Access to safe, secure and affordable housing is a massive pain point in many areas of Canada, but the stress in British Columbia these days is extreme.
The reasons are varied; homeless counts are surging and rental vacancy rates have sunk to historic lows. Because of high property costs, young people wonder if home ownership is now just an unattainable dream, and Gen Xers are leaving to put roots elsewhere. Seniors say housing is their top issue and some of B.C.’s biggest companies complain that they simply can’t retain young talent due to housing costs and lack of availability. What can be done about this mess? Most agree that there is no quick fix.
Urban Matters CCC is an organization that exists to help communities thrive by supporting the vulnerable through entrepreneurship. They take a special interest in housing as a critical piece of an equitable society. This September, the decision was made to hire a Lead for our Community Housing Practice and Matt Thomson was the man for the job.
Progress Starts at Home
Ken Gauthier, President of Urban Matters CCC, says it was important to bring on someone to drive progress in this area, because supporting our most vulnerable people starts at home.
“Unfortunately, for many of our most vulnerable, the struggle begins with a lack of access to clean, safe and affordable housing. Housing is a critical building block on the journey toward a fair society, and a healthy and sustainable life. Our new Community Housing Lead Matt Thomson is helping us develop new approaches to solving the tough housing problems that all communities are now grappling with.”
Matt has a Master’s Degree in Planning from UBC and comes to the table with deep experience in housing research, policy and development. He’s spent time working with the Social Planning and Research Council of BC and many other large organizations. Though he’s Canadian, he had an interesting childhood that spanned the globe. His mom worked in international development, and Matt spent time travelling in many countries. He lived in Bangladesh and graduated high school in Indonesia.
“My mom worked in international development and raised me with a strong sense that we’re here to make a difference,” says Matt. “I’ve always wanted to make a real contribution through my work.”
Matt and his wife moved to the Sunshine Coast in 2010, where as a solo consultant, he was part of a project to support homelessness research, which ignited his desire to focus in this area. He helped facilitate a digital storytelling component of the project, and heard many homeless people tell their stories first hand.
“I realized then that there are so many different paths into homelessness—youth in conflict with parents, those with mental health issues, seniors and more. I saw that there are many pathways to homelessness, and that the first line of solution is having non-judgemental support. When that’s there, it makes a huge positive impact. Hearing these personal stories made me want to work in the field of homelessness and affordable housing dedicatedly.”
Supporting Communities Where They’re At
Today the Community Housing Practice at Urban Matters CCC is a busy place. Our goal is to help communities move from problem to solution on housing. They work with a wide variety of clients from non-profits to municipalities to First Nations, helping communities define their housing problems and understand and assess their needs so that they can be proactive on the housing front
“We’re here to support communities wherever they are in terms of wrestling with the housing issue. We can help with everything from needs assessment to business planning, financial modelling, incubating new housing community based organizations and examining issues in the rental market. Or you could find us doing homeless counts and community-based research with vulnerable populations, or assessing mental illness supports, for example.”
Matt is quick to point out that it’s not just number crunching and data, his team is also busy doing a lot of community engagement. When communities are looking at developing plans that need community input, meetings facilitation, workshops, interviews and qualitative research, Matt is on the front line.
Times are Changing
And these days, change is afoot. Canada’s federal government is investing more than $11 billion over the next 10 years in a National Housing Strategy, and Matt says that combined with efforts from Provincial Government’s, this is leading a real shift in possibility and inviting innovation.
“What’s really exciting for me right now is being in this field at this moment in time. We’re in a phase where the federal government is taking housing seriously, as is BC at a provincial level. There’s some real investment and action going on with affordable housing right now, and we are well positioned at Urban Matters CCC to contribute to that conversation as well as support communities and bring new resources to them.”
Looking to the future, Matt expects to see further examination of innovations such as land trusts to preserve affordable housing for renters and potentially homeowners.
“Is B.C. ready for shared equity home ownership? Collective living? Tiny Homes? More modular and container homes? Let’s innovate and see what works.”
Matt will be presenting at the upcoming Housing Central Conference in Richmond B.C. on November 19. He will be speaking with 3 other housing experts on the topic of Enhancing Homeless Counts: New Strategies for the 2017 Homeless Count in Metro Vancouver. Read more about the conference here.
When he’s not working, Matt loves spending time with his family. His son Beckett is nearly 7 and goes to an outdoor public school where half the day is spent outside, “tromping around the beaches and forests”. He says his daughter Isla is a little ball of energy, opinions and enthusiasms. His wife Bronwen is an art teacher and artist who recently opened a non-profit daycare in town and is “an amazing powerhouse of enthusiasm. I don’t know where she gets it from!” He and his family moved to the Sunshine coast because they love to be outside. You’ll often find them wandering the forest picking mushrooms, hiking and exploring. They love to cook big dinners for their neighbours and Matt is fond of brewing his own beer. (This past Thanksgiving weekend, he pressed 400lbs of apples into cider!)