During the 1990’s, poverty in Ontario became a growing concern. Social programs faced severe cutbacks, including in the funding downloaded from the provincial government for social housing. The Record ran a series of articles about the extreme lack of affordable housing in Waterloo Region – like many metropolitan areas in Ontario, the vacancy rate in the Region had dropped from a healthy 3% to less than 1%.
The extremely low vacancy rate meant landlords were able to ask for premium rental prices. For lower-income families and individuals, this often made housing utterly unaffordable. Housing also became a dangerous proposition: desperate to find a roof over their heads, people took chances on unsafe, substandard housing and were unwilling to report poor conditions, for fear of losing what they had.
As Mennonite Central Committee of Ontario (MCCO) sought direction for new areas in which to focus their efforts, this need for safe, affordable rental housing began to be expressed on a regular basis. The Board of Directors of MCCO sought ways to respond to this need. This was a new direction for MCC, which had traditionally raised funds and awareness in prosperous Ontario to be sent to other corners of the globe. Now, the realization sank in that poverty and associated needs were on its doorstep.
In late 2000, Rick Cober Bauman, then MCCO Program Director, invited several people with social programming experience to be part of a small working group that would explore how to respond to this need for affordable housing. His first call was to Martin Buhr, who had worked as the Executive Director of the House of Friendship from 1978 to 1998. The House of Friendship included shelter and supportive housing as part of its holistic, faith-based services for people with low incomes.
Throughout the spring of 2001, Martin identified people in Kitchener-Waterloo who were active in the community health and social services sector and who had an awareness of the need for housing. He interviewed local pastors to gauge interest. Among both individuals and congregations, he discovered great awareness and a desire to respond. He also consulted with the YWCA and the House of Friendship who offered affirmation of both the need for and the potential of the emerging entity. He also met with a number of local politicians and asked “What do you think? Is there room for a player?”
The politicians supported this venture and told Martin that any response to the need for affordable housing would be excellent for the health of the community. He also contacted local business leaders, one who recalls Martin coming to meet with him to tell him about the project. One commented “He had this great concept and was quite excited about it but he could hardly bring himself to ask for money. I’m not sure he ever did ask. I think I had to offer funds. We’ve always looked for good investments – we think of our donations in a business sense – if you can invest a small amount and get big impact, that’s the best kind of investment. With Martin, we knew he knew the housing market, government officials and he could make a lot happen with not a lot of dollars. We weren’t hard to convince.”
By May 2001, the working group invited 40 people together into the discernment process to determine the will to respond collectively to this need and to determine what form the response would take. Martin recalls their response was, in effect, “We’ve been working at this issue with our missions/community board, wondering what we could do – and here you are with this concept. We could get on board with this!” Once the decision to proceed had been made, Rick Cober Bauman says, “I was amazed at the speed at which the process went. I’ve been involved in similar processes that took years.” The name MennoHomes was chosen and the decision was made on June 11, 2001 to incorporate as a not-for-profit organization and to apply for charitable registration. This process could often take up to a year but with local political support, it was accomplished by September 2001, a short three months later. Martin Buhr says, “We realized something very unusual was happening.”
To learn more about how the history of individual projects, visit the Projects page.
Chronological Project History
Village Road – 16 three-Bedroom duplexes in Kitchener
Camelot – 25 one-bedroom apartments in Waterloo
Refugee House – detached four-bedroom house in Kitchener
Rockway Gardens Village – 50 unit apartment building in Kitchener
Pond View Drive – 4 four-bedroom semi-detached in Wellesley
Stillwater Street – 2 three-bedroom townhouses in Elmira
Centre Street – 2 three-bedroom semi-detached in Elmira
Ratz Street – 1 three-bedroom bungalow in Elmira
Ratz Street – 2 four-bedroom duplexes in Elmira
David Street – 2 four-bedroom duplexes in Wellesley
The Foundry – 25 unit apartment building in Elmira
St. Jacobs House – 5 bedroom house in St. Jacobs