From the CEO

Musings about development, housing and the non-profit sector from Options for Homes CEO Heather Tremain.

A story about Housers

Monday, January 30, 2023

I would like to tell you a story about housing. This might be surprising given the current climate, but this story is a positive one.  It’s a story about Housers, which is to say, it’s about people “committed to raising the quality of urban life through improving availability of and access to housing for low- and moderate-income families.” 
The concept of Housers is one that I’m very fond of; you may have heard me use it or have seen my “I’m a Houser” button. You may have a button yourself. The term was first coined by American urban activist Catherine Bauer in the mid-20th century, but I think it’s a relevant and potent concept today.  What I’m drawn to is how a simple epithet serves to unite those working in their own ways to improve lives through housing in their own corners of the housing ecosystem. 
Which brings me to my story. Last Friday night, I attended a wonderful community celebration that was the culmination of years of work by community leaders, politicians, city staff, housing advocates, lenders, and lawyers. We were gathered to celebrate the transfer of 643 properties representing 760 units, mostly single-family homes and small multi-unit buildings, from Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) to two non-profits: Circle Community LandTrust and Neighbourhood Land Trust.
These 643 homes are spread across the City – from Malvern to Parkdale, from Cabbagetown to North York – and are mostly 3- to 5-bedroom units, which are rare finds in affordable rental. Given our current economic situation it can’t be overstated how valuable and irreplaceable these units are.
Equally true is how difficult it is to manage a scattered portfolio of houses of various ages, which is why TCHC acknowledged that a transfer of homes to dedicated non-profits could result in better maintained homes and improved services to tenants. 

This inspiring story – one where essential units were preserved and where tenants receive better service – was entirely the making of a group of passionate Housers. Collectively, the group present that night contributed to preserving these units and ensuring they are in the hands of community-based non-profits committed to delivering high-quality services to tenants and to raising funds to repair the homes and keep them deeply affordable in perpetuity.

In a world where affordable housing is disappearing at a shocking rate, this certainly did not happen by accident. It happened because this city is full of Housers, people committed to improving lives through housing. 
The celebration was delightful because it acknowledged all the people and all the contributions that made it happen, so I’d like to use the opportunity to name names and highlight the dedication and collaboration that led to this monumental housing win:

  • The Politicians: Early and continued political support from many Councillors, particularly Ana Bailao whose leadership on the Putting People First Task Force paved the way to both transfer these houses and bringing financial stability to TCHC.

  • The Tenants: When faced with the sale of these units, many tenants raised their collective voices stood up to stop the sale of their homes.

  • The Civic-minded Groups: The success of this transfer was made possible by funding from foundations and other organizations who jumped in early when success was far from guaranteed, including Catherine Donnelly Foundation, Rosedale United Church, Vancity Community Foundation, and later the Community Housing Transformation Fund.

  • The Housing Advocate: Joy Connelly is a humble and committed visionary leader who mobilized and inspired political support and volunteers and always reminded us that we were here to ensure we provided the best service possible to our tenants.

  • The City Staff: City and TCHC staff were amazingly helpful, committed and set on solving any problem or hurdle that cropped up. I have never seen such an effective and supportive group of staff.

  • The Dedicated Boards: Both Circle and Neighbourhood Land Trust have a dedicated group of volunteers who came together to provide the ‘organizational home’ to ensure the preservation of these houses. For my part, I was fortunate to join the Circle Board in 2017, which was an assembly of hall of fame Housers including Derek Ballantyne, Joy Connelly, Tom Clement, Angus Palmer, Anne Babcock, Brian Iler…(We have since added Lauren Blumas and Hugh Hasan). They’re all smart, wonderful folks who have been active in delivering and managing affordable housing in Toronto for years. Rockstars, all of them. We also had a volunteer extraordinaire in Paul Connelly, another hall of famer, who built the business model for the scattered houses and whose analysis gave funders and lenders confidence that we could make this new venture successful.

  • The Innovative Lender: Vancity Community Investment Bank went above and beyond to find their way through a complex deal and funded our acquisition of the units.

  • The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation: CMHC provided Circle and NLT with the funds to repair and renovate these units so that we can provide quality housing to our tenants. To their credit, they worked with us to understand our complex business model. They were creative, they challenged us and, ultimately, I would say they were our partners. A special hat tip to Sean Tait who went above and beyond, the kind of public servant we are lucky to have.

  • The Non-profit Staff: When we started Circle Land Trust, we had no infrastructure, no staff, and were a working board. Then Alia Abaya and Diana Nanushi joined as our first staff just about year ago now. It is a brave move to leave a good job and join a start-up non-profit, and we would not have been in the room celebrating without them.

This all feels a bit kumbaya and against my slightly cynical nature, but upon reflection of the night, I really couldn’t help but think of the Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world.”
I have no doubt that everyone there knew that they had a hand in creating something special from the tenants who raised their voices, to new staff and board members, to the city lawyer who stood quietly at the back of the room. It was incredible to be a part of. I look forward to sharing or hearing the next story about this city’s amazing Housers. 

- Heather