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Why some of Canada’s greenest apartments go for as little as $85 per month

Think you can’t afford an eco-home? Some of Canada’s greenest apartments go for as little as $85 per month. Here’s why — and what it means for both the climate crisis and the housing crisis.

Social housing providers have embraced energy-efficient passive house standard

Two people site and chat on a bench in front of a building that's brick on the first floor and white above as a woman walks past.

Think you can't afford an eco-home? Some of Canada's greenest apartments go for as little as $85 per month — thanks to social housing providers who have embraced energy efficiency standards and green building techniques.

Those builders say it's a way to use public money to solve multiple problems at once — including mitigating and adapting to climate change and tackling growing housing unaffordability and homelessness. And it's already helping green building techniques spread to other types of construction and housing.

What kind of green affordable housing is being built?

From Whistler, B.C., to Windsor, Ont., to Halifax, N.S., there's been a building boom in social housing that aims to meet the Passive House standard.

It's a global standard for airtight, energy-efficient buildings that require very little space heating and cooling and maintain a comfortable temperature year-round. The standard also emphasizes features like natural light and ventilation with fresh air.

Mass timber is another form of green construction that some are also using — engineered wood panels and beams replace some components made of carbon-intensive steel and concrete in construction. The wood also stores carbon captured during the growth of the trees it came from. Because the panels and beams are pre-fabricated in a factory, construction is quick.

An animated GIF shows a four-storey mass timber building being constructed.

Abla Tsolu, director of homelessness and housing at YWCA Kitchener-Waterloo, said that's one reason her non-profit chose a mass timber design for a new complex on Block Line Road in Kitchener for homeless single women and families headed by single mothers.

She said the group's waiting list for housing has nearly doubled since before the pandemic, and the motels where families were housed temporarily weren't safe due to gang activity.

Ten families moved into the newest building in April.

Close up of a sign.

How affordable is it?

Municipally owned CityHousing Hamilton has nearly completed its latest project, the King William modular passive house.

Sean Botham, manager of development for CityHousing Hamilton, said most of the 24 units are part of the group's "deep affordability" program and will go for $85 a month.

"A selection of the folks who will move into this building will be homeless, others will be precariously housed, and some of them will have been folks waiting for housing for a long time," he said, as workers in hard hats measured, hammered and sawed in the pillared foundation behind him. A few white, rectangular units that had already been trucked from the factory and craned into place.

WATCH | How affordable housing providers are going green — and why:

Social housing goes green

6 days ago

Duration 2:48

Affordable housing providers tackle climate and housing crisis together

Graham Cubitt is director of projects and development for Indwell, a Hamilton-based Christian charity that builds supportive housing and has embraced the passive house standard. He said Indwell's rents are typically about $525 per month, reflecting the amount of money available to most tenants for shelter as part of provincial support for people with disabilities.

Botham said making rents affordable is only possible when governments offer grants and subsidies starting right from construction.

However, he said, designing and constructing a green building doesn't cost much more than a conventional building.

"It's not actually difficult to do, but the benefits are tremendous."

Why is it so popular with social housing providers?

Cubitt said social housing providers are responsible for their buildings for decades, so they have to think long-term. And governments are putting in measures to deal with climate change, like carbon taxes and bans on oil and gas heating.

"We wouldn't have the money to retrofit buildings," he added, since that can be far more costly than building an energy-efficient building in the first place.

Many nonprofit housing providers say they also aim to solve multiple problems at once.

"Every public investment should achieve more than one end," Cubitt said. "So how do we make sure that we're achieving climate goals or achieving, you know, equitable goals at the same time as building housing?"

A man in a suit stands in front of a red crane.

Botham said many social housing providers were sharing knowledge and showing green building could be done amid an influx of funding to address the housing crisis in many Canadian cities.

"And then something interesting happened," he said: federal funding agencies began requiring higher energy efficiency standards.

What does living in a green building mean for tenants?

Daniel Bentum lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Indwell's James North Landing in Hamilton, Ont., which recently got Passive House certification. The 45 units of supportive housing are built on top of a church. Both the housing provider and church offer supports such as meals and activities.

A man with glasses stands in an apartment holding a paper cup with a plant growing in it.

The energy-efficient windows give him a view of the Burlington Skyway Bridge and Hamilton Harbour, and fill his apartment with light. When they're closed, they completely block out noise outside.

"It's really nice for getting a good night's rest," Bentum said. "And sometimes you just like to have a quiet space to go to and to relax and enjoy."

Heat pumps allow tenants to adjust the temperature in their own unit. But Bentum rarely needs to turn the heat pump on. His energy bills are so low that he typically gets money back at the end of the year.

LISTEN | Reporter Emily Chung takes you on a tour of green affordable housing:

What On Earth12:42Green affordable housing tackles housing and climate crisis together

Residents of affordable apartments share how their eco-friendly homes have changed their lives. Social housing providers explain why they're building green, and what impact it's having on their communities.

Cubitt said many tenants couldn't afford to pay for heat or air conditioning in their previous homes and suffered as a result. Now, he said, "They're saving everything. They're saving money, they're saving the planet."

A close up portrait of a woman wearing glasses and a colourful blouse.

With mass timber, another benefit that Tsolu points out is its beauty. She recounted how one new tenant refused to step into her new apartment on move-in day.

"She just couldn't believe that it would be hers, just seeing how beautiful everything was designed, the material — this is of such quality, the exposed wood."

How is this affecting the bigger, for-profit housing market?

Many non-profit housing providers, such as CityHousing Hamilton, work with private sector partners. Botham said in doing so, they gain experience. That acts as a "catalyst for new development and even retrofit work in the for-profit sector — and it's already beginning to happen."

He added that one of CityHousing Hamilton's private sector partners is now working on four other high-performance buildings.

Matt Bolen, principal with Edge Architects, which worked on the Block Line Road project, said mass timber had been seen as a "high-end product" for institutional projects such as universities, hospitals or high-end residential.

But he says adapting it for affordable housing has opened up new opportunities — "not just in some other supportive and affordable housing projects, but market rate housing as well."

A man in a suit sits on a bench in front of a white building. There are boats and water in the background, blurred out.

Graeme Stewart is principal with ERA Architects. The firm designed a retrofit of CityHousing Hamilton's Ken Soble Tower, an 18-storey highrise built in 1967. After adding insulation, upgrading windows, and replacing gas boilers with centrally ducted heat pumps, the striking white seniors building is now passive house certified.

The project proves such retrofit projects are possible, Stewart said, and affordable and nonprofit housing have been the first market and leaders in this space.

"But there's a critical mass of these projects," he said. "And now there's a firm foundation — we have the technical know-how and the supply chain."

Meanwhile, he said, building codes in places like B.C. and Toronto are becoming more aggressive, requiring most new buildings to be nearly net zero.

What's missing, he said, is the financing that's already in place for nonprofit housing in the form of government grants and loans.

"How do we create the right incentives for the private sector to take this on? Are they tax incentives? Are they grant and loan packages that allow the work to be done as long as there's no immediate rent increases for tenants? And so that financial puzzle is really the next piece to spread this into the private sector."

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