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Blending Purpose and Profit in Affordable Housing

by Read Guernsey

I am very lucky to be a part of the social impact investment circle of Broadening the Base and among such impressive members of Ottawa’s housing community. I hope to have contributed to the group in some small way through my background with social enterprise, formalized in my role as chair of the board of directors of CISED – the Centre for Innovative Social Enterprise Development. CISED is an Ottawa-based not-for-profit that seeks to maximize the impact of the social enterprise sector in the region by raising awareness, building social enterprise capacity and opening channels that foster full participation and integration of social enterprises in the marketplace.

CISED defines social enterprise as an ongoing organization or venture created to achieve a social mission that uses a business model incorporating earned income strategies in its operations. This blend of social mission and business strategy takes many forms. Some formalize the blend through a governance structure where a for-profit company provides a share of it’s profit to a parent non-profit or charity, such as Me to We, which provides half of its profit to it’s parent, Free the Children. Others integrate this blend deeper within the organization, like employment-based social enterprises where the very act of being in business provides meaningful employment and social supports.

I realize I may be preaching to the choir here. Understandably, providers have been exploring business strategies for quite some time now. In September, Housing Partnership Canada released an extensive report on the immense variety of innovative business practices that are employed by affordable and social housing providers across Canada (available here). Whether by establishing a café in a property that offers employment for the residents, or by providing housing development expertise to diversify a revenue stream (such as CCOC), social enterprise strategies offer an arsenal of effective tools for a provider’s toolbox.

I would suggest that there are even more nuanced means of connecting profit with purpose if we focus on the day-to-day operations and the hundreds of choices that a leader and manager must make a week.

Deciding what supplies to purchase, and from whom, is a good example. All organizations need quality and cost-effective resources to support their operations, whatever that may be. Deciding where to buy those resources, then, can be a very challenging task because purchasing with one’s mission in mind means going beyond the familiar and marketed (e.g. Lowe’s) and seeking out the local and community-oriented (Ottawa Tool Library).

Building materials and supplies can be found at Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore. HighJinx provides affordable furniture, as does Good Day Workshop. Environmental products are available from EnviroCentre and lawncare services from Good Nature Groundskeeping and Horizons Lawncare. CISED has identified over 150 social enterprises in Ottawa alone, clustered around six industry sectors:

  • Recycling repurposing and remanufacturing
  • Arts and culture
  • Food services and agri-business
  • Product manufacturing
  • Real estate development and property maintenance
  • General services

Housing providers are big social institutions, and tend to anchor community causes with their physical and human presence, and also purchasing power. The orders made by a provider, whether lawn care, cleaning products or building supplies, can be a drop in the bucket for a large company, but can make or break smaller social enterprises. Every time someone buys from a social enterprise, there is an opportunity for social change to happen. I encourage Ottawa’s housing providers to reach out to CISED ( and explore local social enterprises that can meet your social and business needs.

Key Factors to Ottawa Community Housing’s Success

by Stéphane Giguère

“Something old, something borrowed, and something new”; a legacy of experience, learning from others and embracing opportunity.

I’ve been asked to provide some highlights of how Ottawa Community Housing seeks continuous improvement and stays on top of its game. In this context, my role as CEO is to work as a catalyst, to ensure excellent tenant services, improve existing housing stock, and develop additional homes. Optimizing staff knowledge, innovation and leadership are key factors to OCH’s success.

Here are a few examples of what is most important for the affordable housing community to know about OCH.

With 15,000 homes and over 32,000 tenants, we have taken advantage of multiple development opportunities, since the days of Limited Dividend housing in the 50’s and before senior governments provided any significant funding to create homes with subsidized rents. By being creative and repurposing funds from earlier developments we were able to develop or acquire close to 225 homes since 2003, when development of new stock was reduced to a trickle.

Highlights of our achievements include:

  • measuring and seeking to improve tenant’s experience of satisfaction with their homes, communities, and our services;
  • negotiating a portfolio wide operating agreement with our service manager, bringing consistent and stable funding across the portfolio;
  • developing a 10-year Strategic Plan;
  • undertaking a comprehensive Index Building Condition Assessment that positions OCH to advocate for and receive infrastructure funding;
  • implementing a Portfolio Management Framework that provides a blueprint for the future to guide and maximize OCH’s physical and financial resources;
  • renewing the portfolio of homes that do not meet portfolio management requirements and reinvesting in new housing with improved design and maintenance efficiencies;
  • preparing “shovel ready” projects to allow us to respond to development and improvement programs quickly;
  • implementing a long range financial strategy: leveraging our assets through debt financing to ensure financial sustainability. From 2011 to 2015 OCH borrowed $114 million through debt refinancing and contributed $ 69.9M to the capital reserve fund without adding to annual debt servicing costs;
  • negotiating a municipal tax exemption resulting in a $3M annual increase in capital reserve contributions;
  • creating a community reinvestment fund, reducing dependencies on external sources and facilitating the development of new housing;
  • introducing new housing management and financial systems to enable evidence based decision making and to support a client-focused and results-oriented service;
  • establishing a green plan with dedicated funds  to lead the implementation of a more ecologically friendly approach and enable OCH to be innovative and gradually transform its operations and portfolio towards building more sustainable communities, promoting energy conservation and reducing greenhouse gas emissions (for example: 16,000 toilets were replaced reducing maintenance requirements and generating $5.5M in cost avoidance annually; fluorescent lighting is currently being replaced by LED);
  • developing partnerships that support tenants and OCH communities in a more holistic way with a variety of on-site agency support resource centres, community houses and, currently, the development of the Carlington Community Resource Centre Health Hub which will enable construction of 42 new homes for seniors; and
  • growing a robust corporate volunteer program that results in over 5,000 volunteer hours annually that beautifies our communities, increases positive public awareness, and enhances the lives of tenants.

Over the years we have incorporated a culture of continuous improvement and framed it with vocabulary such as intentionality, accountability, and engagement. The success of OCH depends on many factors; key among these is dedicated and motivated staff, tenant involvement, and participation in maintaining safe and healthy living environments.  We will continue to support and encourage initiatives and partnerships that enhance tenant participation in making our communities places people are proud to call home.

CMHA Ottawa and Housing First

by Michael McGee

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Ottawa branch has been providing housing and housing supports for more than 12 years. The clients that CMHA supports are individuals who are homeless/vulnerably housed and who are challenged with mental health and concurrent disorders. At its inception, CMHA’s housing program provided rent supplements with 5 housing provider partnerships working with an annual rent supplement budget of less than $160,000.00. During this time, CMHA’s housing program received capital funding from the Ministry of Health (2.2 million dollars) to purchase condominium units. CMHA purchased twenty two (22) 1, 2 and one 3 bedroom units throughout the city of Ottawa.

CMHA’s Housing program follows the housing first ideology based on the pathways to housing program in New York that was created by Dr. Sam Sameras. At its base the ideology is simple: provide safe housing for those who are homeless or vulnerably housed; give the tenants a choice of where they want to live; and build the supports around them to allow for long term successful housing. CMHA’s housing first program has evolved over time to allow for an increase in housing stock, an increase in landlord’s willing to become involved in the program, and an increase in partnerships for both housing and supports. As of May 2016, CMHA provides rent supplements and supports (either internally or with community partners) to over 300 clients. CMHA works with more than 85 private landlord and the rent supplement budget has increased to 1.7 million dollars per annum. CMHA has also expanded its condominium program to include 35 condominiums scattered throughout the city of Ottawa. All these units are owned and property managed internally at CMHA.

CMHA takes a strengths based model to the clientele that are supported, thus allowing the client to have an intrical role in the housing and supports required. The rent supplements that are provided are portable, which means the supplement  are not not attached to the unit and stays with the client if they wish to move. The rent supplement is based on a top up to market rent. If the client is on ODSP and their housing portion is $479/month (current ODSP housing allotment) and the market rent is $979.00, CMHA will top up to the market rent ($500.00/month supplement). Additional housing supports can include: assistance with hydro, provision of last month rent to the landlord to secure the unit for client, vacancy loss if the client moves early, as well assist with finances for damages if they occur. CMHA also provides a one-call support line for landlords so if there is an issue the landlord can call the Housing Coordinator who will dispatch appropriate response as needed. CMHA, both internally and with its community partners, provide case management supports to clients in the rent supplemented units. The rent supplement remains in place even if the client no longer requires the case management support as it is the belief of CMHA that people should not be robbed financially for doing well emotionally.

Housing is a right and not a privilege. An internal review showed the CMHA’s housing program has a lower turnover and eviction rate than the so-call “normal’ population.  CMHA’s housing program firmly believes in the Housing First Model and CMHA has become firmly entrenched in its ideology for more than 16  years.   It’s proven success illustrates that one cannot learn to vacuum in a vacuum and that with housing choice and supports, individuals can live successful lives in their own unit in the community of their choice.

Affordable Housing Models that Work for Women

by Sue Garvey

Cornerstone Housing for Women is comprised of four unique women’s residences; an emergency shelter and three bustling, supportive housing communities. Cornerstone provides shelter for 62 women every night and safe, affordable, permanent housing for an additional 68 women. The organization has evolved to meet the emerging needs and aspirations of the women who choose to share their lives with it.

While we, at Cornerstone, firmly believe that there will always be a need for safe emergency shelters for women in crisis, we know that affordable housing with the right supports is the most important solution to chronic homelessness. We share the ambitious goal to end chronic homelessness in our city and are convinced that it is achievable in our lifetime. Here’s the formula for success that we want to demonstrate:

“Safe, affordable housing + the right supports+ innovative partnerships = end to chronic homelessness”.

Cornerstone is focused on creating a supportive and affordable housing model that works specifically for women. It is our experience that there are certain features can make all the difference in easing a woman’s pathway from homelessness and crisis to sustainable housing outcomes:

Safety is the condition that women most often articulate as necessary to enable them to recover from a crisis and begin to rebuild their lives in a new home.  At Cornerstone, we make conscious choices to enhance safety for tenants. These include well-lit inside and outside spaces, a 24/7 on-call service accessible to tenants, attention to minimizing crowding as much as possible, conflict resolution training, and lots of dialogue about the kind of places women want to live in.

Affordability in housing is the feature which enables a woman to move from living in “survival mode” to developing the capacity to rebuild and make plans for a stable future. There are many women in Ottawa who are choosing daily between paying the rent and feeding the kids, buying medication and meeting their basic needs. This often results with women getting caught in dangerous relationships and places, and contributes to the cycle of mental illness, addictions, and generational poverty.

Choice in selecting the services and programs that women will access is important to their sense of empowerment and self-determination. Tenants are provided with the supports to identify their own goal plans and the paths they will take to achieve them.

A key focus of the Cornerstone housing model is its broad Community of Care.  This is expressed in a number of educational, recreational and social activities to build a strong sense of belonging and community and encouragement to seek involvement in community programs available to the general public as a way of strengthening individual networks and connections.

Safe, affordable housing and supports for tenants are incomplete without active engagement in Action for Social Change to address systems which perpetuate homelessness and poverty.  It is this concerted action at both the personal and societal levels that will lead to better outcomes for individuals and communities across our country. Affordable and supportive housing for women will continue to evolve as an intricate part of a healthy and vibrant housing system.

More information on Cornerstone Housing for Women is available at:

Exploring the Value of Guarantees for Affordable Housing

by Britany Stares

A near-universal challenge faced by nonprofits working on affordable or social housing solutions is raising or accessing sufficient capital to undertake such projects. Whether your organization is exploring a loan, a line of credit, bonds or other innovative means to raise funds, one strategy to consider is pursuing a third party guarantee. A guarantee is precisely what it sounds like: a pledge by a third party, such as a foundation, government or other source, to repay the cost of a loan or the payouts on a bond in the event that the original borrower is unable to do so.

There are many benefits to using guarantees in social impact projects. For nonprofits, having a guarantor can provide access to debt capital, such as a bank loan, that might otherwise be unavailable due to lack of lender confidence, or reduce the cost of borrowing through lower interest rates. Guarantees can also be an attractive option for governments, as they reduce reliance on direct public funding or lending. Government guarantee schemes for affordable or social housing in several countries have default rates at or near zero[1] (insert link). In high-need areas such as affordable housing supply, guarantees can accelerate development as well as help build investor confidence in the sector, opening the door to more capital over the long-run.

In Canada, guarantees appear to be an underutilized tool for social impact, particularly with regards to housing. While the federal government has a long history of providing loan guarantees in the form of mortgage insurance to social and affordable housing developers through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), foundations and municipalities are largely only beginning to explore their potential role as guarantors. There is some evidence to suggest, however, that this is changing. Several municipalities in Western Canada are considering or already acting as guarantors for housing cooperatives, nonprofit housing developers and municipal housing corporations, without reports of defaults. In a well-known, albeit non-housing related example, the City of Toronto recently guaranteed a loan for the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) to help the social enterprise purchase a new building. The guarantee was discharged successfully ahead of schedule, and was estimated to have saved CSI over $200,000 in interest per year (insert link)[2].

Embracing the full value of guarantees for affordable and social housing purposes requires raising awareness among prospective borrowers and guarantors alike about the risks and responsibilities involved. Some guarantors may require payment, and all would-be borrowers must be able to demonstrate how they will mitigate the risk to the guarantor. Many potential guarantors lack a clear framework and overarching strategy for accommodating guarantee requests. Finally, despite no direct costs to the guarantor (assuming no defaults occur!), guarantees are financial commitments and therefore affect the borrowing capacity and credit rating of guarantors, including municipalities.

In sum, third party guarantees can support a wide range of social outcomes, though their potential remains largely untapped. Addressing such problems as the affordable housing shortage will require every tool in the impact investing toolkit – and guarantees can be a useful way to leverage these.

[1] Lawson, J. (2013). The use of guarantees in affordable housing investment: a selective international review. AHURI Positioning Paper No. 156.


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  • Vacancy rates in Ottawa have remained consistency low (2.8% in April of 2015), the construction of rental housing has “flat
    CMHC, 2015; FCM, 2012
  • Nearly 22,000 Ottawa renter households are paying more than 50% of monthly household income on rent and utilities.
    Canadian Rental Housing Index
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