Houselink and Mainstay Community Housing is Toronto’s largest non-profit supportive housing provider. In 2021, Houselink Community Homes and Mainstay Housing amalgamated to form this new organization, with a mission of building strong, inclusive communities where everyone has the opportunity to thrive. Currently, the organization has 60 residential locations and approximately 1,100 units across the City of Toronto.
We spoke to Gautam Mukherjee, Executive Director and Josh Taylor, Investment Director, about how the affordable space has changed since the pandemic, how they’re adapting and what they value most about their relationship with First National.
Q: Now that we are on the other side of the pandemic, how do you feel the industry has changed?
As a non-profit, social housing provider, the pandemic hit during an optimistic time. The federal government had released the National Housing Strategy, which was the first time in 20+ years there was a coherent suite of affordable programs. The cost environment was relatively stable in terms of land, materials and services, and rates were favourable. Now, within our industry, we are still living the impact of the pandemic. Rate hikes, inflation and higher costs are affecting us. Government funding hasn’t adapted. We’re trying to rekindle the optimism of 2019, but we need a lot more involvement from the government. Unfortunately, the government has gone the other way, putting more funding into existing projects to save them from the effects of the pandemic and rising rates. Overall, there is less funding to go around.
Q: What changes have you seen in your business/market, and how are you adapting?
We aren’t in a new normal yet, but I’m still optimistic. The government needs to make some adjustments to adapt to the new environment we’re in now. However, the demand for affordable housing is through the roof. Homelessness is up in Toronto and nationally. In Toronto currently, the homeless population is 13,000 compared to just under 8,000 in 2019. We’re continuing to plow ahead with trying to get development projects off the ground. It’s tenuous in this precarious environment. We need certainty from the government, which we’re not getting right now. If anything, we’re adapting by pushing harder for that public support. And we’ll sit on development-ready sites until the capital stack lines up.
Q: What is your vision for growth? Have you modified it based on the current economic conditions? How so?
Ultimately, we want to develop new housing at scale, purpose built to our requirements. That accessibility is important for our tenants. At scale, we can deliver more services in those communities. Our goal is to enable people coming out of homelessness to live in the same type of suites that a market renter would live in. But we have made a bit of pivot into the acquisition of existing rental assets when there is turnover. The City of Toronto recently launched the Multi-unit Residential Acquisition Program (MURA), which provides city funding for the purchase of existing affordable inventory. MURA allows us to achieve one component of our objectives, which is to preserve rental housing in the market that is affordable. We want to give people living with mental health challenges the opportunity to integrate into rental communities.
Q: As you look ahead to 2023 and beyond, what are your priorities?
Our work is long term. My role is to support the work that Josh is doing with more funding. As a result, I am advocating a lot with government. It’s critical for us to use the time we have now to ensure the pro formas work by the time we are ready to take them into construction.
Q: How is First National supporting you in your vision for growth beyond financing?
Despite tremendous interest in the non-profit sector, in reality, our sector has limited capacity across Ontario. There are a lot of people who want to finance affordable housing, but it is challenging to generate financeable and impactful projects. We like working with First National because we are treated like a real estate developer and a customer. Being taken seriously is a battle we fight constantly. There is a perception that we aren’t competitive, which is completely untrue. We never feel that way with First National.
Q: Can you describe your first deal with First National? What stood out to you about the experience?
We purchased a building for $6 million. We received a $4 million forgivable loan from the City of Toronto MURA program and a $2 million CMHC MLI Select mortgage from First National. MLI Select offers advantages to borrowers focusing on affordability, accessibility and the climate crisis. The deal had a significant amount of complexity. The City loan comes with one layer of affordable requirements. MLI Select has its own layer of affordability requirements, and we have to work with everyone to fit those pieces together. First National was great at helping us navigate through it, and we are on track to exceed the affordability covenants required by our funding. I think this is an excellent model for creating and preserving new, deeply affordable housing.
Q: How does your First National advisor support you in achieving your goals?
In our world, you have to do whatever it takes to make these projects happen. Our whole First National team – Adriana Palazzolo, Mark DeKoven and senior leadership – push through with us and work to our timelines. They are versed in our sector and willing to work with us, even though we are bound by different layers of government requirements.
Q: What do you value about First National’s approach?
In our space, it’s about the long game. We have to work with partners that keep the dialogue and curiosity open for innovation opportunities. I joined Mainstay in 2016. Since then, we’ve been in ongoing conversation with First National to find the right opportunity to collaborate. First National has stuck with our relationship regardless of whether there is a deal or not. Our team there has invested the time to understand the nuances of our space and will go to bat to make a deal work in different ways from what other deals look like.
The responsiveness is amazing. Recently we went after another MURA grant and didn’t get it. We needed a comfort letter from Adriana. She responded and generated the letter within one day. Strategically, we want to be excellent at originating and executing real estate transactions in our space and redefine what not for profit developers are in Ontario. That is ultimately how we serve our clients. People who live in supportive housing deserve excellent representation in the real estate space. We’re in the business of real estate, but our real mission is to improve people’s lives by transitioning them out of homelessness and promoting housing stability.
Q: Any final thoughts?
The people we work with at First National care and want to support this work. We want to be having commercial conversations and breakthrough the misperceptions about what not-profit real estate development is. First National recognizes that and aligns with our ambitions.