Both Covenant House Toronto and Vancouver have partnered with Hollyburn Properties to create a dynamic and innovative youth transitional housing model. Hollyburn is a Canadian, family-owned company based in Vancouver with apartments across Metro Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Ottawa. One of their core principles – commitment – includes “becoming an active, contributing partner in every neighbourhood we are privileged to be a part of.”
In 2000, when one of the owners, Paul Sander, and his then 10-year old daughter were visiting Toronto, she was struck by the sight of a young woman in her early teens panhandling near the restaurant they were eating at. Upon returning home, Paul and his wife discussed the issue with her in more detail, and they decided to get involved.
“I’ve dealt with [homelessness] around the property management industry as far as asking people to move along…and I’d never thought of it as something we could do something about.” — Paul Sander, Director, Hollyburn Properties
Initially, the partnership included collecting goods for youth at Covenant House Vancouver, including food and clothing. This eventually expanded to collecting furniture and household necessities for youth moving into independent living. Both of these ventures presented challenges in terms of collection, quality of donations, repairs/cleaning and storage. However, they created a fierce sense of community among the staff and also the tenants. Additionally, the moving company that they contracted with to move the belongings began to employ youth from CHV creating increased employment opportunities for youth.
The issue of homelessness was nothing new. As an urban property management company, Sander says, “Building Managers have to address people sleeping in parkades, under building eaves, inside apartment buildings.” One of the aspects of the partnership included providing education to Building Managers and staff to help them both better understand the issue and how to improve their response.
Gradually, there was a decision that the company wanted to be more pro-active in their response. They decided to develop a housing program that would give a fully furnished unit to Covenant House for a youth to live in for a year. With the success of the program, it was gradually expanded with additional units in Vancouver (now a total of three) as well as the expansion of the program to include two units in Toronto.
“Hollyburn is the crème de la crème of transitional units. Hollyburn will give you everything.” — Danny Aguilar, Housing Worker, Covenant House Toronto
Hollyburn solicits interest from Building Managers and considers the most accessible locations to determine the best fit and see where they might be able to house a youth. A bachelor or small one-bedroom unit is made available through a head lease with Covenant House. Youth pay a reduced rental amount, about $300-$375 to Hollyburn, who subsidizes the remainder of the market rent. Cable and internet are provided free of charge, and the youth is responsible to pay for Hydro and home insurance. Covenant House provides a tax-receipt to Hollyburn for the full market rent for the year as well as a tax receipt for all suite furnishings
Hollyburn buys all of the necessary items for the unit including furniture, linens, small appliances etc. They estimate that this costs about $3,000/unit. When a youth leaves the unit they are able to take all of the items with them to help them get established in their next home.
Covenant House screens a youth – sometimes, but not always, a graduate of the Rights of Passage Program – and provides ongoing case management support to the youth. Part of the support includes providing orientation to the youth about their housing: introducing them to key people, explaining expectations of independent living, discussing who is responsible for what aspect (i.e. internet, utilities). Generally the agreement is in place for a one-year period and then the youth can either move to a new location elsewhere with the help of their housing workers or in another Hollyburn unit at market rent. (Hollyburn hopes to create “happy Hollyburn tenants” according to Paul Sander) and if necessary, to extend the agreement for another year. The program is flexible so as to ensure each youth has the greatest opportunity of success. As of 2014, 10 youth had successfully graduated from this partnership and five were currently living in subsidized units in Vancouver and Toronto.
This housing is considered transitional and programmatic supports are still in place, but there is a greater sense of independence compared to ROP, and particularly compared to the shelter. Youth who have benefitted from Hollyburn’s support have made mention that one of the biggest barriers they face, when striving for independence, is a fair opportunity to live outside of the demographic associated with their homeless past. The Covenant House-Hollyburn Properties Youth Housing Program provides these youth with an opportunity to begin a new life and to break free from the cycle of chronic homelessness in a safe and secure building that they can take pride in and call their own. This component is often the key to leaving street life behind, once and for all.Youth in Hollyburn units are still required to have a case plan in place and to be in contact with their worker. They pay a fee instead of rent to Hollyburn Properties (or Covenant House directly in Toronto); in Vancouver, this money is returned in full or part and is used to help establish the youth in future housing.
In Vancouver, the Hollyburn apartments fall under the Community Support Services department and support (usually weekly) is provided by the Housing Workers/Case Managers. In Toronto, Hollyburn apartments are part of the Transitional Housing portfolio. The Housing Worker and the Manager of Transitional Housing oversee the selection and move-in process, while the Youth in Transition Workers provide the ongoing support.
Hollyburn and Covenant House also hold regular meetings attended by staff from the two organizations, including Building Managers of the Hollyburn buildings and Covenant House Case Managers in Vancouver/Youth in Transition Workers/Housing Workers in Toronto. This provides an opportunity to discuss ongoing issues, although immediate or crisis issues can be addressed through a phone call or emergency meeting.
Hollyburn has identified some key learnings and suggestions from their experience:
- It is more efficient to buy the furniture and household goods than to receive and manage donations. They estimate it costs about $3,000.
- The Building Manager/Superintendents must be onboard. While education helps provide information, the most successful situations have come because the Building Manager has taken ownership of the program. Hollyburn Building Managers play a pivotal role in providing guidance, structure and support to the youth, ensuring their suites are kept in order and that building rules are followed.
- Youth often have more “traffic” and may be noisier than older adults in the same building. Hollyburn recommends housing the youth on the ground floor or in another area that will reduce the impact on other tenants. (This is less of an issue in buildings that have a higher number of college or university students as the behaviour is similar).
- Education may be required with tenants to help them understand why it is important to provide this kind of support and to assure them that any issues will be addressed.
Communication is key. The ability for the youth or Hollyburn staff to reach out to Covenant House when there is a problem is important, but the regular meetings ensures that the connection is always in place, not just when there is a problem.
“Homelessness impacts rental buildings on a regular basis. Most managers can tell you about issues they’ve had with homelessness around their buildings, and so, it’s kind of a natural partnership, if you think about it. We want to have good tenants in our buildings. This is a way to take kids that are on the street, that are otherwise sleeping in our doorways and our parkades, and turn them around and give them a foot up, and a helping hand and turn them into future renters, that are reliable. And that little bit of help makes a huge difference to kids at that vulnerable stage in life and so, I think operationally, it’s a natural. It’s something that landlords have; they have the suites, it’s team building and it creates a culture of charity within your company.” — Paul Sander, Director, Hollyburn Properties
Homeless Hub Thoughts:
- This is an amazing and innovative partnership. It addresses a core need – lack of housing – while allowing a business to give back.
- This initiative is easier to do in a big city where there are larger amounts of rental housing stock (and bigger companies). But it is still possible to do in small communities. Even an individual landlord who has a few units may decide to sacrifice the income of a unit in exchange for helping to improve the life chances of a homeless youth. Full tax receipts for market rent and suite furnishings make participation more accessible for landlords of all sizes.
- One of the keys to this initiative is the ongoing support provided by Covenant House and the open communication. Clear agreements and understanding must be in place for all parties – the landlord/property management company and their staff, the youth and the support organization.
- Donation management can be extremely challenging. Buying new furnishings and essentials also ensures youth are – perhaps for the first time in many years if ever – given belongings that are new and not just “new to them.”
 A head lease is a rental agreement held by an individual or organization on behalf of someone else. In this case, the lease is in the name of Covenant House, not the young person living in the unit.