Edmonton’s supportive housing story takes shape

Colton Kirsop stood on Whyte Avenue just east of the Mill Creek Bridge and watched as a giant, 300-tonne crane got ready to hoist and lower into place the first of the housing modules—soon-to-be homes, actually—at the King Edward Park supportive housing site.

“To see the units here on the ground, to see the houses being built is just amazing,” said Kirsop, Manager of Affordable Housing Projects at the City of Edmonton. “I wish we could open the doors tomorrow, but it’ll take just a little more time.”

Besides King Edward Park, there are new supportive housing sites in the Inglewood, Terrace Heights, Wellington and Westmount neighbourhoods. The units are scheduled to be open with residents inside by early spring 2022.

King Edward Park supportive housing site, Nov. 1, 2021.

What is supportive housing, exactly?

Supportive housing is a type of affordable housing. Affordable housing helps people who earn below median incomes, and is subsidized at rental rates below average market. Supportive housing combines that affordability with on-site social workers, health workers and other resources to help residents maintain their independence.

“These are apartments,” said Susan McGee, Homeward Trust CEO, of the supportive housing units in the five communities.

“Folks have leases. This is their home. It’s not an institutional response.” 

Homeward Trust leads efforts to end homelessness in Edmonton. The units will ultimately be their buildings, which they will manage and hire agencies to operate.

Susan McGee, CEO, Homeward Trust, Oct. 27, 2021.

Hard to house people?

For McGee, the crane’s dropping into place the modular living units at King Edward Park was the work of beginning to fill a housing gap identified almost three years ago, when studies showed Edmonton needed approximately 900 new supportive housing units. 

“Supportive housing becomes really the best solution for folks where those onsite supports are going to help them get through some of the challenges that they may have in any other environment, just in terms of just maintaining their housing,” said McGee. 

“Having incidents that can be deescalated quickly because they’ve got the support of not just the team onsite, but the community in the building.”

The Edmonton model makes support available for tenants, but its main emphasis is on the tenants as unique tenants, she said. 

“We’ve really learned from the range of approaches to providing this housing, in that, when we engage folks in temporary or transitional [housing] and they’re expected to change quickly in order to get to another step often, they don’t succeed, unfortunately,” said McGee. 

“We’ve built our model in our community around supportive housing, really, on the principle of how important it is to separate that home and that tenancy from the supports you get, and having those supports available but not conditional on your residency.”

McGee deflected any suggestion that supportive housing residents are somehow people who are “hard to house.” 

“It’s really not that they’re hard to house,” McGee said. “We just don’t have the right housing for them. And we’ll be able to really talk differently about that when we have those 900 units.

Times changed

Three years ago, Edmonton City Council decided it was crucial to see more supportive housing in the city. Reports were written, reports were debated by Council, motions passed, land found, community meetings held, questions asked, questions addressed, and land transferred to Homeward Trust, which oversaw the planning and design of traditional units to be built on traditional timelines on four of the eventual five sites. 

Then the landscape changed. 

The federal government announced the Rapid Housing Initiative. Money to support the City of Edmonton’s supportive housing vision was made available—but at a price. 

Christel Kjenner, the City’s Director of Affordable Housing and Homelessness, remembered the sense of relief. 

“It was really exciting because it meant that  the federal government was taking homelessness seriously and was putting real resources behind solutions to it,” said Kjenner.

Christel Kjenner, City of Edmonton, Oct. 26, 2021.

Kjenner also recalled how the prospect of federal money put the pressure on. 

“It did present a challenge for us because we are already midstream in a planning process that began a couple of years ago where we had it planned out as a traditional construction project on a traditional schedule,” she said. “And we knew that we wouldn’t be able to meet the deadlines of the Rapid Housing Initiative if we continued down the same path that we were on.”

The solution came together in pieces. Literally. The solution was to go modular. 

“The answer was to move to modular construction,” said Kjenner. “We thought it served the best chance of us attracting the largest amount of funding to Edmonton so that we could go the farthest in solving the problem.”

Modular homes under construction at Northgate Industries, September 2021.

Modular construction means the supportive housing units were pre-built indoors off site—in this case at Northgate Industries near the Yellowhead Trail—to be trucked to their specific locations and craned onto concrete podiums. The modular build started at the end of August 2021. 

“It meant that instead of waiting four years for 210 new units of supportive housing that are desperately needed, we could potentially have those builds in one year,” said Kjenner. “That made it all worthwhile, for sure.”

In all, the City of Edmonton secured $35 million from the federal program for the first round of the Rapid Housing Initiative, up from the preliminary amount of $17 million.

Rendering of King Edward Park housing complex near Whyte Ave. and  93 St.

Studio apartments

What residents will call home is modest compared to other layouts, said McGee.

“They’re all self-contained, so folks have their own kitchen and their own bathroom and a bit of storage, but they’re relatively small, but they’re comfortable and the windows are large and they’re well lit,” McGee said. 

“These projects were really designed for individuals that would often be in a studio apartment.”

Kirsop agreed. He said the units are “really, really well constructed.” Water-tight. Plywood inside and out.

Work crews at Northgate Industries, September 2021.

Housing with support

McGee said the scene taking shape in King Edward Park supports a vision of Edmonton as a city for all. 

“Are we a city that, you know, we take care of each other… that it’s not okay to just accept that folks don’t have an option other than to either live outside or in a shelter overnight? That’s part of supporting a vision for our community that all of this work really is tied to.”

Kirsop said it was more than the crane that did the lifting.

“We had great conversations with the communities. Lots of questions, mostly having to do with how to understand supportive housing, how it works, how it will look and how it will feel,” he said.

“That kind of support will help people off the street stay off the street and stay out of the ravines.”

Colton Kirsop, City of Edmonton, Nov. 1, 2021, at King Edward Park supportive housing site.

Editor’s note: the pic at the top of the post shows the moment on Nov. 1, 2021, that the second modular unit was dropped into place at the King Edward Park supportive housing site. November is Housing Month in Edmonton. Watch Transforming Edmonton for special videos later this month that tell more of the story of the City of Edmonton’s support of supportive housing.