Foundational Spaces provides a community-based solution to housing insecurity in Durham

After Elizabeth O’Brien and her husband, Cliff Suld hosted a refugee family in their home in 2017, they were introduced to the bleak state of the Durham housing market. When the pandemic struck, O’Brien and Suld became increasingly aware of the housing crisis’ impact on those in unstable housing situations when they met a pregnant refugee woman who could not secure an affordable rental. After inviting her to stay with them, they wondered if there was a more sustainable way to turn their extra space into a secure and safe place for those on social assistance. O’Brien and Suld renovated their guest room to be a self-contained studio apartment.

“Our purpose for creating this unit in our home was to price it directly for people on social assistance,” O’Brien says.

Those on social assistance receive typically between $700 and $1100 a month depending on their circumstances and needs. In the Durham region, most rentals go well above that price.

And so, O’Brien and Suld formed Foundational Spaces, a community-based solution designed for people on social assistance. They modelled their organization after the housing solution they had formed in their own home.

The goal is to match homeowners with extra space and people on social assistance who are seeking affordable rentals. Foundational Spaces will bring in a construction team to create a legal secondary unit, in which they will share the renovation costs with the homeowner. Because this is geared towards people on social assistance, the homeowners will rent their unit below-market-rate (between $500-$700). Foundational Spaces will provide support to the homeowners and tenants throughout the rental agreement.

O’Brien emphasizes the difference between people experiencing homelessness and people who are at risk of homelessness. The clients that Foundational Spaces targets is in precarious housing situations – such as couch surfing – and are at the risk of homelessness.  

“Housing is such a complicated issue and there’s no single solution to it,” O’Brien says. “Housing is so foundational to healthy living and different types of creative solutions are needed in this housing situation.”

Many programs and resources have been developed over the years to combat the housing crisis. However, O’Brien learned of the long waitlists for some of these programs. For example, community housing in Durham, in many cases, has a twenty-year waitlist.

“There’s lots of programs and Foundational Spaces isn’t meant to compete with any of them. I would be happy if those programs are successful in our municipalities. I’m hoping their plans work out and we won’t need organizations like Foundational Spaces in ten years,” O’Brien says. “But in the meantime, while they’re ramping up their big scale solutions, we’re filling a gap.”

They are not motivated by competition, but by co-operation and partnership. “It’s people over profits,” O’Brien adds.

Housing entails many complexities that require innovative and creative approaches. The first step in getting involved is becoming educated about homelessness issues in your neighbourhood.

Foundational Spaces plans on launching their pilot project soon. They anticipate a partnership between 5-7 homeowners in the Durham region.

“Our goal is to provide people with viable alternatives to safely live. Even if we build 5-7 units and 5-7 people are housed and have the foundations to support a thriving and healthy life, I feel like we’ve met our start-up goals.” For more information, visit:

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