8 Cultivating Community and Relationships
One of the people we were privileged to talk to over the course of the interview process was Nrinder Nann, who is the Ward 3 City Councillor and a supporter of the importance of affordable housing. She emphasized the need for affordable housing:
Everybody needs affordable housing, whether you’re a newcomer coming into the city, whether you’re a new immigrant coming into the city, whether you’re somebody who’s gone through…….circumstances that have pushed you into the margins financially, whether you are somebody who can’t get a living wage in the city. The demographic is very diverse, and so we know that the health of our communities and the health of our city is strengthened when we have a diversity of people engaging and participating.
She sees that often, however, when affordable housing is created, it is done so in ‘stigmatized’ buildings or ‘ghettoized’ pockets of neighbourhoods. When this happens, she says:
We’re concentrating people with a particular set of experiences and circumstances into one geographic area. The challenge of doing this is that you continue to create an impoverished community, versus when we mix that up and bring people into every single neighborhood, regardless of income and affordability and other social conditions or circumstances they might be facing, then we begin to break down the stigma and break down the social walls and start to create a sense of a commonality.
This is where the Indwell approach to cultivating community and relationship building throughout the development process becomes key.
The Importance of Working Together
Central to the mandate of Indwell is the commitment to building relationships. This is a concept that extends to the tenants who end up living in Indwell’s buildings, the many people who are a part of the communities that their residential properties are located in, and the people who were essential to establishing new residential builds. This can be anyone from the politicians who support the procurement of land, to the construction crews that work on the builds.
Collaboration and Planning
Having a base of supporters that shares Indwell’s vision for supportive, affordable housing is essential. Graham Cubitt also talked about this approach as being key to their growth as an organization. Many of the buildings that Indwell seeks or is invited to re-develop are derelict buildings, and the kind of buildings that lenders are not enthusiastic about providing a traditional mortgage for:
Personal loans from our supporters has been one of the key ways that we’ve been able to grow. Having a support constituency that said, “We believe in this approach, and we want to see solutions for homelessness, supportive housing, community development. We’ll loan the money to buy these properties, unsecured.” Because it’s an old bar or a derelict factory, they’re not great collateral. Individuals who believe in Indwell loan us the money to get the land and we can then win the funding RFP and then can build the project. We usually build that upfront loan cost into the project and then pay back those loans at the end or refinance them as a long-term normal mortgage.
This, Graham says, is just one example of the creative options for finance and funding they have looked at when working with a community. When Indwell is approached by a particular community – this could be a municipality (i.e. Simcoe, Norfolk, City of Hamilton) or a private organization (i.e. Hughson St. Baptist Church). Graham shared:
It’s just finding different ways to bring the resources of the community together around a solution……..being willing to look at all kinds of creative routes to fund projects.
For Indwell, the process from the beginning is always collaborative with whoever they are partnering with – be it a larger municipality or a smaller private partner. Graham Cubitt stated:
We talk within our team and with outside agencies or community groups, city administrations, whomever, about the shortage or the gaps in the spectrum of housing. My role is to listen closely and then try to figure out how to create a new path, new program, a new project which can address the specific needs. It’s not just about building units.
Graham Cubitt gave examples of the process they engaged in with their developments in Norfolk Inn in Simcoe, ON and the Harvey Woods Lofts in Woodstock:
Municipal staff are often the starting point for housing conversations. Norfolk Inn in Simcoe, and Harvey Woods Lofts in Woodstock were both projects where the County said, “Hey, you know we really need more housing in the community, and we’ve got this problem building, or this vacant derelict building; any chance you guys could take a look at it and see what you could do?”
There can be challenges in the process, particularly in smaller communities, when looking for funding, but the process is in place. Graham reported that it can be harder “in a smaller [communities] like Simcoe, in Norfolk County where you’ve only got 67,000 people, you don’t get as much funding as in a place like Hamilton which has over 500,000 people. It may take two or three years to accumulate the 2 million dollars they need for a project. However, in the end, it is a matter of working through various scenarios, talking about the opportunities and challenges, and then coming up with a plan together.”
Building a Collaborative Team
Indwell partners have developed a partnership with the Hamilton-based architecture firm Invizij. We interviewed the Principal Architect, Emma Cubitt. Although Invizij does not solely focus on building supportive, affordable housing, their connection with Indwell was born out of the passion that Emma had for housing solutions:
I was drawn to affordable housing much more than market condos, because the non-profit housing providers have a different value system that they work under so they would choose something that has long term benefits over just flipping something for more profit at the beginning. So, it’s just been a natural fit to work with the affordable housing providers. It also works with my value system of providing good places to live for people who wouldn’t be able to afford it otherwise.
Emma often works with Indwell on projects that involve adaptive reuse, repurposing derelict buildings in neighbourhoods and giving them a new ‘lease’ on life:
I personally have an infinity for adaptive reuse because I think they’re really interesting projects to work on, especially when we start with something that was terrible and create something that’s so wonderful. Also, sometimes you have a really interesting building to start with, like when Indwell did a factory conversion. It was just intrinsically beautiful to begin with and we made it even nicer.
Another important partner on the Indwell development team has been the contractor Henry Schilthuis, from Schilthuis Construction. Henry and his team have worked with Indwell on a number of projects, including Parkdale Landing, their first Passive House project. Henry talked about his working relationship with Indwell:
Our [first project with Indwell was] building Hambleton Hall in Simcoe. Indwell does projects with others as well…….we’re not doing all their work. Each time we do a project, especially as we’re getting into [building] Passive House, is kind of working together and seeing what works, what doesn’t work, where can we create value?
Henry sees himself as an integral part of the team, and essential to carrying out the project within budget and time constraints:
Some of the modelling that we try to do with construction management is leaning toward IPD (Integrated Project Delivery). It’s a more collaborative process working together with the owner, the consultants, and the contractor, and saying, “How can we build something that’s going to be on time, going to be within budget constraints (that you have because social housing has budget constraints), and how can we make this work as a model going forward?” For us as a contractor, it’s easier sometimes to just go bid a job and make your profit margin. In this kind of project, it’s kind of an open-book session. With the time and material, we’re not going to lose money, and we’re definitely going to cover our costs, and hopefully at the end of the day there is some profit because everybody is still in business to make money.
The Indwell Development team works closely with the architect and the construction manager, managing the different projects (there are 6-10 projects underway at a time). Graham shared there are other people involved in the process from the Indwell team:
Within our broader organization we work with our Executive Director, Director of Finance, our Program Director and regional program managers, our Director of Mental Health Services, and our Facilities team. All of those people have a role informing the development team. Even though their full-time focus is not the development work, it’s really about the feedback loop. Our maintenance team is very important- we put in technologies and we put in systems or equipment or materials. You want to make sure you can maintain facilities and that you’re not just having to replace stuff the first time it breaks down. The feedback loop is important for us.
What this looks like in practice is having processes that streamline the development of projects. Graham Cubitt gave an example of working with Invizij:
You develop a shorthand, you don’t have to discuss many things every time you dive into a project because you’ve worked through it before. We can get from an idea to a concept in two weeks now instead of two months.
This process starts from finding and securing land and ends up once a project is passed over to the Indwell Program Team that supports tenants. Graham explains the process:
Finding sites, working out deals for securing the land, then working with our design team in conjunction with our program team to say, “Okay we’re trying to create a program that is going meet these sorts of needs; is it one bedroom apartments, are we looking at bachelor units, are we talking about a retro fit or new-build, is it families we’re trying to support?” We then fit all of that together with the site and design the building with our team, and then go through construction, and then hand it over to our Program Team to carry on running it for the long-term.
Working on large projects can often be challenging especially when it comes to making decisions. Jeff Neven felt that one of the greatest strengths that Indwell has is its management structure:
I think our management structure has been one of our greatest assets. We have five senior managers and we make almost every major decision in consensus. I could pull rank, but I can’t think of a time that I’ve had to. We have very differing opinions, we argue (sometimes fiercely), but we come out of the room on the same page – sometimes it takes a week to come out of the room, proverbially! – (but) I think that’s one of our strengths. I’m a firm believer in that not one of us has all of the strengths needed to grow as an organization.
Building Health, Wellness and Belonging
Creating a Sense of Belonging
Figure 4: Original Collage by Bethany Osborne and Shannon Pirie
Central to Indwell’s vision and mission is their commitment to creating housing communities that embody health, wellness and belonging. As we reviewed the data that we collected through our interviews, there were a number of themes that emerged which demonstrated the ways that they work to achieve this: from initial design, to the process of building, to the supportive programming that they build into each of their projects.
Many of our research participants talked about the importance they placed on creating a sense of belonging inside the Indwell communities. Fundamental to this was the concept of listening to tenants. Graham Cubitt, Director of Programs and Development talked about the importance of listening to tenants to find out what is working and what is not. That, he said, allows us to learn “this is a terrible idea, this is a great idea”. He went on to say that they were then able to respond to feedback and allow that to shape the way that they do programming or improve building designs.
Jess Brand, the Assistant Program Director, shared that creating community space was important in Indwell buildings from the beginning. People need to have their own space but there also needs to be intentional space for community. She shared that particularly for people who have lived in institutions or other less than ideal housing situations, social spaces at times have not always been positive experiences. So, they make it a priority to create positive community programming in each building.
Take for instance our common rooms, it’s not the furniture that brings people together. However, we do sit and we have tea there. Teatime is something you can see in each of our programs……. our weekly teatime breaks down barriers.
Graham Cubitt talked about the importance of the community room in the Indwell buildings, that it is an accessible space that people can use:
We don’t lock the community room, we don’t make people reserve it or pay a deposit. If tenants want to have a family gathering or special event, they can book it, but otherwise it’s open and available. Kids in the building will go over there to ride their trikes or play, or people do art or have book clubs, or whatever else they organize.
Health and Wellness at the Forefront
When you have a sense of belonging, it goes a long way in providing you with the tools and resources that you need to cultivate both good physical and mental health and wellbeing. Belonging combats social isolation, which the research shows can contribute to a whole host of negative impacts on health (Novotney, 2019). Our research participants discussed the importance of intentionally integrating health and wellness initiatives into their approach to both building communities and delivering services.
Jeff Neven, Executive Director at Indwell, talked about the intentional inclusion of food serveries within the design of buildings:
We always have common spaces with some type of community kitchen or servery because people come together around food. If people want to make tea, host a potluck, or there is a community meal for the holidays. It’s a place for people to gather.
Steven Rolfe talked about the importance of creating community space to provide opportunities for connection:
A great program means more than having Ministry of Health funding. We know for an amazing program it’s absolutely vital that there is space to foster community. When there is space for neighbors come together, the building becomes central to this process. Take Strathearne Suites for example- the apartments are very modest, very functional units. Creating that community kitchen, computer lab, and a lounge was an outlet space for people to connect outside their own apartments.
At the Parkdale Landing site, they are taking the food programming space one step further and have hired a professional chef and staff to support a culinary academy and job-creation program, with an on-site opportunity for tenants to learn important employability skills.
A number of Indwell’s developments have on-site nursing staff to support the needs of tenants (e.g. Parkdale Landing, Strathearne Suites). This is dependent on the intention of the housing development. In the case of Strathearne Suites, there are more enhanced supports available for tenants making the transition from hospital or institutional settings. Whether or not the development has a nursing staff on site, the service model provides an opportunity for tenants to reach out for support, on a regular or at an interim basis (Jess Brand, interview transcript). Steven Rolfe spoke about the similar phenomenon in his interview: when you put access to professional services on site, people use them, and subsequently don’t need to go to the emergency department as often as they used to. Tenants are more likely to find and go to their primary care provider because they can develop a relationship with them instead of relying on emergency interventions (interview transcript).
Graham Cubitt spoke to one of the challenges that Indwell faces in supporting their tenants, and why it is so important to ensure that the supports are integrated into their model:
Many of our tenants have had very little self-determination. If you are street homeless, you have a certain amount of autonomy and independence – it’s free and easy, but it’s also super difficult. Making the shift to living in a building with community standards can be a challenge. When you are on the street, you don’t have to deal with the constraints of being indoors and you can do things like smoke whenever you want to. We have non-smoking buildings, and so there’s a learning curve to integrating with the community standards. Many of our tenants have lived in hospitals or some form of institution their whole life and so it’s a new experience to have your own apartment with its responsibilities. In either case, it may be a new thing to deal with an electric bill. It’s our program team that helps people navigate this challenge.
A number of our tenants have physical mobility challenges as well. We’re often helping tenants figure out the benefits of living in an accessible building compared to living in buildings with very low accessibility where they were always struggling just to get over threshold(s).
Working together with tenants to ensure that they find their place within the community is central to the process of belonging.
Supporting Each Other in Difficult Times
Equally important to the process of belonging is being aware of the needs of tenants as they experience difficult times. Health and wellness can extend to supporting tenants of the community during difficult times, such as dealing the death of a community member. Graham Cubitt acknowledged that “the flip side of building relationships is that people grieve more intensely when you know your neighbour.” Indwell staff work to ensure that “they focus on building relationships, and a sense of solidarity within the community because peer support is important to recovery and wellness.” (Graham Cubitt, interview transcript):
[It has] a ripple effect in a community when people grieve. What we often do is host an event – a memorial service or some kind of time to come together to reflect because many of our tenants don’t have strong family or community connections. They could theoretically die and no one would know, they would just disappear. Its dehumanizing to not be known. For someone to be remembered in their death, is important for the community.
Learning to Live in Community – We Need Each Other
Figure 5: Original Collage by Shannon Pirie and Bethany Osborne
As Jeff Neven describes the Indwell community, he says:
The phrase that we use is “knowable communities”. It really comes down to knowing your neighbours. When you’re walking through the front door and somebody is following you in, and you turn around, do you know if that person is supposed to be there or not? And we found that with forty to sixty units you can know whether that person is supposed to be there or not, especially over time. This adds safety…..and you can build a lot of community supports where people can use their abilities and gifts for benefit of their neighbors.
Jeff went on to share that within these knowable communities, it is important to create spaces where people get together and learn what it is they are good at. “Tapping into that, on a good day, we ask our tenants, what are you good at? And how can you contribute that to a community” (interview transcript).
The interviews were punctuated with stories of how tenants learned to live in community, and learned to need each other. In our interview with Jess Brand, she shared: “Each person is carrying this incredible story with them [and what] happens is that when people come into affordable supportive housing and they’re actually able to get their feet underneath them, those stories can be transformational because they are in the context of support” (interview transcript). Jess shared one of those stories:
We have an art group that has been running for the past number of years. This past winter, we had a tenant join the art group who most neighbours didn’t really know much about, except that he never changed the old scarf he wore on his head. He’s had beautiful hats given to him [but he] would just wear the same scarf on his head all the time. He started doing art and all of a sudden we saw creativity, and all these ideas that I had no idea were going on in his head started appearing…….He produces art and he’s proud of it and he’s bringing us in and opening up like never before. His neighbours are all talking about it because they’ve never seen anything like it.
Jeff Neven spoke to the importance of developing networks, something that we might take for granted:
I’m thinking about somebody who had to have surgery and they had a dog, so they were putting off going for the surgery because they couldn’t afford to use a kennel. But because of the building’s community, another tenant stepped up and said, “Oh, I’ll take your dog so you can go have the surgery.” Without networks, you might not get the surgery and it could be life-threatening. Often it comes down to a simple thing like who is going to look after my dog?
When he recalls of the success of building a safe community where people were known to each other, Jeff Neven recalled a conversation that he had with a female tenant who was in a wheelchair:
She said, “Well, when I fall out of my chair, my neighbor comes and lifts me back into my chair.” I asked: “What? How often does this happen?” And she said, “Oh, you know, once or twice a week.”
“And how does your neighbor get in?”
“I don’t lock my door, it’s a safe place”.
When you know your neighbors and you feel safe and they can help, you’re in a good community.
Jess Brand summed up the importance of learning to be in community and to need each other, in this final quote that she shared in her interview:
We’re actually just trying to create the ideal community, one that we would want for ourselves. We’re in a society that is so cut off, we’re set up to be individualized, and there’s the blessed few who are actually able to make community.
We have some awesome streets out there and neighborhoods. But the way things are set up, our default mode is for people to isolate themselves. We’re actively trying to push against that and create community where people can be known, are invited to connect, to come to things and see what’s happening, to decide to participate, or help a neighbor, the ways that we all want for our best selves.
The Importance of Making Connections
Figure 6: Original Collage by Shannon Pirie and Bethany Osborne
Through the interviews, it became clear that central to Indwell’s model for supporting their tenants was the importance of developing partnerships with different stakeholders who wanted to support and invest in their tenants. Graham Cubitt used the metaphor of a keyring when he described this approach:
It’s like if we are the key ring, the other people are the keys. The housing, the stable housing, is absolutely critical then everything else can feed in. It could be a 12-step program like AA or Narcotics Anonymous, a community knitting club, an arts group or any number of things. Our multi-purpose room gets used a lot by other community groups coming in to support tenants. We don’t want to be all of those things to tenants because then it becomes limiting for them, and we want to maximize their tentacles into community supports.
Steven Rolfe spoke to this same phenomenon, and also talked about why Indwell has made the decision to include not just health providers but also community groups in the people they invite into the communal spaces:
What if we actually try to involve other groups that are not mental health oriented that some of our tenants could actually join in? Some of the activities offered by churches, volunteers, other kinds of community groups coming in, and Public Health doing community health create a space where our tenants actually connect or interact with all generations. This ends up being healthier than if we had just stacked up a slate of mental health activities.
Graham Cubitt talked about putting the supports that people need around them in order to help them succeed in his interview. He shared:
We often say, “If we were in this position ourselves, what would we like to have?” And we’d like to have somebody who is onsite as an addictions worker, rather than waiting until next Thursday for an appointment. It’s trying to figure out what’s most successful, what’s most effective. Community building is a really important part of our program; so spaces are designed around community.
There were a number of examples shared of how connecting out with these partnerships enhances community life for tenants. Jeff Neven shared the story of Sybil:
We have a volunteer named Sybil who loves to sew. She goes around to all our different sites and she mends tenants’ clothing and does alterations. Every year our tenants are invited to our fundraising gala for a formal dinner. One of our tenants hadn’t owned a dress in a very long time but found one she liked at a thrift store. It was ill-fitting, but Sybil altered it so it fit perfectly. When our tenant walked into the banquet hall she started doing twirls. An adult woman over the moon because she had a dress that fits and was able to attend a gala. That’s community at work!
Jeff and Graham shared about food security programs that connect tenants to both the source of their food and to learning employability skills. Jeff shared:
We have a group of volunteers called Church Out Serving; it’s mostly retired vegetable growers that have just incredible gardens. They help our tenants and they’ve now built support networks through gardening and our tenants are now growing vegetables. Our tenants can grow for themselves, but the majority of the produce actually goes to food banks. That’s where our tenants work hard at giving back. Another program that runs at our Perkins Centre is a partnership with Environment Hamilton called the Good Food Box. My family gets one of the 450 good food boxes, all sorted here – and most of the volunteers are our tenants.
The community food-focused spaces are very important. In most of our buildings it is usually two residential stoves, some refrigeration, usually a commercial dishwasher just to make sure everybody is happy with sanitation. But then having a big island where people can get together and cook together, do life skills training, or we find a lot of our tenants just self-organize cooking clubs. They’ll get together one week and read all the flyers, make up a list of things they want to make based on what’s on sale, and then get together the next week and each bring something from the list and then make some meals together. That is the kind of thing we want to foster. At Parkdale Landing, we have a commercial kitchen space and plan to develop more programming to support tenants in developing their employability skills.
And there are many instances when people from the community contribute to different areas of need. Sometimes in direct connection with tenants (i.e. cooking meals) but other times, contributing to the maintenance of the buildings. Jeff Neven describes this important community connection:
We have this group of retired guys – mostly men right now, but women from time to time as well, who come do maintenance. Painting, apartment turnover, who really get satisfaction and fulfillment out of that. This is their chance to once a week go and contribute and it’s in just so many different areas that are essential to the functioning of our communities.
Building Relationships with the Surrounding Community
When Nrinder Nann talked about building affordable housing, she spoke poignantly that “fundamentally at the end of the day, we’re neighbours”. She went on to say:
We deserve to be able to communicate, to be able to live within a geographic area harmoniously. If we’re stigmatizing those who need affordable units as being some sort of negative character, I think that we have a lot of work to do to demystify that. I think those with privilege who have a particular concept of who needs affordable housing need to start asking themselves some deep self-reflective questions.
One of the themes that came through clearly in the interviews, was the importance of building relationships with the external community. What can often happen when affordable housing units are built is that the housing units become stigmatized or ghettoized as social housing units in otherwise ‘nice’ neighbourhoods, or in neighbourhoods that are in the process of gentrification. Much thought appears to be given to the process of building relationships with the communities where the housing units are going to be established from the beginning of the process. The reactions that surrounding communities have can differ, as they learn about the new housing development. Graham Cubitt shared:
New communities that we’re going into can be hesitant. They wonder: “What is this going to be like? Am I going to lose? Is this going to be like a zero-sum game? Who are those people?” When communities have a strong sense of self-awareness of their own needs, it can actually make things easier. The conversations at these meetings sound like this “Where do I sign up, how do I get my son or daughter in here?” Those are the kind of questions we get all the time.
The reactions can also be quite extreme, as Jess Brand shared:
Affordable housing becomes part of reimagining and redeveloping and new life in our neighbourhoods. I always think about this one night; I was at the Perkins Centre– it had been open about a year – and we actually had the police come in to support a tenant who was really struggling, and the police officer said to me ‘Yah, so this used to be Rookies’ Bar. We would never come in here without back-up’. And it’s so great to hear that about affordable housing.
When Indwell bought George and Mary’s Tavern and proposed to turn it into Parkdale Landing, supportive affordable housing, people were surprised because of the decay it had represented to the community. People from the community applauded the change, as described by Steven Rolfe:
I went to a community meeting and we announced that we had actually purchased George and Mary’s Tavern and people applauded, and said “Good on you – brave, but good on you. We needed this change, we needed this difference in our community”. The doors opened, and we actually had seventy people coming through the building on the opening weekend and the primary comment is “you guys have no idea how much you’ve changed this neighbourhood with this particular building.”
As part of the community engagement process with Parkdale Landing, the community was clear about the kinds of community benefits they would like to see. Indwell worked to create those benefits and that strengthened the relationship. Jeff Neven describes the process:
We ask, how do we develop things for community benefit? I think about Parkdale Landing, the building that we bought there; when we engaged the community, they were pretty quick to tell us that they wanted a variety store. They were very good about letting the strip club and human trafficking go, but we worked to keep the variety store, then connected the variety store to Public Health who was doing a project on healthy corner stores. While we were not involved in that business, making the linkages and connections to try to figure out how a variety store can get better food and produce.
It has also been really important to Indwell to follow up on their commitment with action. Action can so often speak louder than words to the people living in the community. This was the case the very first winter after Indwell purchased the Parkdale Landing site:
There were 18 people living here when we bought the place. There was no heat, there were rodents and pests and everything else. The old landlord was the kind that said, “I don’t ask any questions – just pay your rent on time.” That was the culture of the building and by extension, the culture of the surrounding neighbourhood. At the end of the year when winter came and we did normal things like shovel the sidewalks, the neighbours responded “This is the first time in 30 years that the sidewalks have been shoveled”.
Sometimes the reactions can be curiously mixed: positive towards the redevelopment of derelict buildings, but negative towards the potential that the new tenants may not “deserve” the new buildings. Steven Rolfe shared:
One of the things we encounter in new places is people raising the issue: “You’re going to build what, where?” when we show people that we’re going to build beautiful and impactful building that actually alter streetscapes in a positive ways. People often can’t wrap their head around two things: why would poor people with disabilities be living there, and why wouldn’t we offer that to someone else who could pay more rent? We also hear: “Isn’t that too good for those people?” attitude in some ways. What we believe, of course, is that you build the best possible housing for people that need it most because it improves their health.
Communicating the value of the people coming into the community is what often takes time and effort and the consistent ongoing work of the Program teams that are involved at each of the Indwell sites (interview transcript).
Being consistent and building a good reputation over the past decade has been important for community relationships as well. Graham Cubitt shared that having built a number of housing developments in Hamilton in the past few years has had a positive impact:
We have built a really good reputation in the community – we have five other buildings in this neighbourhood, within a couple kilometers, and they are some of the best buildings in the neighbourhood.
As Emma Cubitt from Invizij reflected on how Indwell actively engages the communities that they are proposing to develop housing projects in, she summarized their process and its importance:
Indwell does a very good job of reaching out to the community in the early stages of the project and asking for honest input on the form to the project and the amenities that will be provided that others in the community can use, and how it’s going to impact the neighbourhood. We did that with the Hughson Street Baptist Church project where we had probably six or eight community meetings over time that were just updates, and a lot of them provided input for us that we used to change the design. Those were really helpful sessions. Having that community input from the start is important