Vancity member Robyn Fenton of Bowen Island Resilient Community Housing

Vancity program boosts affordable housing on Bowen Island

Not-for-profit housing development is not for the faint-hearted. You need to be organized, persistent and prepared to do a whole lot of hard work. Lilian Chau, Vancity community investment portfolio manager, has worked with dozens of not-for-profit housing developers and knows this all too well.

“Real estate development takes a long time and it’s risky because you have to spend money in the planning process without knowing for sure whether anything will come of it,” she says. “Groups that haven’t completed the initial phases thoroughly so that they have a clear vision and really understand their capacity to get something built tend to take a really long time. Often it doesn’t happen for them at all.”

It’s for this reason that Lilian helped to develop and deliver a new Vancity program for not-for-profit developers called Building It Right. Participants attend three sessions, once a month, to hear presentations from Vancity experts, fine-tune their development plans, and identify next steps for their projects.

Vancity member Robyn Fenton going over plans with a colleague

“I found the program very useful and the format in particular. It was fast enough that you had to keep working on stuff, but it also gave us enough space to take the time to build out our vision.”

In 2019, a total of 45 participants from 15 not-for-profit organizations, including two First Nations, took part in the program. One of them was Bowen Island Resilient Community Housing (BIRCH), a not-for-profit organization and Vancity member that is planning to build affordable housing on Bowen Island. BIRCH’s executive director Robyn Fenton hopes that the project – Snug Cove Affordable Rental Housing – will be the first of many to address a critical shortage of affordable housing options on the island.

“It’s not like if you’re living in Vancouver and can’t afford the rent, you can move a bit further out to Burnaby or Richmond perhaps,” says Robyn. “If you have to leave Bowen, you have to go far away. You uproot your whole life. Your kids are not going to be at the same school anymore.”

“I found the program very useful and the format in particular,” Robyn adds. “It was fast enough that you had to keep working on stuff, but it also gave us enough space to take the time to build out our vision.”

Lilian hopes to deliver Building it Right to at least one cohort of not-for-profit developers each year. The program has already helped organizations get those essential first steps done so that they can move through the more technical process that follows, which includes design, financing, permitting and construction.

The signs are very good for BIRCH. At the time of writing, the organization had already arranged to lease land from the local municipality and completed the feasibility process. Robyn says the plan is to offer up to 27 below-market rental units for families on low and moderate incomes, seniors and people with disabilities.

“In five years I for sure hope that it’s built and occupied and that we might even have a second project going by then,” says Robyn. “Hopefully we get there. I think we can.”

Vancity member Robyn Fenton of Bowen Island Resilient Community Housing, holding plans on BIRCH lands

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