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See what Hamilton did? Local affordable housing advocates say it could work here

In the last 15 years, the Hamilton Community Foundation has changed how it does business to help finance 15 affordable and supportive housing projects.

The result is that hundreds of low-income and difficult-to-house people have a roof over their heads, said the foundation’s CEO Terry Cooke while speaking to several groups in Sarnia Tuesday.

“This journey for us has been extraordinary,” Cooke said. “We’ve developed new and enduring partnerships, and I think we’ve contributed in a way that is having measurable impact on the lives of families and individuals who really need our help.”

The Sarnia Community Foundation (SCF) could also break away from traditional investments and do the same kind of social impact funding for housing here, says SCF Executive Director Mike Barron who introduced Cooke to affordable housing advocates at the Sarnia Rotary Club.

“I do feel that the (SCF) will be able to support a community project in some capacity,” Barron said. 

Already, the local foundation established an affordable and supportive housing fund in December that has nearly $100,000 in donations. But it’s possible Sarnia could follow in Hamilton’s footsteps and find a more significant funding partner at the community foundation.

Cooke said Tuesday that it’s also possible the Hamilton and Sarnia foundations could work together. “If they have a good project and need participation, then we would come to the table,” he said.

“The first project is always the hardest one.”

Community Foundations operate in more than 200 Canadian communities and pool donations, then invest them to generate revenue to be used for the greater good.

The Hamilton foundation is the oldest in Canada with assets of $275 million. In contrast, the Sarnia Community Foundation is much smaller with $12 million in assets. Even so, with the leadership, the desire and willing donors, the SCF could follow Hamilton’s example and, rather than invest all its assets in publicly traded markets, dedicate a portion to low-interest financing and the acquisition of land for affordable housing, Cooke said.

“I know in this community, with all the political capital, social concern and energy from groups like yours, there are opportunities to…get serious about how we can make a difference in the lives of everyone in our community,” he said.

Lambton County – which is the local level of government responsible for social housing in Sarnia – is fast-tracking at least one affordable housing project on Kathleen Avenue that could provide 50 new units if it gets upper-tier government funding.

But that is only a drop in the bucket considering the 2,500 new affordable units that experts say are needed in Sarnia-Lambton.

It leaves lots of room for non-profit groups to spearhead projects of their own. And several are trying to get off the ground, said Brian Mundt of Wellington Ridge Developments. 

The Hamilton Community Foundation’s work is impressive and a similar strategy in Sarnia could help solve the funding challenge for new projects, Mundt said.

“No one can be the sole contributor to a project. The challenge is who is going to put their feet in first and take the lead role.”

He is working with Rotarians Heather Martin, John DeGroot and Michael John Kooy, as well as a range of non-profits, on three projects in the very early stages of development.

All three recently received “seed” money of up to $200,000 each to help pay for feasibility studies, surveys, planning fees and environmental assessments. None have substantial funding as yet, although the Sarnia Rotary Club has raised $100,000 in the last year.

Each project requires millions of dollars and non-profits generally rely on CMHC funding.  However loan interest rates are very high right now, so more creative funding like that described by Cooke is interesting, said Mundt.

The three proposed projects include:

• The St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church-owned lands at 1299-1331 Murphy Rd., just north of Michigan Avenue where 45 units are proposed. Funding applications are under way.

• The former Laurel Lea-St. Matthews Church land on Exmouth where 62 units could be built, incorporating two neighbouring properties. Rezoning applications are being prepared.

• An estimated 100 new units adjacent to Ohana Landing on London Road where paperwork is underway to apply for rezoning.

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