Why home ownership matters

Removing barriers for hundreds of families


""We strive to make a sustainable difference through high quality education and research that benefits the health and well-being of individuals, the greater community and our global neighbours. We equip the next generation of leaders to address the evolving challenges that face our world. - From the Faculty’s Strategic Plan 2020-25

Here’s how one alumnus is living this value:

It became obvious to Karen Coviello, when she was a Waterloo city councillor, that the social and economic gaps between the haves and have-nots in the community were growing.

She also realized the best way to tackle those problems was to make home ownership more affordable for families.

Karen Coviello.That was why, two years ago, Coviello (BSc ’89, Kinesiology) took a new position as chief executive officer of Habitat for Humanity Waterloo Region, a charitable organization that is bringing home ownership within reach for hundreds of families.

“I have watched our housing market climb, and the barriers to home ownership climbing at the same time,” says Coviello, who studied at the University of Waterloo before getting her Bachelor of Education at the University of Western Ontario in the 1990s, then a Master’s in leadership studies at Royal Roads University in Victoria in 2012.

In her varied career trajectory, she was an educator who taught in elementary schools, then took some time off to be with her children and later got involved in local politics as a Waterloo city councillor for eight years. She has also taught business at Conestoga College and has served on numerous community organization boards.

When Karen Redman, who is now Waterloo Regional Council chair, left Habitat for Humanity Waterloo Region to run for her current position, Coviello jumped in. “I thought this would be the opportunity to be part of the solution,” she says.

Foundation for a brighter future

Not only is Habitat making home ownership possible for families that otherwise could never even dream of owning a home, it is having a huge impact on a lot of other problems as well, she says.

“We have lots of data showing that the children who grow up in our Habitat homes are more likely to get a post-secondary education. They are happier, and these families volunteer more in the community as they find stability they never had before,” she says.

She adds that the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the need. “Those of us who own homes have experienced the pandemic very differently from those who do not.”

The Habitat model focuses on families with children under the age of 13 that have modest incomes and can pay the principal and the utilities. However, because they have growing children and are quite often single-parent households, they can’t raise the down payment to purchase a home.

Habitat removes the barriers. Instead of the down payment, the families commit to 500 hours of volunteer work. They pay back the mortgages, held by Habitat, in payments that are geared to their incomes.

Eventually, they own the homes. “We had a family pay off a mortgage just recently, right in the middle of the pandemic, so that was really exciting at a time where there were not a lot of positive things happening,” Coviello says.

New ways to build

Habitat relies heavily on a huge contingent of community volunteers who donate their time or materials, generous government and corporate partners, as well as two ReStore locations that refurbish and sell used household items to offset the administration costs.

There are many challenges. Land in Waterloo Region is at a premium, so Habitat is now building more stackable homes and townhouses. It has also taken on projects that involve restoring old homes. “We are always looking at new ways to build, new ways to work together and with our partners in the public and private sector,” Coviello says.

She credits her University of Waterloo education for the skills she is using now. “My role is really about looking at the trends and creating plans to move the organization forward. I believe those skills come from the University of Waterloo education, which is based on curiosity and exploration of what’s possible.”

The impact of Habitat’s work in the Region is considerable. The organization has been able to get 150 families into homes over the years, including six families who moved into homes this year. The organization is embarking on another housing development in Cambridge over the next five or six years.

“If people are able to build autonomy, then there will be a positive financial impact overall,” says Coviello. “If we can set people up with that sense of autonomy, then we will be healthier and more resilient as a community.”