OPINION: City’s indifference to remarkable Habitat project perplexing

Habitat for Humanity held a sod-turning to for an affordable seniors’ housing project on a difficult-to-develop Guthrie Drive lot last week. Glenn Ogilvie

Cathy Dobson

Again and again, Habitat for Humanity Sarnia-Lambton keeps proving it is ahead of the curve.

Our community is fortunate to have a Habitat affiliate that wins awards for innovation, has built decent and affordable homes for more than 50 families, and keeps coming up with cool new ideas.

Such is the case with the latest Habitat build at 1140 Guthrie Drive East, where an illustrious group of supporters gathered last week to break ground on a five-unit affordable seniors’ housing multiplex.

For the first time in Canada, Habitat is building specifically for seniors aged 60 and older and addressing a need for affordable seniors’ housing that’s been identified by Lambton County and the province.

Our local Habitat group has developed a unique mortgage model that will work for older residents. Seniors moving into the five units when ready in December will make monthly payments that cover the mortgage, property taxes and maintenance fees.

The portion that covers the mortgage will be entirely returned when the seniors pass away or must move into a long-term care home.

That means Habitat will never buy back any of the units for fair market value. Instead 1140 Guthrie Drive East will remain affordable seniors’ housing in perpetuity.

It’s a smart, creative concept that other Habitat affiliates hope to emulate. And something else about the project is good for the community.

The property itself has been unattractive to developers. But Habitat can tackle it because of its unique strategy.

The lot at 1140 Guthrie was formerly occupied by a welding shop and was a brownfield that required remediation. Between the purchase price and the clean up, Habitat spent $100,000, says executive director Sarah Reaume.

The lot also required servicing that cost another $200,000.

These expenses, as well as the estimated $600,000 it will cost for construction, are being paid through the efforts of hundreds of local sponsors and volunteers willing to fundraise and donate to the cause.

It’s a huge undertaking, so Habitat approached city council to see if development fees of $28,940 could be waived.

Council said no – twice.

First when Habitat asked during budget deliberations, and again when it requested a reconsideration, the answer was no.

It’s worth noting that city manager Marg Evans pointed out city council already exempts Habitat from a portion of the building fees.

But it’s disappointing council wouldn’t shave even a little off the development fees, especially since the city will reap almost $10,000 annually in tax revenue after the housing is built. In other words, the gesture would have paid for itself in three years.

At last week’s ground breaking, a roster of speakers came to the podium, including representatives of the many teams lending their ‘sweat equity’ to make the Guthrie Drive project possible.

Lambton County Warden Bill Weber spoke and called it a very special undertaking that’s all about caring, sharing and creating partnerships. The county is pitching in more than $100,000.

But where is the city in all of this? As far as I know, no one representing the municipality attended the ground breaking. Sarnia is getting five innovative and affordable new homes for seniors through Habitat’s efforts and no one was there to even offer a thank you.

This is a good project with win/win/win written all over it. So why isn’t the City of Sarnia taking a bigger interest?