Marcel LeBrun proudly opens the front door of a tiny home he has been building in his Fredericton backyard and points to its full kitchen, three-piece bathroom, loft and living space.
This 23-square-metre home is the beginning of what LeBrun hopes will be a new start for the people who will eventually move in.
His not-for-profit, 12 Neighbours Inc., plans to build a community of 96 tiny homes on a 24-hectare lot on Fredericton's north side as an antidote to the affordable housing crisis.
"It has everything anyone would need," LeBrun said of the model home, joking that it's so well insulated, tenants will be able to heat these homes "with a candle."
The project goes before Fredericton's Planning Advisory Committee on Wednesday evening for approval. City staff are recommending the property at 269 Two Nations Crossing be rezoned to allow it to go ahead.
In a report to committee members, city planner Fredrick Van Rooyen said staff are "of the opinion that the proposal is an innovative development that makes a significant contribution to the supply of affordable housing in the City of Fredericton."
Housing advocates and experts say projects led by not-for-profit groups are exactly what New Brunswick needs to increase the inventory of affordable options, which have been greatly reduced in the past decade as out-of-province investors purchase properties and raise rents.
Earlier this year, Statistics Canada reported that rents paid in New Brunswick had risen by 4.8 per cent between March, 2020 and March, 2021 – the largest increase in the country.
Tech CEO chooses charity over retirement
LeBrun, a software engineer and former CEO of social media monitoring company Radian 6, turned his attention to poverty reduction after the company was sold to San Francisco's salesforce.com for more than $300 million in 2011.
LeBrun continued working for a few years afterward but in 2015 made charity his focus.
"Affordability of housing is becoming more difficult," he said of the situation in Fredericton. "Our list of people that are living rough or housing insecure has doubled … so we've kind of gone backwards."
In the past two years, the waitlist for subsidized housing units with N.B. Housing has gone from 5,000 households to nearly 6,000.
Before the pandemic, LeBrun travelled around North America, studying the best models for helping people to find their way out of poverty.
He has also volunteered in and visited low-income neighbourhoods around Fredericton to ask people what they need.
That on-the-ground research led him to the 12 Neighbours project, which includes a community of tiny homes but also a social enterprise centre that will offer training and jobs.
"It's hard to progress in life without a roof over your head, but you need more than a roof," LeBrun said. "You also need community, opportunity and dignity. That's what we want to provide in this community."
The social enterprise centre will include a café and retail store, with space for tiny home manufacturing at the back of the centre.
"We're actually going to build the homes on site and use it as a mechanism to train people in carpentry skills, roofing, insulation — all of those types of things. And it also gives people agency in being able to have a hand in their home."
LeBrun says the space will be open to the entire community, bringing people together in a place everyone can be proud of.
'I can't wait for that day'
LeBrun is already imagining the moment he will be able to hand the keys to one of the tiny homes over to a new tenant.
There will be supports in place for the tenants, but anyone who moves in will be capable of living independently.
"We'll have a mix of people in this community — we might have some people who currently are living rough and homeless. We'll have some people that are currently housed, but they're housing insecure," he said.
"It's people who want to have an opportunity to be sheltered, but also to be in a community that can allow them to grow, heal and change."
The homes, which measure about 10 by 24 feet, will be suitable for a single adult, a couple, or a single parent and a child.
When you hear everyone's story, you realize that someone didn't win the parent lottery or didn't win the zip code lottery or didn't win the education lottery or didn't win any lottery. And some of us did. And so that's the only difference. - Marcel LeBrun, 12 Neighbours Inc.
After a summer of meeting with people who are living in insecure housing conditions, including tents, LeBrun expects to be overwhelmed by demand from people who want a safe and affordable home — especially women.
"I've discovered the degree to which they are at risk every night," he said. "Giving someone a place that they can lock, that they don't have to go outside their room to access a shared bathroom or access a shared kitchen … I think is going to be really exciting. I can't wait for that day."
If his plan is approved, LeBrun could begin moving tenants in to new tiny homes this fall, with construction of the social enterprise centre expected to begin in the spring of 2022.
The homes will cost approximately $40,000 each, including furniture. LeBrun has already met with Department of Social Development officials to discuss 12 Neighbours Inc. being part of the rent supplement program, which would allow tenants to put 30 per cent of their income toward the cost of housing while the province pays the balance.
LeBrun and his wife have a foundation which is providing $2 million in seed funding for the project.
He said as much as the project will help others who are struggling to find a home, he will also "be better" for the experience.
"I just happen to be lucky," LeBrun said. "When you hear everyone's story, you realize that someone didn't win the parent lottery or didn't win the zip code lottery or didn't win the education lottery or didn't win any lottery. And some of us did. And so that's the only difference."