Corporate sponsors play key role in affordable housing

Narrow Gauge Contracting was out of place at the affordable housing forum. “We’re the condo guy,” said its project development…

Narrow Gauge Contracting was out of place at the affordable housing forum.

“We’re the condo guy,” said its project development manager Annabelle Bennetts.

“But we haven’t always been bad.”

Tuesday night, Bennetts was sitting on an affordable housing panel that included Habitat for Humanity founder Todd Hardy, Status of Women co-ordinator Charlotte Hrenchuk, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society of Yukon executive director Judy Pakozdy and Anti-Poverty Coalition co-chair Ross Findlater.

“Downtown, people are losing affordable housing to development,” said Hardy.

One culprit is Narrow Gauge.

“But even developers have heart,” said Bennetts.

Narrow Gauge just purchased property near its office and is considering a low-cost housing project, she said.

There’s only been one affordable home built in Whitehorse in decades, said Hardy, citing Habitat’s first house last year.

“There’s a mandate for affordable housing, but nothing’s being done.”

The panel discussion was part of poverty and homelessness action week and included guest speaker John D’Angelo.

The Ontario contractor has been building affordable housing complexes for 25 years.

And he doesn’t rely on government subsidies.

“Why have the government involved, throwing money at you?” he said.

D’Angelo’s secret is corporate sponsorship.

And he’s shameless.

The contractor approaches potential corporate sponsors — he asks for what he wants — and he gets it.

From paint upgrades, to better doors and appliances, corporations are willing to help.

“Sometimes all you have to do is ask,” he said.

“They want to get their name on the project. And the better the product, the more they want to be involved.”

D’Angelo had been installing low-end appliances in his buildings, which usually have more than 100 units.

Sick of the stoves and fridges breaking down as soon as the warranty expired, he decided to approach Maytag.

“I asked if they could give me their low-end model for the same price as these other appliances,” he said.

“But I knew the difference in price was huge.”

Maytag didn’t even hesitate.

Now, D’Angelo gets calls from corporations hoping to get involved in his developments.

He’s even had grocery stores donate transport-loads of groceries and paper products to stock his apartments.

 “By the end, all the trades feel ownership in the project,” he said.

D’Angelo also works with municipalities.

“The municipalities scrap the development fees and property taxes to make it feasible,” he said.

In Whitehorse, Habitat for Humanity is taking a page from D’Angelo’s book.

Now building its second home, the organization has been working with the city, the territory and local businesses.

Economic Development donated the lot, said Habitat vice-president Michael Purves on Tuesday.

The city has waived all the building permits and various fees associated with the duplex and local businesses have been pitching in.

Kilrich Industries is donating the roof trusses at half the cost; Arctic Backhoe Services dug the foundation for free; Yukon Enterprises doled out the cement; and Challenger Geomatics volunteered the surveying.

“There’s a huge willingness to help,” said Purves.

“And it’s not like Kilrich is being asked to donate to breast cancer research or the soup kitchen — this is their area of business.”

Habitat’s houses are sold to selected low-income families at cost.

The mortgage is interest-free and does not exceed 25 per cent of the family’s annual earnings.

“We’re doing this for people who can’t afford to buy houses,” said Purves.

To build the duplex, Habitat has to fundraise more than $220,000.

And it’s well on its way.

The donated lot was $63,000, the raffle tickets will earn another $35,000 and Habitat has $12,000 in payments from its first house.

“So we only have $100,000 to go,” said an optimistic Purves.

Each house that Habitat builds will create additional revenue through mortgage payments. So every few years, Purves hopes to be building more and more homes.

But it’s a slow process.

“There’s a huge need in Whitehorse for affordable housing,” he said.

“And it’s frustrating to only be meeting part of that need. But we have to do what we can.”

There shouldn’t be a need for food banks or Habitat volunteers building affordable homes, added Purves.

“It’s a sad comment on our society.”

So far, Habitat has helped one family, he said.

“If we hadn’t helped them, they wouldn’t have a place to live.”

Homelessness in the territory has many faces, said Hrenchuk, during Tuesday’s panel discussion.

“It’s not just people sleeping on the street.”

In the Yukon, homelessness is often hidden, she said.

Being forced to live in unsafe, unsanitary conditions, couch surfing and trading sexual favours for places to stay are all part of it.

And that’s not the only problem.

“We have to change the attitudes in the community,” said Mayor Bev Buckway, citing families in the $60,000 to $120,000 wage bracket.

“It’s harder for some of the people in this higher wage bracket to understand that there are people surviving on less than $9,000 a year,” she said.

“They just don’t get it.”

A Whitehorse General Hospital nurse stood up in the crowd of about 30 who attended the meeting at the Gold Rush Inn.

She’d seen patients admitted to the hospital who were struggling with poverty.

And she’d heard her colleagues, “who are good people, refer to them as ‘a waste of skin’.”

Many assume that people deserve to be poor, she said.

“How do we change these attitudes?”

The discussion didn’t only focus on the challenge of increasing affordable housing in Whitehorse.

It also highlighted some of the community’s strong points.

“One of the biggest strengths is that we know we can change things,” said Anti-Poverty co-chair George Greene.

“If we want it to happen, we can make it happen.”

The coalition wants Whitehorse hunger free in five years, and poverty free in 25 years.

To make a change, businesses, the municipality, governments and the community all need to work together, said Hardy.

It was a common theme.

“We need everybody to put their heads together at the table,” said Hrenchuk.

The biggest thing is getting the people who make the decisions at the table, added D’Angelo.

“Then you can make decisions quickly and get your shovel in the ground.”

Narrow Gauge is already in talks, said Bennetts on Thursday afternoon.

After picking D’Angelo’s brain during his visit, the Whitehorse company “is thinking hard,” said owner Doug Gilday.

But it’s too early to talk plans, he said.

“There is a clear need in this community for lower-cost housing,” said Bennetts.

“And we want to build something for a much lower-cost market. We are just trying to calculate how low-cost it can be.”