When Canadian soldiers marched off to battle in World War II, urban centres were flooded with workers who moved to the city to fill jobs in critical industries that were suddenly without a workforce.
This surge in migration to urban centres created a dilemma for the Canadian government, as there simply was not enough affordable housing to accommodate all the workers. So, during and after the war, the Wartime Housing Corporation – a precursor to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation – built more then 46,000 homes across the country, many of them small, prefabricated or “kit” homes that could be constructed very quickly and efficiently.
“You could actually buy from Sears or other companies a kit and build your own little home,” says Sandy Higgins, Vice President of Development at Parkbridge.
Fast forward 20 years, and in Canada factory fabricated mobile homes became the predominant kind of housing found in a relatively new model of affordable homeownership: land lease.
In this homeownership model, the homeowner owns the home but not the land, and pays rent to the land lease owner-operator for the lot on which the house sits. Parkbridge is Canada’s leading land lease owner-operator and developer.
“The Golden Age of land lease was the 1960s and 1970s where there was a proliferation of small- to mid-sized land lease communities, and they tended to be outside of municipalities,” says Higgins. “It really gathered steam in the 1960s and 1970s as people were looking for affordable housing.”
Along with prefabricated housing in these communities, you could also find mobile homes. These were considered an easily achievable form of housing, as they were simply towed onto the property and placed on a site pad.
Higgins says that in the 1960s, building and compliance codes, and regulations were much looser, especially in more rural areas. It was easy for a small developer to build a land lease community of modest size, one house at a time.
“They were ‘mom and pop’ shops and they would sell a home and install it and just run the services from the home next door, and repeat, repeat, repeat,” says Higgins.
This incremental development had its advantages. It was not large-scale, there was no need to service large blocks of land, and there was no sophistication to the development in terms of services and amenities. As a result, these communities formed organically, home-by-home, becoming an increasingly attractive, affordable homeownership option.
When Parkbridge was formed in 1998, its founders understood the potential of land lease through their previous experience at property development companies and set out to grow the mobile home park industry in Canada.
Twenty-two years later, Parkbridge’s holdings of land lease communities and resorts now numbers close to 100 properties. But, over time, there has been an evolution of thinking at the company in terms of the characteristics of its land lease communities and what they offer to the buyer.
In some of the older communities it acquired, Parkbridge has, over the years, invested in upgrading the services and the homes onsite. For example, a few years ago at Martingrove Village in Waterloo, Ontario, Parkbridge installed all new underground sewer and water systems and new roads to refresh the community. In some communities, older mobile homes are often replaced with a newer model that enhanced the value of the property and the community, keeping home values up for the benefit of all homeowners.
At the turn of the millennium, Parkbridge began to take on the role of developer of land lease communities – an opportunity that came about because some of the purchased communities were incomplete or had surplus land. Traditional land lease communities, at that point, were almost entirely either mobile home parks or manufactured housing. In 2003, Parkbridge decided to try something different: constructing conventional site-built cabins at Wasaga Country Life and residential townhomes at Wasaga Meadows, both in Wasaga Beach, Ontario.
Higgins says Parkbridge was a trailblazer in this kind of development and had its share of obstacles to overcome. One was homebuyer financing: banks were reluctant to provide financing on leases less than 25 years.
Now, after many years of developing site- built land lease communities, Parkbridge is seeing that land lease homeownership is becoming more accepted. Financial institutions are also more comfortable providing financing for site-built houses to all kinds of buyers, including first-time homebuyers and families.
Land lease communities are not only here to stay, they are arguably the way of the future to bring more home ownership options to Canadians.