Despite pandemic pressures, Habitat for Humanity keeps hammering

·4 min read
Scribbled messages line the wooden framing that will soon be the walls of a new duplex in Spryfield. (Dave Laughlin/CBC - image credit)
Scribbled messages line the wooden framing that will soon be the walls of a new duplex in Spryfield. (Dave Laughlin/CBC - image credit)

Scribbled messages line the wooden framing that will soon be the walls of the new McIntosh Street duplex.

"Wishing you many years of happiness together in your new home," one note from a volunteer reads.

This is Habitat For Humanity Nova Scotia's latest project — a duplex in Spryfield, N.S., with three bedrooms in each unit and a large backyard. Two families, with five kids in total, will be getting the keys to their new homes in June.

Habitat for Humanity is a charitable organization that uses sponsorship and volunteer labour to build homes for low-income or at-risk families.

The families help build the home. They repay with a long-term mortgage with no interest and no down payment.

The two families were selected when the Spryfield project began in late 2019, but nobody could have predicted they would be waiting so long for their new homes.

Kevin Riles, the chair of the board, said this project was different than many others.
Kevin Riles, the chair of the board, said this project was different than many others.(Dave Laughlin/CBC)

Kevin Riles, the chair of the board, said this project was different than many others. COVID hit shortly after the foundation was poured and the roof was on.

He said the process had to be shut down during the lockdown last spring and the cost of building a house has exploded since then.

Prices are rising across the country, from purchasing land to hiring skilled tradespeople. Lumber is now two to three times more expensive than it was before the pandemic.

Riles said the organization doesn't complete a house until there is enough sponsorship money to cover the total cost.

He said it is shocking how much more it would cost to start the McIntosh Street project today.

"This build right now was budgeted … for $506,000. If we were to start that today, both on acquiring this lot, the site work that was needed, the building materials and the trades, we would be close to $700,000," said Riles, who also owns a land development company.

Habitat for Humanity was unable to complete a single home in Nova Scotia in 2020. This is the organization's new project in Spryfield.
Habitat for Humanity was unable to complete a single home in Nova Scotia in 2020. This is the organization's new project in Spryfield.(Dave Laughlin/CBC)

Habitat N.S. normally can complete a house in five months, said Riles. In the 29 years the organization has been operating in Nova Scotia, they have built 75 homes.

Last year was the first year they did not complete a home.

Due to the affordable housing crisis in the province, Habitat N.S. says it is imperative they bring their rate back up to par quickly, with new projects in Oxford, then Stellarton.

Riles said for many, now is the time for innovation.

"Whether you're a shelter, whether you're a rental, whether you're home ownership … it's a challenge and all the organizations dealing with affordable housing have to find ways to deal with it. Because those challenges are here and the costs are going to increase, so you need to find ways to be creative."

Riles says one way Habitat N.S. can "get creative" is by rethinking partnerships.

Habitat For Humanity Nova Scotia's latest project is a duplex in Spryfield. COVID has created complications for the organization.
Habitat For Humanity Nova Scotia's latest project is a duplex in Spryfield. COVID has created complications for the organization.(Dave Laughlin/CBC)

The organization hopes to partner with developers to get land donations for new builds. This would decrease costs for Habitat, and allow developers to support affordable housing initiatives in their community.

Donna Williamson, Habitat Nova Scotia's executive director, said the organization will have to adapt to the higher costs.

Local volunteers help

She said the pandemic has impacted Habitat for Humanity's out-of-province corporate sponsorship and volunteer teams.

Williamson said many companies with headquarters in Ontario would send employees to volunteer on projects before the pandemic. She said some sponsorship was lost when Nova Scotia closed its borders, but local volunteers have been "stepping up to the plate."

She said the organization has five local companies, headquartered in Nova Scotia, participating in "team days," but they are still looking for five more to sign up.

Stephen Kerr heads the volunteer team.
Stephen Kerr heads the volunteer team.(Dave Laughlin/CBC)

Stephen Kerr, the head of the volunteer team, says there used to be up to 30 people working on a house at a time. Now, due to physical distancing, there are fewer than 10.

"This has been an unusual build, all sorts of things have happened along the way," Kerr said. "It's been an interesting ride."

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