Don’t Move – Apartment Communities Coming to Where You Are
Andrew Cameron, Vice-President of Northumberland Properties, is a man on a mission. He believes that everyone – especially seniors – should have access to affordable and accessible housing wherever they live and should not have to trek to urban areas to find it.
Northumberland Properties, of Yarmouth and Amherst, Nova Scotia, designs, builds, and manages properties, bringing options in rental, size, and design to those who live in small towns and rural areas.
Cameron, who grew up in Amherst, told us that in 2009 he and his wife, who were teaching and developing curricula for ESL programs in Osaka, Japan, were considering a return to Canada. At the same time, his father, Gordon Cameron, deciding to sell his Honda dealership in Yarmouth, began investigating other business opportunities and invited Andrew to join him.
A community need
Cameron says his father had recognized a need for rental housing in Yarmouth, NS. This was especially true for seniors who were downsizing and wanted to live independently. They required smaller, barrier-free living spaces as opposed to the older two- or even three-story houses they owned.
Many of these houses, he says, needed a great deal of maintenance and caused much inconvenience, for instance if relying on wood for heating, with the consequent chopping and carrying inside.
“My grandmother, for example, with severe rheumatoid arthritis, had to get down six steps from her back door to reach the driveway in icy winter conditions. That was enough of a worry for her that in winter she would rarely go out, and so lost connection with the community. Seniors lose freedom when they are unable to go out or even get around inside their own homes. Those sea captain’s or Victorian houses or farmhouses are lovely, but a lot of challenges come with them,” he shares.
“Our plan was to start with one ground-level, four-unit building and rent it, and then decide if we wanted to do another. But we had it fully rented while it was being built, and we thought, ‘this is great, let’s do another one.’ And it was rented and then we did another and another. We just kept going, because it seemed that people needed this kind of apartment in Yarmouth, so we never hit that spot where we had to wait to see if the demand was there,” Cameron says.
That year, 2010, may not have been the most promising time to start a new business, Cameron admits, as the country was just coming out of the 2008 depression. Then in 2009, the government dealt Yarmouth an economic blow when it cancelled subsidies to the ferry service that connected Yarmouth with Bar Harbour, ME, resulting in the loss of 120 jobs and a sharp decline in tourism. (Fortunately, the ferry re-launched its service of scheduled crossings from May through October in 2022.)
“The closure impacted the economy and the psychology of the area,” he says. “It created challenges for construction funding, but we tackled each challenge as it came up, because once you start a project, you don’t have the option not to deal with it. You look at the problem in front of you, decide the best way – and then you deal with it.”
Twelve years later
In 2015, Cameron, his wife, infant daughter, and two dogs, moved back to his hometown of Amherst, opened a second office, and began construction, recognizing that Amherst’s central Maritime location offered options for further expansion in northern Nova Scotia and south-east New Brunswick.
Today, Northumberland Properties includes a total of 206 pet-friendly rental apartments (120 in Yarmouth and 86 in Amherst) with plans to construct another dozen in Amherst this year.
These include a mix of two-level, two-bedroom town houses, designed for professional people; two-bedroom villas, with or without attached garages; two-bedroom suites designed for people who want a smaller space, and one-bedroom suites, designed for those with fixed incomes of $33,500 or less per year.
Rent for these one-bedroom suites is $795/month and includes appliances, washer and dryer, utilities, snow removal, and lawn maintenance. They are interspersed among the higher-priced units and feature the same exterior finishes to avoid any suggestion of “affordable housing.” “We treat everyone the exact same way,” Cameron says.
Each unit, no matter the size, is constructed as part of a townhouse building, with between four and six units adjoined. Each has its own front and back entrance with rear patio, driveway with parking space for two cars, and a garden space for flowers or a vegetable patch.
Each unit also has its own individual air exchanger, so there is no cross-contamination between units of airborne particles, a boon in the age of COVID. The newer units have mini-split heat pumps/air conditioners, and there are plans to install these in the older units.
While some of the units meet the official guidelines for wheelchair accessibility, most are designed as wheelchair friendly, with 36-inch-wide doors, open concept living areas, walk-in showers, grab bars, and levers instead of knobs on doors and faucets, helpful for people with arthritis.
“It’s those little things that make it easier for people to remain independent and look after themselves,” Cameron says. He notes also that there are no carpets, and floor and countertop surfaces are easy to clean.
“We have dedicated staff and we take time to develop relationships with our tenants. If they go to an apartment to fix something, we encourage them to stay and chat for a few minutes and perhaps change a light bulb if someone has trouble getting up on a step stool. I want our tenants to know we value them, that we’re there to help and we want to give them that extra care.”
IPOANS – community service
As actively as he maintains relationships with tenants, Cameron fosters connections with colleagues, something he’s been doing since 2018, when the company joined IPOANS (Investment Property Owners of Nova Scotia).
Established in 1978, the association is the collective voice representing residential property owners, with a focus on providing advocacy, education, and membership-services programs.
According to Cameron, IPOANS has done an excellent job helping members deal with the changes that were precipitated by COVID, providing information and advocating correct strategies for dealing with the pandemic. IPOANS also does an excellent job of continuing education for landlords, updating them on changes to programs, including government funding sources.
He goes on to say that prior to joining IPOANS he was concerned that rural landlords were being forgotten, “because rural areas don’t get heard from as much, but IPOANS gives them a voice.”
It was this concern that prompted him to take advantage of the association’s advocacy services. “I found that Kevin Russell [Executive Director of IPOANS] has been very open to talk with me, listen to the concerns we have, and work those concerns into advocacy issues that he’s taken on.”
Additionally, Cameron stresses the importance of landlords maintaining positive working relationships with all levels of government – municipal, provincial, and federal.
Aiming for equity
Much attention is focused on affordable housing in urban areas but, as Cameron explains, accessing funding for construction in rural areas through government programs has some difficulties – and surprising outcomes – when the rules designed for urban areas are applied to rural areas. “Equal doesn’t always mean fair,” he says.
For example, one of the government programs to which construction companies can apply for funding for affordable housing is based on how close the site is to public transportation. The closer it is, the more likely the project is to be approved. But there is no public transit in rural areas or in most small towns and there is no provision for that.
For instance, Yarmouth, (population 6,830) a progressive small town, does have public transportation, while Amherst, slightly larger with a population of 9,400, does not. Fortunately for Amherst citizens, Cameron was able to get an exemption to build affordable housing there. The alternative was that people in need would be driven to migrate to Moncton, NB, the nearest urban centre, placing an added burden on that city’s already stressed capacity.
Another hurdle for construction companies wanting to build in small towns concerns the number of units.
Cameron says that “typically, Housing NS would agree to fund half the units in a proposed building, with a minimum number of four. So that would mean, to get funding, we would have to construct an eight-unit building. That would be fine in a centre like Halifax, but in a town like Amherst, it’s more challenging to construct an eight-unit building, because of municipal zoning regulations, than a four-unit that doesn’t have all the red tape,” he explains.
“Then if you look at smaller, rural communities in the area that, unlike Amherst, don’t have municipal services, it’s even more challenging to build larger buildings. But if smaller projects could be done, then not-for-profit groups could take them on,” he says.
“People shouldn’t have to leave their communities for affordable, safe, accessible housing. Someone shouldn’t have to leave Joggins [home of the famed Joggins Fossil Cliffs and an UNESCO World Heritage Site] and move to Amherst where they have fewer connections, or leave Musquodoboit Harbour where they have lived all their life and move to Halifax,” says Cameron. “That shouldn’t have to happen, and programs should be designed with these conditions in mind. All across the country there should be programs designed for rural areas, programs for urban areas the size of Halifax, and programs for large places like Toronto, so that housing needs are met in an equitable manner.”
In addition to benefiting rural areas, Cameron maintains that providing a variety of housing solutions would relieve the stress on urban housing, so that in the end everyone benefits.
Small town champion
Cameron is so passionate about maintaining viable small towns, he started another organization, The Centre for Small Town Success.
“Through it, I want to look at the systemic issues that are preventing small towns from thriving and I want people in small towns to have the same opportunities and same controls over decision making that they had in the past,” he explains.
“But communities are disappearing — the towns of Springhill and Parrsboro have been dissolved and no longer exist as municipal units. They used to have their own mayors and councils but now they have been folded into much larger districts. It’s hard to quantify, but people lose hope when they don’t have control over their own lives or their town’s destiny,” Cameron shares.
“My thinking is if governments can create programs to help with housing in small communities, we could keep more people in them, but we’ve seen businesses leaving small towns. They move to urban areas and that puts pressure on the cities with regards to housing. If we could get more jobs back into smaller communities, it would take the pressure off the cities, and make it possible for people to live where they want to live.”