After tough year in Oshawa, Habitat for Humanity project stalls twice due to lack of donations

The Durham region chapter of Habitat for Humanity has had such a hard time generating donations that construction on a 24-house project has been suspended twice in a year, and some are pointing to the looming shutdown of Oshawa's General Motors plant as one of the reasons.

The drop in donations comes at a time when the city is picking up the pieces as GM winds down operations. The plant will be shuttered at the end of December.

"We were building at a stage that was quicker than money was flowing in. So ... we stopped," said Ted Allen, project manager for CentreTowne, the Habitat for Humanity Durham project that's under construction.

As a result, a number of the homes in advanced construction suffered severe damage because roofs had not yet been installed. 

"We had a lot of thunderstorms and such this summer and what happened ... was delamination — basically a deterioration of the floor. It's not completely proper. so of course we want to tear it up and replace it with new."

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Habitat for Humanity is a not-for-profit, non-governmental organization that builds affordable homes for low-income families with the help of volunteers and donations. The homes now under construction are badly needed in a region where nearly 7,000 people were on a waiting list for affordable housing at the end of last year.

CBC Toronto has confirmed that construction pauses due to a lack of funding have happened only in Durham, and not to projects being built by Habitat for Humanity's GTA, Mississauga-Halton and Hamilton branches.

Some community advocates say the economic disparity in the city has been growing for years and that in turn may be affecting donations to charities.

Oshawa project

The CentreTowne project initiative is being built near the downtown core.

Fourteen houses in the project have been built, but Phase Four of the initiative — in which four more houses are being constructed — has been stalled because of a lack of funding.

Farrah Merali/CBC

"Most people don't realize that Habitat for Humanity relies so much on donations. They think it's only volunteers but actually it's both; we need the donations and the funds," said Denise Walker, Habitat for Humanity Durham's business development manager. 

Walker said she can't recall a time in recent years where this has happened with a Habitat for Humanity Durham project. But it coincides with a greater need for affordable housing in the region.

Farrah Merali/CBC

Durham region put out a report in June that shows as of the end of 2018, there were 6,555 low-income applicants on the wait list for a rent-geared-to-income (RGI) housing unit.

Since 2016, approximately 160 families have put in applications to Habitat for Humanity Durham for housing. But the demand is outpacing what's being built.

GM's departure 'hollowing out' Oshawa's economy 

About a year ago, General Motors announced it was closing its Oshawa car assembly plant complex, eliminating nearly 3,000 jobs.

The company has been in the city for 100 years, and as of May 2017, was the city's largest employer. 

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"It was the last piece of a long-term trend of hollowing out of the foundation of our economy locally," said Ben Earle, executive director of Feed The Need Durham, an organization that serves as an emergency food hub to dozens of food banks in the region.

While donations to his group have been steady, Earle said there has been an increased demand for food bank services in the city recently.

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Earle, a long-time Oshawa community advocate, has authored reports to the city on its growing socio-economic inequality.

He said while GM's departure took both a "psychological" and "economic" toll on the community, the issues started long before the company closed up shop, with stable jobs being replaced with either precarious employment or work that requires highly specialized training.

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The economic uncertainty, he said, could be keeping some people from donating to local groups or charities.

"As individuals are worried more and more about their own employment or their own financial well-being, it's harder and harder to make a decision to support your community. And that's understandable," said Earle.

The waiting game

General Motors was a big donor to Habitat for Humanity Durham. The charity said the carmarker's last donation was in 2017.

Meanwhile, construction has yet to begin on Phase 5 of the CentreTowne project in which the final six homes will be built.

Farrah Merali/CBC

Phase 4 of the CentreTowne housing project in Oshawa is slated to be completed by the end of May.  Four families selected by Habitat for Humanity Durham have been waiting for months to move in.

"It's sort of heartbreaking," said Walker.

"They're not living in the greatest conditions and they really want to have the stability and independence and the reliability of being in a safe and decent home."