New grant to help affordable housing projects 'get off the ground'

Saint John is hoping to add new support for affordable housing developers at earlier stages of the building process.

The city's growth committee voted Monday to recommend council adopt an affordable housing soft cost grant that would cover 15 per cent of pre-construction costs, up to $25,000. The incentive is part of the city's Housing Accelerator Fund action plan, according to a presentation to the committee from city housing manager Andrew Reid.

"A couple of the things that I'm hearing often is that there's programs in place but they come after the fact," deputy mayor John MacKenzie, growth committee chair, told Brunswick News. "They need support up front. So this grant will help them with their costs to get off the ground."

Reid told the committee that the city's existing affordable housing grants cover "hard costs," like building materials and crews, but not "soft costs" like design. He said the incentive would be limited to projects from registered non-profits with at least 50 per cent affordable units, with a minimum of five net new units. The grant is for new builds or conversion or rehabilitation projects that result in net new housing units, he said.

Projects would be assessed on a 50-point scale based on the organization's track record, whether it fills existing housing gaps, the quality of the application in terms of project readiness, as well as other criteria. Reid said they'd also be working to ensure an "equitable distribution" of grants each year.

Reid said they were "seeking feedback" from the growth committee on how to approve the grants: either through a staff committee that can award the grants itself, which would expedite the process, or by referring grant applications to council.

Mayor Donna Reardon told the meeting her preference was the staff committee, saying that as long as council approves of the scoring system, the rest is "just basically math."

Reid gave an update on last year's "hard costs" grants, with four projects awarded $200,000. He said he is also working on proposed changes that would change when money is paid out. Currently, he said, it's when the project is essentially complete, but they're looking to set a milestone such as when the foundation is complete. They also wish to tweak the evaluation process to ensure small units can access the grants, he said.

Coun. Gerry Lowe asked for details on the projects that received grants, including Steepleview Developments on Cliff Street, Barrack Green Residences on Broadview Avenue, Portland Commons on Millidge Avenue and a west side project by Rehabitat whose location has not yet been revealed.

Lowe asked if Barrack Green was on hold, and Reid said that while "there have been challenges with that project," the foundation has been dug and design work is ongoing.

CAO Brent McGovern said the developers are looking for a general contractor with bonding "within the financial restraints of the project."

Brunswick News has made a request for comment to developers Kaleidoscope Social Impact and is awaiting a response.

At a council meeting April 2, Coun. Brent Harris asked how the city monitored whether developers followed through on affordable housing promises, with growth commissioner Amy Poffenroth saying they're looking at ways to track that.

When asked if those concerns are a part of the changes, Reid told Brunswick News that "affordability is guaranteed" in the hard-cost grant because the developers must apply for CMHC or provincial government funding, which have their own commitments to retaining affordable units.

"For us, it's more a matter of the meaningfulness of the grant fund," Reid said. "If we wait until the project is completed, it's sort of funding the next project rather than the project already underway."

The committee also voted to direct staff to create the terms and conditions agreement that Reid told the committee would "ensure that the funding is used for the appropriate purpose."

The grant fund will now go to council for approval.

Andrew Bates, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal