Maza, a single mother with two boys, was struggling to pay the rent in her apartment. A bad car accident had her living on Workers’ Compensation Board benefits, and the bills were piling up. To make matters worse, the landlord didn’t like her children, and ultimately asked her family to leave the apartment. In the blink of an eye, Maza found herself out in the city with limited support. So, she turned to Capital Region Housing (CRH).
“With God’s grace, I was accepted,” says Maza. “Receiving my keys to a new place with enough bedrooms was a dream finally coming true. We are safe and happy.”
Maza’s story is just one of thousands in Edmonton and the surrounding area. The need for affordable housing for the city’s most vulnerable is high. Although CRH is currently home for more than 9,000 families in the Edmonton Metropolitan Region, thousands more are in the process of applying for homes or are on waiting lists.
In spite of the waiting lists and applications, CRH is making a huge difference to families and affordable housing in Edmonton. For 50 years, the organization has aggressively lobbied for change, evolving and challenging the status quo to continue subsidizing and providing homes for families, and building new homes for those in need. What started with a modest nine homes and 416 federally owned units in 1970 is now, under CRH, more than 4,500 units of government-owned housing, subsidies for over 3,200 private renters, and ownership for more than 600 units of affordable housing – with more units currently being built in the Londonderry area and soon in the Lendrum community. CRH manages millions of dollars in assets and is the second largest residential landlord in the region.
The need for affordable housing was identified by the City of Edmonton in the late 1960s. At that time the Edmonton Community Housing Organization was formed to initiate conversations with the Federal and Provincial Government to request funding through the National Housing Act (NHA). In 1970, the Edmonton Housing Authority (EHA) was incorporated and launched the initial project of nine homes and 416 housing units.
As the first project took shape, Alberta grew interested in having a more active role in the ownership, construction, and location of future housing projects. To this end, the Provincial Government negotiated an agreement with the federal government to change the cost sharing to 50 per cent federal, 40 per cent provincial and 10 per cent municipal. Under this model, between 1975 to 1983 the province developed 86 housing projects (2,964 units) with management being contracted to the EHA.
The next big change came in 1994 when the EHA entered into a contractual agreement with the province to act as its agent for the administration of the Private Landlord Rent Supplement Program in the Edmonton region. Also in 1994, the new Alberta Housing Act came into effect. The province made significant changes to the Act, including the creation of management bodies. Capital Region Housing was incorporated in 1995 and assumed the assets and liabilities of the EHA. Immediately, CRH began exploring the possibility of building its own units, since government orders had significantly slowed down the construction of government-owned units.
In 2007, the Provincial Government decided to give municipalities control over the affordable housing funds, so that each municipality could determine their own priorities and engage directly with developers – a significant win for the CRH mandate.
CRH’s path to get to its current state today has not been a fast or an easy one, but one thing has never changed: the desire to provide affordable housing for those in need. CRH’s growth has always been in support of this goal, from when the need was identified to the many changes to programs at the federal, provincial, government and municipal levels.
Today, Greg Dewling, CEO, is leading CRH through its latest evolution.
Dewling joined CRH in 2013 and he and his team have been instrumental in transforming the organization into a more purpose-driven, entrepreneurial social enterprise. In 2017, he secured the first CRH private development project, in which CRH holds a 50 per cent partnership. The build resulted in 174 homes and 35 subsidized self-sustaining units that tenants began to occupy in late 2019.
Additional projects are in progress to add 240 homes to the portfolio in the coming months, with a further 600 planned for the near future.
“I was a pastor for 17 years before I got into housing,” says Dewling. “Why the switch? Well, no pun intended but some doors closed, and others opened.”
Originally a pastor from Newfoundland, Dewling worked in various local churches in Newfoundland before taking roles as the chaplain and a business instructor at Memorial University. He discovered a passion for working with seniors’ housing when he moved to Alberta. When an opportunity at CRH gave him a chance to work with both seniors and families, he knew the position was an ideal fit.
“I had to learn the business, but for me it made sense,” he notes the overlap of pastoral work and housing as being the passion for caring about and working alongside people.
“One of my first summer jobs was in a warehouse. I hated it from day one! When I had to quit to get my appendix out, I was excited because I didn’t have to go back there and work alone anymore! I like working with people, discussing and achieving goals together, and growing together.”
Ideally, the goal is to have everyone in the Edmonton area living safely in a home they can afford. But is that possible?
“That is a goal we work towards everyday,” Dewling says. “That is absolutely our aim, and we are working towards it.”
But it’s not easy, and he knows it. With Alberta’s constant boom and bust economy, and the recent back-to-back recessions, the need continues to grow and outstrip supply. For people like Shalini, the situation can become desperate.
Pregnant with her first child and without emotional, physical, and financial support, Shalini stood in the CRH office feeling confused and overwhelmed by the paperwork.
“I knew I needed help, desperately,” she says. “After applying and visiting the office a few times, with my tummy growing bigger, my need and desire for a home were getting stronger. One month after my delivery, I finally got a call from CRH. I felt so relieved and super excited. I couldn’t wait to see my new house!
“I remember carrying my new baby and new hopes close to my heart and standing outside and ringing the doorbell. The day I got the keys, I felt a sense of survival. I had hope that I can raise my children in a safe environment.”
CRH wants a positive outcome for every client.
“The greatest challenge is the misunderstanding about the housing sector and how it works,” Dewling points out. “Most expect that a silver bullet of money will solve everything. In reality, the underlying issues about poverty and housing are complicated. In ideal circumstances, housing is usually a full third of the cost of a monthly budget, on top of the need to pay bills, buy groceries, and buy life’s necessities. However, politically and economically speaking, there is no doubt that [Edmonton] is in challenging times, and those challenges are driving the need for those that were just getting by, but now are running out of savings. There’s always a gap; either rents are too high or incomes are too low, so we are always trying to find that balance. In Edmonton right now we need approximately 16 per cent of the homes to be affordable, but what we have is about 6 or 7 per cent and those people in the gap are paying 40, 50, or even 80 per cent of their income on rent. So, if someone says to me, ‘Greg, please build me a home,’ and I say ‘maybe in five years I’ll have one ready for you…’ that’s a long time.
“There is certainly a shortage [of affordable housing],” Dewling continues. “Building was more robust about 30 years ago, then it slowed down. There’s been a few programs along the way but building certainly hasn’t kept up. In the past a home was about three times your annual income in most municipalities. Now homes are seven or eight times the income, and in a less robust economy.”
CRH is being aggressively proactive about the problem.
“We’ve built the first private public partnership in Canada that integrates affordable housing into market development with no government funding,” Dewling says with pride. “We were the first of two agencies that raised some mortgage debt on the bond market last year. That is typically not done in the affordable housing market. We took out a mortgage on a new development.
“CRH has also started the first social housing regeneration project in the province. In the Londonderry area we removed 80 homes and we are in reconstruction to put back 240. This will be a social space in addition to housing. It will provide for tenants and have retail space.”
That’s not all. In addition to directly tackling the lack of housing, CRH is addressing the many other issues that drive people to affordable housing in the first place.
“More than 1,800 school-aged children live with us. We [partner with other organizations] to emphasize the importance of academics, leadership and volunteering for our youth,” Dewling says of one of many social programs CRH has initiated.
He’s also passionate about the organization being self reliant. “CRH is now also selling back office services such as HR, IT, project management and financial services,” he notes. “Building capacity to be self supporting and building a revenue stream ultimately helps build more affordable housing.”
This multi-faceted approach to affordable housing is gaining traction across Canada.
“Many of our ideas were accepted by provincial and national housing strategies,” Dewling is pleased to say. “We believe in our robust community engagement programming. My philosophy is that you always pay. You pay now or pay later. Later is always more painful and usually more expensive. This is why we invest heavily at the start when we do a new project and why we spend time talking to our clients about their overall needs. We are proud of our processes and they have produced very good results.”
Four clients experiencing these results are Marlene, David, Abkar and Julie.
As the single parent of two adult children and a grandmother to a five-year-old boy, Marlene struggled to support herself and her family on her disability payments.
“I was extremely excited when I finally got the call stating my application was being processed and I was given the opportunity to start looking at places to live,” she says. “I only looked at two places before I found my current home. It feels good to finally have the security, comfort, stability and to say I can raise my family to the best of my ability with no more worries or sleepless nights. I am forever grateful for my low-income home.”
David became home-insecure and depressed due to an unstable family situation. CRH renewed his purpose in life.
“I came to CRH in search of a place to call home after going through a difficult time living with my family. I was able to get a referral to CRH and the agency also helped me with the paperwork necessary for applying for community housing. I had a lot of depression and was fighting with my stepdad and sister at home. I just wanted peace and to be happy,” David says.
“My life is different now and I’m just grateful to have a roof over my head! The moment I first moved into my home I felt a sense of peace and of finally feeling safe and excited for my future. I want to apply myself and go back to school to study music; specifically, song writing and becoming a lyricist. Now that I have my home, I can focus on having a purpose.”
Abkar is a 72-year-old low income senior that receives a rental subsidy.
“Due to my rent subsidy, I’m able to maintain my budget and have peace of mind,” she smiles. “I have no words on how I can offer my heartiest thanks to the CRH team! Now that I have help from Capital Region Housing, I can buy groceries and sleep without any headaches! My life is very comfortable.”
Julie says she had a great childhood. She moved to Edmonton for that “big city” life. In short order, she found herself without adequate housing and her dreams of a good life were in peril.
“I was actually in the hospital with a broken ankle when CRH called me. I was so excited; I didn’t mind leaving early to look at my new place,” Julie recounts. “Now that I have an affordable home, I can focus my energy on returning to school to learn more about computer technology and keep busy with hobbies such as sewing and attending traditional communal Cree ceremonies in the city. I’m very happy and comfortable. My site manager is helpful, and I have great neighbours,” she adds of how CRH helped turn her situation around.
Dewling likes to quote Hellen Keller: “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much,” as he points to the team, board, contractors, government, and all the other people instrumental in executing on CRH’s vision.
“A great deal of our success is due to the diversity of our leadership team,” he says. “I’m the only white Canadian dude, and I wasn’t even born in Canada. We have six females and six males on the team. Our leaders come from all over the world – Lebanon, Tanzania, Burundi, Iraq and England. The diversity in our team through culture and gender makes us one of the top leadership teams in the country and we are often sought out by other agencies to share our story. The diversity happened organically. I wanted the best people, but also recognized and acknowledged that finding the best is rooted in knowing the strength of diversity. Did we set out to have an equal number of men and women? No. It just worked out that way because of seeking out the best.”
This team has made a huge difference for the 9,000+ families in the Edmonton region that have a safe place to call home.
“Whether it’s a family that needs an affordable home, an advocate for housing, one of our contractors, or a government official, it’s not ‘us against them,’ Dewling says. “It’s all of us pulling in the same direction so society, communities, and families benefit.”
A great example of how this collaborative approach has benefitted not just a family, but the community at large is seen in SoCheat’s story. Originally from Cambodia, SoCheat and her daughters found their home through CRH’s Community Housing Program. SoCheat was proud to live with CRH because it allowed her family to have access to support services and amenities close to home.
“I was referred by a friend to apply for housing at CRH, and it has been amazing,” says SoCheat. “CRH has affected my daughters a lot – a lot! They’ve become happier and more joyful. As a single parent, I’m still able to provide for my kids to get what they need and still have food to eat. We have good clothes. I have the money that I need so my kids can go out on programs. This is the way your home should be; it should bring you joy and happiness. Capital Region Housing has changed my life so much. I’ve become more independent. I’ve become stronger and I’ve proven to a lot of people that I can do anything.”
With the stability she gained, SoCheat did what many CRH clients work towards. She bought a house. In 2018, CRH caught up with SoCheat and her family to learn how life has changed.
“I bought a house and we love it! It’s close to school and work and we couldn’t be happier!” she reported. “I have a great job working in the pharmaceutical industry. Everything is going well, and my kids are doing great with school and sports. I really like my job and I couldn’t ask for more!”
SoCheat’s story represents what happens when organizations like CRH, along with governments and industry advocates come together to welcome deserving people home.
The hard work is far from over. The need for affordable housing in the Edmonton region is still very prevalent, but as long as the need persists, CRH will continue to be proactive and innovative in support of affordable housing.
“Well, as you know, we have a few people that still need us,” Dewling smiles. “So, during our next five years we really want to add at least another 2,500 homes to our portfolio, and maybe even more. Some of those builds will happen this year. That will get us started.”
CRH thanks the Government of Alberta for their support and for shifting the model to allow the City to prioritize its own housing needs. The organization also thanks City of Edmonton for its advocacy, the national associations and networks CRH works with, and all their industry partners and supporting agencies.
Learn more about CRH by visiting www.crhc.ca.