When Joe Deschênes Smith took the stage at an info night for prospective homebuyers in The Loop—a 62-unit townhouse complex in west Toronto—the need for affordable housing in the city was on display. The room was packed. The lineup snaked out the door, through the lobby and into the parking lot.
“We gave back-to-back presentations and hundreds of people filled out mortgage applications on the spot,” said Joe, a founder & principal of Trillium Housing, the social enterprise on mission to make housing affordable in the GTA.
The Loop was Trillium’s first project, and for many of the families who lined up that night, a rare opportunity to fulfill the dream of homeownership.
“There are literally millions of people – families – in the GTA with incomes between $40-80,000 per year,” said Joe. “Homeownership is not affordable for them now, but with Trillium they can attain what was previously considered to be a typical middle-class aspiration.”
THE TRILLIUM DIFFERENCE
As Joe explains it, Trillium bridges the gap between the cost of entry level housing and what modest income families can manage. The organization partners with mainstream housing developers, and then works to sell units to those who would otherwise be priced out of the market.
What makes the model work is the shared equity Trillium Mortgage, a mortgage the non-profit provides payment-free as long as the home is owner-occupied. When the owner sells, they repay the Trillium Mortgage and Trillium also gets its fair share of the home’s appreciated value.
Joe describes how good it feels to impact people’s lives, including those struggling to enter the housing market with children: “There aren’t many families making $60,000 a year who can buy a 2- or 3-bedroom townhouse in Toronto. By financing these home purchases, we can change the trajectory of their lives.”
For the thirty-three families with Trillium mortgages now living at The Loop, the model has made a big difference. By eliminating the requirement of monthly mortgage repayments to Trillium, each family saves approximately $500 per month. They have stability; they’re building equity; they’re well-connected to public transit and essential services; and importantly for Joe, they look just like everybody else.
“There is no way to tell who has received the financing of a Trillium Mortgage and who has a conventional mortgage,” he said. “There is no sign that points to the development as having a lower-income component. Our support is entirely invisible, and that’s the point. We don’t want you to see how special this is.”
While all 62 units at The Loop meet the City of Toronto’s affordability guidelines, those with Trillium Mortgages attached are considered deeply affordable.
BRINGING DEVELOPERS AND HOUSING ADVOCATES TOGETHER
Joe says this model arose from his previous experience working in the non-profit housing sector, and noticing how isolated it was from conventional, for-profit developers.
“We would go to one meeting, with 500 people from non-profit organizations working on housing affordability, and to another, separate meeting filled with developers building seventy-thousand units a year,” he says. “There was no connection between those worlds.”
The team at Trillium realized that breaking down these silos would be the key to scaling-up.
“There are lots of organizations doing great work,” he says. “But there is only so much you can accomplish with government funding a few non-profits. We wanted to plug-in the idea of affordability into the realm of conventional development.”
“We’ve done that by aligning interests so that what’s good for the developer is good for the community,” Joe explains. “If the developer can reduce costs and increase profitability, we can provide more mortgages and help more families.”
FINDING THE RIGHT FINANCING PARTNER
The same logic applied to finding a construction financing partner to get the project off the ground.
“We were attracted to VCIB’s focus on social impact and track-record in affordability, but that wasn’t the main reason we wanted to work together,” said Joe. “VCIB was the best financial choice and that meant we could maximize the funds available for mortgages.”
Motivated by Trillium’s mission and strong impact story, the VCIB lending team worked to find the right financing solution for The Loop.
“We recognize the value in their model, and that’s why we were willing to take the time to underwrite the innovation and the complexity,” said Caroline Rauhala, Director of Lending at VCIB.
With The Loop fully occupied as of October 31st of this year, Trillium is poised to multiply its impact. Two new townhouse developments in Hamilton and one in Pickering are scheduled to break ground this spring, creating a total of 345 new affordable units.
For Rauhala it’s exciting to see Trillium taking off: “We are thrilled with the success of the first project and are looking forward to working with them as they grow.”
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