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An innovative and cost-effective approach for building affordable housing in rural Alberta

By Alberta Rural Development Network (ARDN)

In 2015, the Alberta Rural Development Network (ARDN) issued a call for expressions of interest, asking Alberta’s rural communities if they needed affordable housing. The response was overwhelming, with over 35 communities responding with an emphatic YES! The need was there; now what were we going to do about it?

Within six months, ARDN began implementing its Sustainable Housing Initiative (SHI), to create an innovative and cost-effective approach for building affordable housing in rural Alberta. We had an enthusiastic and energetic volunteer in place, Joshua Benard, but no money and few resources. Interestingly, this seemed to parallel the experience of rural Alberta trying to build affordable housing! In the not-for-profit world, when embarking on a new initiative, the first dollar is always the hardest to get. Finding a funder who is willing to be first in on a new idea is a huge challenge – there are always easier investments, and few funders want to take a risk on an unproven idea. But thankfully, AREF made that leap of faith, approved a grant, and the SHI was officially launched.

The purpose of the SHI is to implement and demonstrate a multi-stakeholder approach to building innovative and cost-effective affordable housing in rural communities. It promotes the construction of high quality housing that is net-zero ready, with design elements intended to improve mental and physical health and wellness. The SHI also promotes the sharing of knowledge and best practices amongst rural communities.

Due to a lack of resources and capacity, Alberta’s rural communities are missing an integral part of the housing continuum. Rural Alberta has a critical shortage of affordable housing options, but this issue has not received the same attention as it has in urban centres. Without affordable housing, many small communities cannot prevent homelessness or help people through the housing continuum. This negatively impacts communities and individuals, who may be relocated to larger centres, removing them from their familiar environment and any support system they might have, and negatively impacting the community and its ability to grow.

In order to increase the inventory of affordable housing in Alberta’s rural communities, we must overcome their lack of capacity to navigate the lengthy and complex processes (including conducting research and securing funding) that are necessary to build a multi-unit housing project. Through the SHI, ARDN has been collaborating with a number of rural communities and community based organizations to develop strategic partnerships, leverage existing resources, and allow rural communities to address this growing problem.

SHI is already helping rural communities build capacity, by facilitating access to information and resources, and cutting costs, by sourcing lower priced services. ARDN is working with stakeholders and industry partners to develop a framework that is a step-by-step path to build, manage, and operate affordable housing projects, including templates for:

  1. An analysis of need and demand for affordable housing in the community.
  2. An analysis of financial viability.
  3. A business plan for funder investment.
  4. A generic design for a building that would be used for permitting.
  5. A plan for sustainable, long term management.
  6. Finding potential sources of funding.

ARDN is currently partnering with stakeholders in seven rural communities to implement this framework in a cost effective and timely manner, source funding, monitor progress, assist with challenges, collect data and report on outcomes. Our first project, with the Banff YWCA, is already at the permitting and design stage.