The Sunday Magazine·THE SUNDAY EDITION

Imaginative solutions for an overheated housing market

In Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa, urban sprawl, income inequality, globalization and poor planning have combined to create a crisis of affordability and availability. Three exciting new projects in these cities are helping those who need assistance to find affordable housing.
Oneesan's apartments are built in recycled shipping containers. Each one has its own door, which really matters to women who have been homeless or victims of violence. (Atira)

This season, we've been exploring Canada's housing crisis in a series we call Home Truths.

We've focussed on the big picture, beginning with housing expert David Hulchanski. 

We've heard doomsday prophecies, much hand-wringing and the sounding of alarms. And, no doubt, the situation is bad — especially in big cities, where rents and house prices are beyond the reach of many working people, let alone people on assistance.

But there are some good things happening, including innovative projects and imaginative responses to the lack of affordable homes.

​There are one-of-a-kind housing initiatives to be found all over the country. They often get built quietly and without much fanfare, but they make a huge difference in people's lives. 

Paying It Forward in Toronto

Long before Toronto's jet-fueled housing market took off, the "biggest developer you've never heard of" began building condos for people who weren't rolling in cash.  

Options for Homes uses a "Pay It Forward" purchase model to help buyers come up with a down payment. (Options for Homes)
Owning her own condo seemed like an impossible dream for Melanie Campbell. (Cate Cochran/CBC)
Just over twenty years ago, "Options For Homes" started construction in an ungentrified part of downtown Toronto. Using what's called a "Pay It Forward" purchase model, they helped buyers come up with a down payment.

Since those first three building opened in Toronto's Distillery District, they've created housing for more than 3,500 people.  

And they're building more.

Sisterly Support in Vancouver

Vancouver's Downtown East Side is rife with crummy rooming houses that are barely fit for human habitation. They're frightening places, especially for women. 

Oneesan, in Vancouver, provides long-term, independent housing for women who are older than 55, many of whom have been victims of violence. (Atira)
Which makes a place called Oneesan a much sought-after alternative.

It's a structure built out of recycled shipping containers which are stacked three stories high. They sit on a long, skinny 25 by 117 foot lot, which is normally just big enough for one house. 

​Gina Holland in the doorway of her Oneesan home. (Anne Penman/CBC)
Inside, each unit takes up half a shipping container and has a wall of windows with a view of the harbor or a central courtyard. They're fully finished — with drywall, wooden flooring, all the amenities. 

Oneesan, which means older sister in Japanese, maybe diminutive in size. But it's having a sizable impact on the women who live there — all of whom are over 55 and most of whom have experienced violence. 

A Green Home for the 'Hard to House' in Ottawa

In Ottawa, in a middle class residential area not too far from the Rideau River, there's a low-rise apartment building that blends right into the neighbourhood.

Karen's Place, also known as Clementine, is run by Salus, a not-for-profit housing corporation whose mandate is to house the "hard to house".  

Clementine is a residential building for the "hard to house" in Ottawa. It meets Passive House international environmental standards and is one-of-a-kind in North America. (Salus)
The 4-story building is home to 42 people with severe mental illness, many of whom have spent years "living rough."
Michael Backs and his little dog Charlie are inseparable. They both live in Clementine, which is home to 42 men and women with chronic mental illness. (Cate Cochran/CBC)
Each tenant is now somewhere on the road to independent living, but while they're at Karen's Place, they get their own 400-square-foot bachelor apartment . 

That's remarkable enough. But Karen's Place — which opened its doors just over a year ago — is also what's known as 
a "passive house."

It was built to meet the most stringent environmental standards in the world, using state-of-the-art materials and clever design — all on a shoestring budget. 

One of the earliest tenants at Karen's Place looks like an aging biker. His fingers are festooned with skull rings, but when he rolls through the building in his electric wheelchair, perched on his lap is a tiny and much adored Yorkshire terrier named Charlie.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full segment. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?