, NCS will work to promote the housing development and therefore the housing offerings provided by the companies. Essentially, the showcase/demonstration neighbourhood will act as a “living” sales area that will attract additional customers, and as Sioux Lookout is the Hub of the North, will result in more traffic than any individual installation of a housing project that the manufacturer can do on their own.
Communities & End Users – Interested communities will be able to come to Sioux Lookout and physically see the houses that companies are offering and will be able to compare the different options based on capital and operating expenditure. Through the variation in design, this will also allow the end occupant to come as well and choose between several designs and layouts, which previously was mandated or determined by community leadership. Overall, this should lead to more satisfaction for the end user, vs. overall cost to implement. By providing a venue for competition, NCS will also ensure that prices are comparable for similar options and that the end user receives the best value for money.
Sector, Regional Partners
While there is an immediate need in Sioux Lookout for a solution to its current housing crisis, this is a characteristic of many northern communities as they find solutions to their own housing needs. As such, it is the goal of NCS and the Municipality of Sioux Lookout to incorporate as many opportunities for knowledge sharing as possible and to that effect, NCS will be partnering with numerous organizations on this project, including:
- Lac Seul First Nation
- Windigo Tribal Council
- Keewatin District Services Board
- Kenora District Services Board
- Independent First Nation Alliance (IFNA)
- Sioux Lookout Area Aboriginal Management Board – SLAAMB
- Meno Ya Win Hospital
- Sioux Lookout First Nation Health Authority
- Northwestern Health Unit
- Société Économique de l’Onario
In addition to the direct partners listed above, the Municipality of Sioux Lookout has multiple relationships with local and regional First Nations including a Friendship Accord, First Nation Accord and Shared Territory Protocol which, with its partner communities has leveraged significant project outcomes such as the Meno Ya Win Health Centre through a shared focus and vision. The project conducted by NCS will utilize those same relationships to ensure that local and regional community partners are invited and welcome to participate as the project progresses.
In 2012, the Municipality of Sioux Lookout became a signatory to the Sioux Lookout Friendship Accord who in partnership with Lac Seul, Cat Lake, and Slate Falls First Nations have developed a principle-based relationship agreement between First Nation communities and the Municipality to work together encouraging First Nation investment in Sioux Lookout and to increase First Nation participation in the local economy. In 2017, KI (Big Trout) joined the accord a far north isolated community.
In 2013, Sioux Lookout became a partner with Lac Seul First Nation and KI (Big Trout Lake) to be one of six First Nation-Municipal Economic Development Initiatives (CEDI) in Canada to focus on increasing the community’s capacity for joint community economic development planning.
In 2015, the Municipality of Sioux Lookout opened the first First Nation-Municipal Community Economic Development Office. This was accomplished in partnership with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and CANDO providing a single-window to access programs, funding, and partnerships for the Municipality and the 31 Far North First Nation communities they serve.
In 2017, the Municipality of Sioux Lookout was instrumental in the development of a “Shared Territory Protocol” with Lac Seul, Cat Lake, and Slate Falls First Nations. This historical document provides the guiding the principles to a shared stewardship of the land, resources and benefits.
In 2018, the communities came together to address the Northern Housing crisis in rural and isolated northern communities. This has resulted in partnerships with the private sector, government agencies and Finland. More information can be found at: www.northernhousingsummit.ca.
At the Northern Housing Summit, every modular housing provider was propositioned with the idea of a demonstration neighbourhood in Sioux Lookout that would showcase their offerings and from that list, the following are supportive:
- Steve Marshall, Northern Shield
- Jacques Roy, Maple Leaf Homes
- Shane Prevost, Cobra Construction
- Alex and his brother (no card), Kube Custom Builders
- Emma Kowalchuk, Northern Superior Structural Solutions
- Jack Dai, The Consortium Group
Only one of the builders at the summit was not interested and while the list above represents a small portion of builders, NCS will work towards further developing the project and accepting proposals from across North America. It is likely that only builders within an economic transport distance will be financially able to participate, however the goal of reducing the overall cost of the offerings through competition while increasing the quality will hopefully be realized through increased competition.
Due to the larger societal benefits and direct impacts in the communities in which NCS operates, NCS will have an advisory board to assist in guiding the operations conduced by NCS as well as to ensure that NCS has the experience and capacity to provide the solutions to the maximum benefit of the host communities. In addition, an operational advisory team will be established and operated from Sioux Lookout which will include experts in engineering, developments, economic development and First Nation housing. The advisory team members will consist of partnership members who have expertise in their field and can assist in the operational success of NCS.
The Municipality of Sioux Lookout has designated a property near the Hospital for the first housing development which will incorporate between 20-30 units with approximately 10 unique structures such as detached houses, different styles of duplexes and triplexes as well as a high density 6 or 8-plex which will be located on the properties shown below:
Figure 2 – Prince Street Development, Sioux Lookout, Ontario
The variety in the housing styles will be encouraged from the modular housing manufactures to provide the greatest versatility in choice for both future tenants as well as end users from communities throughout the North. The number of units, while still to be verified has been projected to provide the best return for the development in terms of maximizing the benefit of both the available land and the potential for renewable energy systems such as biomass. The development will be located beside the Sacred Heart Elementary school and the bioenergy system installed for the development will also replace the current fossil fuel systems used by the school (systems will remain in place, but serve as backup rather than primary). The opportunity to service both the development and the school will reduce the financial burden for all end users for both the capital as well as the operating costs.