The Southeast Regional College (SRC) has reached a key milestone in its quest to bring more affordable housing to Estevan.
The college and the City of Estevan have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that will see the City set aside up to four acres of land in the northeast corner of the city, not far from the college's Estevan campus, which houses the Saskatchewan Energy Training Institute.
The college will have the option to purchase the land to develop an affordable housing complex, which could have 86 townhouse-style units. There would also be 90-space child care centre.
SRC president and CEO Dion McGrath said they still don't have the final numbers.
"The next step for us is working to issue a request for proposals for the design and construction," he said.
McGrath said the MOU is critical because it outlines the project's location and requirements. They wouldn't be able to approach the private sector about the project without a location.
Mayor Roy Ludwig said the City first met with McGrath more than a year ago. Their discussions have extended to potential stakeholders.
"The institute cannot reach it's full potential because a lot of the students who would attend the college just have no place to stay," said Ludwig. "Now, that is starting to improve, but we feel that something like this – which Dion is moving forward with – will enable the students to have accommodations in close proximity to the institute."
The land is about three blocks from the college's Estevan campus, Ludwig said.
As per the MOU, the college’s responsibilities would include developing a business plan to support the housing project, creating a request for proposals for design and construction needs, and running a capital campaign to raise funds.
The City will provide land for the development, and keep it available while the capital campaign is running. They will also waive certain fees and levies associated with the development’s construction.
"The City's own housing report identifies affordable housing as a need for the community," said McGrath. "Our report identified affordable housing as a need."
About half of the units in the affordable housing complex would be allocated for college students, McGrath said. For the remaining units, the college is working with a number of businesses who have an interest in investing in affordable housing. Businesses would be able to secure quality and affordable housing for their labour force needs.
"We've had tremendous interest in the project from the private sector, and our next step now is to follow up on that interest, and have more detailed conversations with those companies that have expressed that interest," said McGrath.
As for child care, it was highlighted as a community need from the outset, McGrath said, and that's why the child care centre is included in the MOU.
"For us, … increasing child care spaces, not only for student access that might be taking our programs, but for the broader community, was something that we always wanted to fit into the concept, and hopefully, if we get to the finish line, it'll be part of the concept," said McGrath.
The college has been speaking with the provincial government on a regular basis, McGrath said. The government is interested in affordable housing for Estevan, given the economic growth that it could generate. The federal government is also aware of the SRC's plans.
"At this point, we haven't requested anything from them," said McGrath. "We're continuing to work on the business case, the business plan, and the request for proposals that are going to help sharpen and finalize the business plan."
Estevan's rising rental vacancy rate – it was at 5.5 per cent according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation's (CMHC) June report – hasn't applied the brakes to the project.
"CMHC's own numbers that go into that vacancy rate – they've downgraded the reliability of that number," said McGrath. "Even though they're saying it's 5 1/2, it might be less than that. At the end of the day, a 5.5 per cent vacancy rate for Estevan is about 30 units.
The college's focus is on affordable housing, he said. They're not trying to enter the same market as other developers who are constructing new rental properties in Estevan.
Rents will be at CMHC's Level 1 affordability rates, McGrath said, which would allow the college's students, and low income earners in Estevan, to find a place to live.
Ludwig is confident that the SRC's affordable housing project will happen, and that it will benefit Estevan.
"As we get … more product on the market, our prices for rental accommodations will go lower," said Ludwig.
The next steps will include finalizing and issuing the request for proposals, continuing to work on the business plan, and engaging the private sector on the project.
McGrath is hopeful that construction could begin next spring.