Wood Buffalo Housing & Development Corporation: Bringing People Home Since 2001
Not-for-profit agency celebrates its 15th anniversary
"Wood Buffalo Housing changed my life," says Emily Cruz.
Emily arrived in Fort McMurray from the Philippines in September 2007. She left two children behind to become a live-in caregiver. When that job ended, she applied for permanent residency and, like many newcomers, moved into a spare bedroom. Her children arrived in 2012. Emily rented a second bedroom at a combined rate that would have paid for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere else.
Emily upgraded the B.A. she had earned in the Philippines at Keyano College and today she is an educational assistant at Good Shepherd Elementary School. In September 2013, when she started her new job, Emily's family moved into an affordable three-bedroom townhouse operated by Wood Buffalo Housing & Development Corporation (WBHDC).
"When I first saw the house," says Emily, "I was so happy because I was able to raise my kids in a cozy home of our own. We have our own kitchen, our own bathroom, we can move freely. I'm a mom – it's big-time for me."
Emily is now applying for Canadian citizenship.
"This is my home."
Population explosion drove housing shortage
Truck-and-shovel mining turned oil sands development from an expensive research and development project into Canada's economic engine. That transition drove near double-digit annual population growth for over a decade, tripling Fort McMurray's population between 1996 and 2012. Rapid growth, and too little land for urban development, combined to cause housing costs to rise at least twice as fast as they did anywhere else in Canada.
Regional Council showed remarkable foresight when it created the Wood Buffalo Housing & Development Corporation (WBHDC) in 2001. It saw then that housing costs were moving beyond the reach of many ordinary working people, people important to the social fabric of the community.
Regional Council provided a modest grant of $450,000 to seed the not-for-profit corporation. WBHDC immediately took over from the Province the management of subsidized seniors' accommodations and community housing targeted at the most disadvantaged members of the community.
Regional Council's real coup, though, was to define WBHDC's purpose as the development of more affordable housing alternatives that bridged the gap between provincially subsidized community housing and very expensive market housing – what WBHDC today calls "GAP housing."
At its birth, WBHDC owned just 69 seniors' units. By its 15th anniversary, which it celebrates in June, it owns 1,369 rental units based on demonstrated need. For the first 13 years, from 2001 to 2014, WBHDC's annual vacancy rate averaged less than five percent even as it added new units every year.
Most important, WBHDC has helped over 7,000 individuals, families and seniors with low and middle incomes find well-built, well-maintained housing across Wood Buffalo. In addition to Fort McMurray, WBHDC provides GAP housing and/or seniors' accommodations in Anzac, Conklin, Fort Chipewyan and Janvier.
Helping to maintain essential services
"A region known worldwide for its resource wealth should enable every resident to thrive in its economy, not be diminished by it," says Bryan Lutes, President and CEO of WBHDC since 2006. "Yet here in Wood Buffalo, access to housing has been one of our most important social issues for years."
Beginning in 2006, WBHDC entered into formal partnerships with all three local school divisions, Northern Lights Regional Health Centre, the Regional Municipality and the RCMP to help these public sector agencies provide economical housing to teachers, nurses and other health care workers, municipal civil servants and police officers.
Superintendents George McGuigan and Doug Nicholls, of the Catholic and Public school divisions respectively, are also champions of WBHDC. Superintendent Nicholls says there's anecdotal evidence that the poverty line in Fort McMurray starts at $100,000 a year. Superintendent McGuigan notes the affordable housing partnership has been essential to recruit young teachers and keep them here.
Superintendent Nicholls concurs: "Retention is stronger and terms are longer."
Norm Stevens, Associate Regional Director with Apprenticeship & Industry Training, Alberta Advanced Education, shares the opinion.
"I have worked in this region since 2008, and seen people struggle to find affordable housing. There's no doubt this program leads to better recruitment and, very likely, staff growing roots in the community. Long term residents love this region!"
Lindsay Smith, Mortgage Specialist with Servus Credit Union has heard "so much positive feedback" from Servus members who were able to buy their first home in Fort McMurray.
"We had a couple say ‘working with Wood Buffalo Housing and Servus makes you feel human again, you feel equal and hopeful.' We had another couple say ‘You guys are like Robin Hood – you have made the impossible happen. We couldn't have got a home for our family without your help.'"
You can go home again
Dan Gillies came to Fort McMurray with his family in 1994. When he left to study music at Grant MacEwan in Edmonton, he wasn't sure he'd ever come back. After graduating in 2008, however, he and his new wife chose to see if they could make it in Fort McMurray, where their children would be close to their grandparents.
"Musicians don't make oil sands wages," says Dan. "But I've been incredibly lucky since coming back to teach, play corporate gigs, weddings and special events."
In 2010, Dan and his wife moved into subsidized community housing but a neighbour's fire forced them out in 2012. WBHDC helped them move into an affordable rental townhouse.
"Wood Buffalo Housing is a great organization," says Dan. "They weren't just our landlords – we had personal relationships with staff. Then they helped us to buy our first home this past February.
"Touring musicians ask how I can afford to live here but they don't appreciate the community, the vibrant arts scene. And, honestly, Wood Buffalo Housing was like the foundation that held our lives together. Their program has enabled me to build the life we wanted, to be in the music business and to thrive in it. That's so cool."
Moving beyond housing
As one of Wood Buffalo's most important social agencies, WBHDC makes meaningful contributions to the community in other ways, too.
Community housing residents are provided access to additional supports to help them become more independent, whether that is treatment for substance abuse or job and life skills programs. WBHDC also owns and operates Marshall House, Fort McMurray's largest homeless shelter, on the ‘housing first' model.
"We're a not-for-profit entity," says Lutes, "so we are able to help other not-for-profits at a lower cost. That means they can invest their time and resources into services instead of bricks and mortar."
Arianna Johnson, Executive Director of the Wood Buffalo Food Bank Association, says that had it not been for WBHDC, "the Food Bank would undoubtedly be homeless or, at minimum, have found ourselves in a severe financial crisis."
WBHDC bought the building that hosts the Food Bank from its previous owner four years ago and now leases the building to the Food Bank on a cost-recovery basis.
"This relationship has enabled us to become financially stable and to provide our clients with perishable items, which increase the nutritional value of our hampers immensely," says Johnson.
WBHDC also owns the Stepping Stones Youth Home building, which it operates on a cost-recovery basis. And it sold a $7.2 million parcel to Waypoints, formerly the Fort McMurray Crisis Society, for $1 million and provided free development expertise to help it build the Compass Building.
Other not-for-profits and government agencies with which WBHDC partners include the Salvation Army, Centre of Hope, Persons with Developmental Disabilities, Canadian Mental Health Association, Habitat for Humanity, YMCA and the Supports through Housing Team/Housing First.
When the going gets tough...
"Ideally, we would work ourselves out of a job," says Lutes. "If the real estate market normalized, there would be a reduced need for GAP housing and we would no longer need to exist.
"But the current economic climate is tough on everyone, including us. Our current vacancy rates are much higher than they've ever been; which does not reflect a reduced need as much as the impact on our community of fallen oil prices."
However, Lutes also expects the current down cycle to be temporary.
"As oil sands plants transition from capital construction to operations and oil prices recover, as most analysts predict for 2017, we expect the need for more affordable housing alternatives will rise again. Our Board and management team have provided solid guidance over the past 15 years and we will withstand the current challenge.
"Fort McMurray has always been home to resourceful people. WBHDC will persevere and we'll be here to provide quality affordable housing alternatives for as long as they are needed in Wood Buffalo."
Aerial view of Rotary House, one of five seniors' facilities operated by WBHDC.
Breaking ground for Stony Mountain Plaza, (left to right) former WBHDC Board Chair Kim Jenkins, Mayor Melissa Blake, former Municipal Affairs Minister Jonathan Denis, and WBHDC President/CEO Bryan Lutes.
Cutting the ribbon to open Siltstone Ridge, (left to right) former WBHDC Board Chair Randy Stefanizyn, Mayor Melissa Blake, WBHDC President/CEO Bryan Lutes, Housing Assistant Deputy Minister Mike Leathwood, Cynthia Woodford, WBHDC Vice President Property Services.
Stony Mountain Plaza, Fort McMurray's first modular construction apartment building, also with geo-thermal heating.