An anonymous group of donors from Friends of Muskoka have offered to match donations up to $25,000 for a Habitat for Humanity build in Bala that is set to offer affordable, accessible housing to two families by the end of 2022.
Muskoka Lakes Councillor Donelda Hayes got the ball rolling on the project when she contacted Habitat for Humanity last year about the possibility of building a Habitat home in the area. The organization already had a site in Bala in their land bank, so they started planning the build and established the Township of Muskoka Lakes Adopt-a-Home Committee earlier this year. The house at 1016 Elm Street will be semi-detached, offering two affordable homes equipped with accessible features for families dealing with mobility challenges. A few members of the citizen group known as Friends of Muskoka decided to go big with their personal donations, challenging the community to match $25,000 before the end of the year.
“We are very happy to support the creation of affordable, accessible housing in Bala,” said Laurie Thomson, representative for the anonymous group of donors and president of Friends of Muskoka. “The communities in our township are in need of this type of housing and we are thankful to Habitat for Humanity for stepping up and creating a program to help fill this need. We hope it encourages some of the for-profit developers in Muskoka to do the same.”
Kimberley Woodcock, CEO of Habitat for Humanity Ontario Gateway North, said it’s uncommon to receive a donation of this size before they even have a permit for the house.
“Very often we gain momentum as we get further along in the planning process and we have more tangible things to show donors,” Woodcock said. “This is a real leap of faith by a donor group who totally believes in the community that we can achieve this, and it’s really going to give us the initiative that we need because excitement and energy like this is contagious.”
Thanks in part to funding from the District of Muskoka, the fundraising goal for the project is $200,000 over the next year. It’s standard practice for Habitat builds to raise the majority of necessary funds before starting construction to ensure a smooth and successful build, so the project is set to break ground in October 2021.
Even though move-in isn’t expected until late 2022, the Adopt-a-Home committee will start accepting applications for those looking to purchase the homes this coming spring. They like to engage the homeowners early, Woodcock said, in part because Habitat homeowners are required to perform 500 volunteer hours towards the construction of their own home.
“The sooner we have them selected, the more chance they have to be involved in the build, which is very important to our model because they learn about how their house works,” she said. “They take ownership early, long before they move in, they develop a sense of pride in their home and that really does influence the outcomes positively.”
Families that move into Habitat homes often come from unsuitable housing conditions with issues ranging from overcrowding to maintenance and safety issues. Moving into a Habitat home provides safety and comfort, Woodcock said, but it also helps get families out of survival mode and provides the opportunity for affordable home ownership. In Bala, Habitat is offering deferred homeownership, meaning the homeowners-to-be pay affordable rent for 20 years and at the 20-year mark, they have the option to purchase the home and use their past rental payments as a downpayment.
“We have research that says habitat homeowners really do blossom after living in a habitat home. They are healthier, both mentally and physically,” Woodcock said. “Habitat adults have better employment outcomes, habitat children have better education outcomes, and so it’s really important to look at not just the fact that someone has moved into a house, but for generations, there’s an impact. It changes the trajectory of where a family is headed, and it changes what’s possible.”
Beyond the impact the homes have on the families that move in, Woodcock said it’s also important to note that Habitat homes have a far-reaching ripple effect. Statistics indicate that one Habitat home in any local community generates about $175,000 in benefit to the community through reduced reliance on social services programs, which is particularly important to consider in an area with such a dire need for affordable housing, she said.
The local need for affordable housing is an issue that real estate broker Heather Scott knows well, which is part of what led her to head the fundraising initiative. The project is also special to Scott because the site of the build is just a few houses down from the house she grew up in. Standing at the site takes her back to the days of playing with neighbouring children and riding her bike up and down the street.
“It’s a great place to grow up, so it means so much to be able to know that two families are really going to benefit from this,” Scott said. “It’s unbelievable even for me just to be a part of it and know I can help create that for someone and make this happen.”
Every day in real estate, Scott sees families that want to buy a house but lose the chance after getting outbid or being unable to meet the down payment requirements, so she said it’s amazing to know what a difference this will make to two local families. She’ll be working hard to rally support until the end of the year, in part by reaching out to her realtor community, so while the fundraising is off to a great start, Scott encourages locals to give anything they can to help change the lives of the homes’ future occupants.
“I never want Muskoka to ever be unattainable for people,” she said. “To be able to make a spot where families can come and grow up and live and interact in the community that I was fortunate enough to grow up in really means a lot.”
To make a donation to the campaign, click here. To learn more about the Habitat build in Bala, visit Habitat Gateway North’s website, or email firstname.lastname@example.org for volunteer opportunities and other inquiries.