Tuesday, May 28, 2024

New grassroots housing society launched for Guysborough County

Community First aims to provide affordable homes

  • February 28 2024
  • By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter    

GUYSBOROUGH — With its founding meeting last week, Community First: Guysborough County Housing Association marked its debut as the first grassroots group from the area with the goal of providing affordable housing in the Municipality of the District of Guysborough (MODG), District of St. Mary’s and Town of Mulgrave.

According to organizer Nancy O’Regan, the organization’s non-profit status, which will become official when its 22 members collectively file with the Nova Scotia Registry of Joint Stock Companies next month, will allow it to buy properties and develop them as reasonably priced homes for sale or rent across Guysborough County.

“We [will now be able] to apply for funding from a variety of sources that we feel pretty confident will be there for us,” she told The Journal in an interview following the meeting on Feb. 20. “We’ve been speaking with [Housing] Nova Scotia, with the new [Community] Housing Transformation [Centre]. We’ve met with every municipality... We’re in a position to apply to do a housing project.”

Noting that the group’s predecessor, the Guysborough County Housing Network (GCHN), formed in 2019, was more of an advocacy, research and information-gathering organization, O’Regan said volunteers have spent the past year “trying to understand what the housing problem looked like” locally before choosing to become landlords.

“There’s a steep learning curve around [knowing] what you need to do [as a] housing provider. Before, we were a network of service providers, a couple of individuals, some municipal councillors... The [GCHN] gave us insight into what people are struggling with... [It let us] do our homework, all the data analysis, the demographic analysis... the community consultation. We were able to get a sense of what was happening in each community.”

Much of the research has been sobering. A provincial housing needs assessment released by the Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing in October estimated that Nova Scotia’s shortfall of 27,300 units could grow to 41,200 by 2027 without an immediate and concerted effort to build more homes that people can afford. The shortfall in the province’s ‘north shore’ economic zone – which encompasses Antigonish, Colchester, Cumberland, Guysborough and Pictou counties – was pegged at 2,000, among the worst in the province.

Complicating matters here, O’Regan told The Journal in November, was a unique set of circumstances that defied what she called “cookie-cutter” approaches. “One of the big ways Guysborough’s municipalities differ [from other parts of Nova Scotia] is that 27 per cent of the homes that are owned here are owned by people who don’t normally reside in them, compared with 10 per cent in the province overall,” she said. “So, while sometimes they are rented, they are generally sitting there empty.”

Meanwhile, she said, a disproportionately large number of Guysborough residents were living with comparatively high “core housing needs” relative to the provincial average. “Many are seniors who may be living in a house they own, but is way too big for them; too hard to heat and really expensive to run. Others are single-parent families [who] are spending more than 30 per cent of their income on shelter costs.”

What’s more, she added, GCHN’s research showed that affordable and available housing “is not just about housing anymore. It’s about whole lot of intersecting needs. We are seeing all those issues crossing in together… That was our biggest learning.”

The GCHN also discovered that there was “a real need for [social] service providers in Guysborough County to have better communication, better coordination and just better sharing of what is happening and what’s going on... on the ground with families, individuals and seniors [here].”

To facilitate this, and provide the broadest possible range of local expertise, O’Regan said Community First is designed to be a “hybrid” non-profit, involving both individuals and key community organizations as members of its board of directors. While she declined to name specific people until the group is further along in its formal certifications, she said the Antigonish Black Housing Association, A Roof Over Your Head Society in Antigonish, Guysborough County Kids First, Canso and Area Development Association, the Antigonish Women’s Resource Centre and Guysborough County’s three municipalities have all agreed to field representatives on the new board.

Said O’Regan: “This won’t just be about building new housing. If we see a property and it looks like we can turn it over quickly to affordable housing, we’re now in a position to be able to say, ‘let’s do that.’...This is where our partners could kick in. If, for example, we’re looking for second stage housing for families fleeing domestic violence, we could look to the Antigonish Women’s Resource Centre to partner in providing supports and services... There are more options now than there were in past.”

There’s already some local precedent for this kind of “needs specific” initiative. Last October, MODG council paved the way for new local housing for healthcare professionals by transferring three plots of municipal land – for $1 apiece – to the non-profit Housing Trust of Nova Scotia, which hopes to begin construction on more than a dozen rental homes this year.

MODG Chief Administrative Officer Barry Carroll told The Journal last week that, while Community First has not yet made “a financial ask, the municipality has encouraged it to get [officially] formed... Now, I am sure that we will see them in the future.”

Said O’Regan: “I feel like I’ve had my finger on the pause button now for about a year. But we’ve arrived... We’ve developed a sense of our mission and purpose and [are] ready to begin a more action-oriented phase... to begin to look at real solutions.”