Sudbury·Audio

'Our world's about to change': how one northern Ontario city is turning tenants into home owners

An innovative new program in one northern Ontario city is helping to take families out of social housing and turn them into home owners.

Three houses bought so far, but rising prices during the pandemic complicating the new program

Jason and Dawn Lebrun are becoming home owners thanks to a new affordable housing program in Sault Ste. Marie. (District of Sault Ste. Marie Social Services Administration Board)

Tuesday was a big day for Dawn Lebrun. A day she thought was at least a decade away.

"Well, we got the keys to our home. This is our first home," says the 40-year-old Sault Ste. Marie woman.

"Our world's about to change in the next two weeks."

Lebrun, her husband and teenage son are the first family to be helped out of social housing and into home ownership by an innovative new program in the Sault. 

The District of Sault Ste. Marie Social Services Administration Board looks for houses in low-income neighbourhoods that are in need of some repairs.

The board buys the house and the needed work is done by people on Ontario Works who are being trained for careers in the construction industry.

Then a working family living in social housing is given the opportunity to co-sign the mortgage along with the social services board and move in.

This house on London Street in Sault Ste. Marie is the first to be bought and fixed up by the social services board, which co-signs for the mortgage with a working family. (District of Sault Ste. Marie Social Services Administration Board)

For Dawn Lebrun's family it means paying $600 dollars per month on a mortgage, compared with $1,100 or $1,200 if they were to pay market rent for a similar home.

"We can't afford a down payment, some of us are rebuilding our credit, this program puts us further ahead in life," says Lebrun, whose husband works full-time in the mining industry. 

"It's a huge step. It's going to improve the quality of our life dramatically."

She says they're looking forward to gardening in their new backyard and maybe having another child now that they have extra space. 

The program is the brainchild of Luke Dufour, a Sault Ste. Marie city councillor. 

He says he was knocking on doors during the 2018 election campaign and met some families who had lived in the same social housing unit for several generations.

"Kind of blew me away that the province had basically paid for this house a couple of times over yet the family that was living in it still had not experienced any of the benefits of home ownership," he says. 

"And I wanted to think of just a better way to find a ladder up for people."

The new program is the brainchild of Sault Ste. Marie city councillor Luke Dufour (left), chatting here with social services board CEO Mike Nadeau and MPP Ross Romano. (District of Sault Ste. Marie Social Services Administration Board)

Dufour says this new program will also help raise property values in struggling Sault Ste. Marie neighbourhoods and ultimately see more money going into city coffers. 

But the red hot housing market during the pandemic has complicated his plans and might mean they have to be more "creative" with the numbers. 

"We designed this program with 2019 housing prices in mind and as everyone knows that world doesn't really exist," he says. 

"We always knew that at some point our hope was to price ourselves out of own market, because at that point you would have backfilled in a bunch of worthy clients into these neighbourhoods. It just happened a lot faster than I think anyone would have expected."

But Dufour says the soaring housing prices also show that this program, which has so far purchased and fixed up three homes in Sault Ste. Marie, is more needed now than ever. 

"The generation coming next is going to be priced into lifelong renting which is a huge social change, especially in northern Ontario," he says. 

"One of our big selling features has been that working class folks can still afford their own homes and I just don't know if that's going to be the case 10 years from now."

Affordable housing is tougher to find these days in northern Ontario. In Sault Ste. Marie, there's a new program that takes families from social housing and puts them in a house of their very own. We heard from Dawn Lebrun who got the keys to her very first home. We also hear more about the program from city councillor Luke Dufour. 8:46

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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