Plan would turn former furniture store site into affordable downtown housing
Art Fisher has been able to turn an old menswear store on Bridgewater’s main drag into a storefront where anyone who is without a permanent home, or struggling to keep their place, can walk through the doors and ask for help.
The Nova Scotia town’s affordable housing hub includes apartments on the upper floors.
That project took longer than planned, but it’s another, larger housing project, that’s proving to be an even tougher nut to crack.
Fisher, executive director of the non-profit Family Service Association of Western Nova Scotia, said it’s because the development is not a traditional housing project. He said finding funding or a partner to share the load has not been easy, despite an ever-increasing demand for affordable places to live.
“The system as it currently exists offers you opportunities within boxes and you have to fit those boxes,” said Fisher.
“We went through a whole period where [at] Housing Nova Scotia the only box was the fixing up of existing housing. Then the promised box was new builds.”
He said this project is “both or neither.”
Not a new build or a renovation
The plan is to turn the former Gow’s Home Hardware and Furniture store into a large U-shaped apartment complex with a public courtyard in the middle, and civic and social enterprise sites at street level.
Fisher said it’s too big a project to be considered a renovation, but because the plan is to rehabilitate the downtown site it doesn’t fit nicely into a new-build category.
But his group isn’t interested in building on a site that may have never been developed, outside the downtown.
On Tuesday, Fisher shared his vision and frustration with provincial politicians who are members of the legislature’s standing committee on community services.
“Often with small towns, the sites that incredibly need remediation and renewal are old industrial commercial sites at the heart of towns,” Fisher told the all-party committee. “Those sites are optimal for the supported housing that we want to do in the middle of a community … because people don’t need transportation in order to connect with all goods and services.”
Fisher said that also makes things more environmentally friendly, another bonus.
He said this is a “model for community-based development that is simultaneously socially, ecologically and financially sustainable and profitable, a model in which profit can be re-invested to support community thriving.”
The committee met to discuss “the homelessness crisis” just one day after the province released a report it commissioned last November to examine the lack of affordable housing in Nova Scotia.
The Affordable Housing Commission has recommended the province immediately spend $25 million on housing projects and other measures to begin to alleviate the problem.
Fisher put the blame for a lack of affordable units squarely on the shoulders of developers who he accused of buying up properties simply to turn a profit.
“What that’s doing is, it’s actually taking all the resources from our rural communities that we could be using to build those communities,” Fisher told the committee.
Eiryn Devereaux, Nova Scotia’s deputy minister of infrastructure and housing, offered a different view, suggesting the housing report released this week would spark investment in affordable housing.
“It’s going to be important as we chart the new path forward over the next ten years to see continued investment — and that’s both public sector investment as well as private sector investment,” he said. “We’re not going to do this alone just with taxpayers’ money.
“We have to bring to the table private sector money and they have to engage the community housing sector in meaningful partners along with various levels of government.”
Fisher would love to find the right partners for his new project, as well as finding government money to fund a shelter-diversion unit which would be housed in the building his association remodelled.
That unit would help older teens who need to find a new place to live.
“We’ve had horrific experiences in the past of youth who were 16 to 19 leaving family violence and not being supported in staying in their own community,” Fisher told provincial politicians.
“The only option would be for them to go a shelter in the city — and that has caused increased risk for rural youth of human trafficking, substance abuse and violence in urban areas.”