Infrastructure bidders, start your engines:

Community benefits are coming

Public agencies in Ontario are becoming increasingly interested in community benefits as a way to ensure that their infrastructure investments can foster prosperity and well-being in the communities where those projects take place.   But just what are community benefits, and how do they work?

“Community benefits”, at its simplest, is a way of leveraging dollars being spent on infrastructure or development projects to bring wider benefits to communities. This usually includes hiring programs targeted to low-income or traditionally disadvantaged communities, funding for job training and apprenticeships, local or social procurement or local business support programs, and sometimes affordable housing and public realm improvements.

Private Community Benefit Agreements, or CBAs, are legally binding agreements between developers and coalitions of community groups, and have flourished in the United States since 2001. They turn what can be contentious proceedings around major developments into an opportunity for constructive dialogue, with wins for both sides: jobs, housing and amenities for communities; social license, faster permitting and no expensive litigation for developers.

In the U.K., community benefits have been used since the 1980s by all levels of government, where they’re seen as drivers of community economic development that also fulfill a range of public policy objectives. Requests for Proposals (RFPs) for public infrastructure and development projects contain “social clauses” requiring private contractors to submit plans for targeted recruitment and hiring, as well as opportunities for small and medium-sized businesses and social enterprises. Winning bidders are expected to implement, track and report their progress.

Now, momentum around community benefits is growing in Ontario:

  • Toronto Community Housing Corporation used community benefits when it entered into a joint venture with Daniels Corporation for the high-profile redevelopment of Regent Park, and similar clauses have been used in many of TCHC’s subsequent development projects.
  • Metrolinx, the regional transportation agency, put community benefits clauses into its 2014 RFP for the Eglinton Crosstown LRT line in Toronto, and has committed to using them on upcoming transit projects.
  • The provincial government’s recently enacted Infrastructure for Jobs and Prosperity Act, anticipated to come into force this spring, calls on builders of infrastructure to promote community benefits.
  • And Toronto’s City Council will be considering a policy on social procurement later this year, which will provide unemployed/ underemployed residents and diverse businesses with opportunities to bid on city tenders.

If public RFPs in Ontario begin to include requirements for community benefits on a regular basis, bidders will need to get ready. Stakeholder and community partnerships, revisions to hiring and procurement practices, engaging with workforce agencies and new methods of tracking, reporting and evaluation will all be required. Our peers in the U.S and U.K. can provide advice and best practices, but a thoughtful, “made in Ontario” approach to community benefits needs to be created, and soon. Smart contractors should be preparing now.

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Dina Graser is a consultant specializing in strategy, policy and engagement for urban projects that build communities. She was instrumental in creating Metrolinx’s approach to community benefits and has spent much of the last year researching the use of community benefits and best practices from around the world for Evergreen CityWorks and The Atkinson Foundation.