Cape Breton non-profit shocked by CBRM rejection of $5M for proposed affordable housing project

“It’s deeply shocking, and I think it’s appalling,” said Alyce MacLean, housing development project manager with New Dawn Enterprises in Sydney.

Ian Nathanson, Cape Breton Post, March 8, 2023

A Cape Breton non-profit enterprise dedicated to community building has expressed great disappointment after learning Cape Breton Regional Municipality council voted down an opportunity to receive $5 million in funding for a proposed affordable housing project.

“It’s deeply shocking, and I think it’s appalling,” said Alyce MacLean, housing development project manager with New Dawn Enterprises in Sydney.

“What it sounds like to me is the CBRM is saying that the administration of this is difficult, and in light of that, they don’t want to deal with this. And they think it’s better that we send this money back than work through the difficulties that this presents.”

According to a CBRM request for expression of interest document, the municipality had been selected in December to receive direct funding from a federal government rapid housing initiative (RHI) as part of a cities stream — which amounted to $5 million. That money would go straight to the CBRM to ensure that new affordable housing developments for vulnerable populations can be built.

Joint Proposal

MacLean explained after CBRM was selected, she submitted in January a joint proposal from New Dawn and the Ally Centre of Cape Breton expressing interest in the funding to build a 20-unit affordable harm-reduction housing project eyed for a property on Stuart Street — a cul-de-sac just off Tower Heights in the Mira Road area.

The criteria for such housing, MacLean said, is quite strict: housing must be targeted to vulnerable populations and rents must be geared to income; rents cannot be more than 30 per cent of tenants’ income and most projects require separate operating agreements to reach financial sustainability. Upon being allotted the opportunity, housing would need to be built within 12-18 months — and therefore proposals would require advanced drawings, construction schedules, land identification and operating projections.

As New Dawn’s submission request form outlined, “We began work on this project in the summer of 2022 in anticipation of a third round of RHI funding and with the understanding of the critical and urgent need for housing for some of our community’s most vulnerable residents.” It appeared from the document that New Dawn’s proposal checked all the right boxes.

‘I was elated’

“As a housing provider in the (municipality), I was elated,” MacLean said upon learning New Dawn was the winning, and lone, bid winner for the funds. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, there’s going to be funding that, no matter who gets it, there’s a guaranteed $5 million that’s going to go toward affordable housing to help our vulnerable population.’ What a fantastic and exciting opportunity.”

Or so MacLean thought.

On Tuesday afternoon, attending councillors, Mayor Amanda McDougall and some CBRM staff members met privately for two-plus-hours, followed by a minutes-long special meeting just before 4:30 p.m.

In the latter meeting, municipal planning and development director Michael Ruus put forth a recommendation that staff appoint “New Dawn Enterprises as CBRM’s intermediary for the City Steam Round 3 RHI (Rapid Housing Initiative) application to negotiate with New Dawn to increase their proposed unit number (from 20) to 24, meeting CBRM’s allotment and lastly negotiate an agreement to protect the CBRM from any possible capital overruns or operational shortfall.”

District 7 Coun. Steve Parsons, along with Deputy Mayor James Edwards (who represents District 8), put forth a motion to accept Ruus’s recommendations. Both councillors, along with District 12’s Lorne Green and the mayor, favoured the recommendations; however, vetoes from the remaining councillors meant the motion was defeated 6-4 (absent from the meeting were District 3’s Cyril MacDonald, District 9’s Ken Tracey and, currently on leave from council, District 10’s Darren Bruckschwaiger).

MacLean said she is at loss to explain that CBRM will now have to hand back the $5 million in funds to the Canadian Mortgage Housing Corp., the national housing agency responsible for the RHI.

‘We deserve to make some effort’

“We have hundreds of unhoused people in our community,” she said. “How are we not doing every single thing, bending over backwards to get those people housed?

“I don’t doubt that there are frustrating, constraining, time-consuming hurdles that are involved in the administration of a fund that you just got plunked into your bank account two months ago. However, when you hear of someone sleeping in a tent in the dead of winter, to me it deserves making some effort to keep our community’s members housed.”

Catherine Leviten-Reid, associate professor of community economic development at Cape Breton University and one of several supporters behind New Dawn’s proposed housing project, explained that CBRM is experiencing “a crisis” as far as affordable housing for vulnerable populations is concerned.

“Our vacancy rate is 1.5 per cent, which I’ve never in my life seen as that low in more than a decade of living here,” Leviten-Reid said. “And the sheer number of people experiencing homeless here has been a visible problem. We’re seeing more encampments, more people living in alleyways or in tents.”

According to Leviten-Reid and MacLean, 259 people have been identified recently as homeless in the CBRM, up from 137 in 2016 and more than double the 115 identified in 2018.

“I’d like to have more information as to why council turned this money down,” Leviten-Reid said. “I understand that proposals have to be developed quickly, and then the housing has to be developed quickly, too. But other communities I know of have dealt with this. If there were serious problems about adjudicating the project proposal, that folks didn’t have enough time, I’d recommend having a conversation with the proponents of the project.”

Despite being in favour of Ruus’s recommendations, McDougall said part of the problem came with “just discovering” late last year the funding was available and concerns about not being “prepared and well-staffed” to handle things this quickly.

“This has been quite a baptism-by-fire for us,” McDougall said. “We only learned of (the funding) from a press release last November and very little information had been provided. Also, not having the in-house expertise or housing department, per se … I don’t want to say we were ill-prepared but rather this is entirely new for us.”

McDougall said despite the defeated vote, she has been discussing with federal MPs how the funding can remain so that CBRM doesn’t have to necessarily return it to CMHC by, according to MacLean’s estimates, March 15.

Asked if she feels this might turn into a missed opportunity, McDougall replied, “You’d have to speak to each council member who voted on this.”

Who voted in favour of the recommendation?

Four: Mayor Amanda McDougall, Deputy Mayor James Edwards (District 8), councillors Steve Parsons (District 7) and Lorne Green (District 12)

Who voted against the recommendation?

Six: Councillors Gordon MacDonald (District 1), Earlene MacMullin (District 2), Steve Gillespie (District 4), Eldon MacDonald (District 5), Glenn Paruch (District 6), Darren O’Quinn (District 11)

Absent from the vote

Three: Councillors Cyril MacDonald (District 3), Ken Tracey (District 9) and Darren Bruckschwaiger (District 10; on extended leave)