The Launch Party for a Social Impact Investment Housing Provider Gets Weird

Or maybe this is just normal for housing conversations in Vancouver.

Social impact investing is one of those things you hear about in an episode of Billions, sandwiched between words like “business-facing” and “synergize.” It’s usually championed by the likeable nerdy billionaire (played by Mike Birbiglia or someone thereabouts) who promises to make positive change without sacrificing profitability. Because “making the world a better place” while still making money is the “have your cake and eat it too” of our current moment. A Vancouver non-profit—recently spun-off from the Community Builders Group—promising social impact investing of its own had its coming-out party last week on the Downtown Eastside. It’s called Anhart Community Housing and it wants to provide affordable housing through social impact investments, without reliance on government subsidies or land grants. “We want to stay afloat without subsidies through increased density, streamlined design, and no-cost refinancing on our properties,” said Anhart development lead Mukhtar Latif. Latif admits that their planned units would charge rents closer to market rates to make their system work.Key to their model is the ability to leverage properties they’ve purchased into capital that can go towards developments. That—coupled with private investment—should be enough to get them off the ground, according to Latif. The model’s virtues were echoed by the evening’s keynote speaker: Steve Pomeroy, an Ottawa-based housing consultant, railed against the small-scale and “poorly managed” system of co-operative social housing projects in Canada. To him, a more business-minded, “efficient” system built on re-investment and leveraging physical assets to raise capital is the direction social housing in Canada needs to go. Pomeroy made a convincing critique of our social housing system, one that lent itself to Anhart’s vision. The room listened attentively until the Q&A. At that point, as is often the case when somebody mentions housing in this city, everyone started telling the speaker their solutions to the housing crisis with barely the necessary upwards inflection that might veil their statement as a question. It was a strange, off-kilter event in a very hot room. A non-profit with a vision that sounds nice but remains untested, and a knowledgeable speaker talking to an audience that, if the loudest askers are a sample, mostly wanted to have their own ideas heard.Welcome to the housing conversation in Vancouver.

Correction – August 23, 2018

An earlier version of this article described Anhart community housing as a “company” and a “firm” it has since been corrected to “non-profit.” The description of Anhart Community Housing as “new” has been changed to note it had “recently spun-off from the Community Builders Group.”