Investing in Purpose-Built Real Estate

Canada’s housing and affordability crisis is one of the most critical challenges facing our communities today

A black and white photograph of the speaker, who is wearing a dark shirt and has her arms crossed as she smiles at the camera.

Jay-Ann Gilfoy spoke at CMHC presents The Walrus Talks at Home: Housing, which took place on November 26, 2020.

You can watch all The Walrus Talks speakers from this event here: The Walrus Talks at Home: Housing

Hello, I’m Jay-Ann Gilfoy, CEO of Vancity Community Investment Bank. I’d like to start off by acknowledging that I’m speaking from the traditional and unceded territory of the Coast Salish people, represented by the Katzie, Kwantlen, Kwikwetlem, Qayqayt and Semiahmoo First Nations. They have been custodians of this land for thousands of years and I would like to pay respects to elders both past and present.

Canada’s housing and affordability crisis is one of the most critical challenges facing our communities today. According to a newly published Toronto Foundation report, in Toronto nearly half of all renters spend more than 30% of their income on housing—that’s the point at which housing is considered unaffordable. At the height of the pandemic in April and May this year, up to 13% of renters were unable to pay their rent in full. It’s not just Toronto either—this problem is national in scope.

A report released just last year by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives revealed that if you’re a worker making minimum wage, there are no neighbourhoods in Canada’s biggest cities where you can affordably rent a one or two-bedroom apartment. And the pandemic is only worsening this crisis. With people shifting to remote work and considering more distant communities outside of major cities, the affordability crisis is moving out more broadly. Just last month, the housing market saw double-digit price increases in cities across the country. The current housing situation in Canada creates inequities and exacerbates the difficulties for everyone to be an equal member of our society and participate fully in our economy. But it doesn’t need to be this way.

I want to talk about why investment in affordable housing is not just the right thing to do, but a sound business decision. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that strong, resilient communities are key to protecting our national economy. And a national economy that’s strong is good for everyone.

Today, both low- and middle-income families struggle to enter the housing market. And in the context of the pandemic and escalating unemployment, an increasing number of people are facing housing instability as they struggle to make rent or mortgage repayments. We also know that these challenges disproportionately affect minorities and vulnerable populations, and have far-ranging impacts on outcomes like health, education, community cohesion, job stability, and economic resilience.

Through affordable housing, we can empower individuals and families to afford the basic necessities, cover their housing costs, increase disposable income and save for an emergency. That’s why Vancity Community Investment Bank has chosen to invest in social purpose real estate projects, working with nonprofits, housing cooperatives, community foundations, and private developers to create immediate and long-lasting change in the communities in which we operate. And it comes from our roots back in Vancity, where the greater Vancouver region has benefitted from a community-focused credit union advocating for policy changes, providing granting and funding to help with the crisis on the west coast.

Over the last two years VCIB has financed more than 30 social-purpose real estate projects that directly benefit the community, resulting in over 1300 units of new or preserved affordable housing. By financing affordable condos, we’re helping middle income families enter the housing market and build equity. By financing shelters, supportive housing, and the preservation of affordable rental housing, we’re helping low income and vulnerable populations find a stable foothold. All the while, we’re future-proofing our economies and helping them to withstand future economic upheavals—like the one we are experiencing right now during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At VCIB, we believe that values-based banking can be a powerful tool in creating a more sustainable and equitable housing model—and we have the results to show for it. Earlier this November, in partnership with the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust, VCIB launched a tailored impact investment program to address Parkdale’s housing crisis. Over the past decade, Parkdale had lost 28 rooming houses in the neighbourhood to gentrification, displacing nearly 350 tenants—many of whom are now facing homelessness—and disproportionately impacting BIPOC people and working-class residents.

Working closely with the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust, we designed a new financing solution—called the Preserve and Protect Program—allowing the nonprofit to rapidly acquire at-risk affordable rental buildings in Parkdale. So far, over $4 million has already been secured in investments from notable foundations and nonprofits. The Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust is now monitoring 59 at-risk rental properties in the area, with the objective of protecting over 40 units of affordable rental housing in the first round of the program. We’re very proud to be part of this.

Our work with the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust is an example of how financial institutions can use the tools of finance to create positive change. Projects like this—traditionally overlooked by the finance industry for their complexity and smaller size—not only create meaningful social and economic change in communities but are also a profitable long-term investment.

As a proud B Corp and member of the Global Alliance for Banking on Values, we strongly believe that the financial industry should be a key driver in facilitating our economic recovery. We also believe that this economic recovery must be green, and it must be inclusive. By prioritizing the needs of the people and the planet, we will create a more profitable, more resilient and more sustainable business landscape. We need to move past the outdated belief that values and purpose work at odds with good business—time and time again this has been proven otherwise.

I’d like to finish off by looking to the future. The affordability crisis right now seems insurmountable, but the writing isn’t on the wall. We have the power to make real change. But to do this we need to begin looking at different ways to do business. We need to start thinking creatively and looking at new ways to address these challenges.

Last month, VCIB announced that it has signed a ground-breaking agreement with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, which will see VCIB commit up to $100 million in financing to affordable housing solutions across Canada. Projects will be financed by VCIB and will benefit from CMHC’s organizational support, expertise and network of programs. This agreement marks the very first time that CMHC has joined forces with a financial institution and signals a real shift in collaboration between the public and private sectors. I hope that our work inspires more innovative collaboration and commitment towards solving Canada’s housing crisis. Together we can build stronger, more resilient communities.

Jay-Ann Gilfoy