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Habitat for Humanity leans on Huronia CEO to manage local operations

Robert Cikoja, CEO of Habitat for Humanity Huronia is now managing the operation of the South Georgian Bay and will remain in the role for at least four months 
The ReStore on Sandford Fleming Drive in Collingwood.

After seeing its volunteer workforce walk off the job last Saturday in protest of its board of directors, the South Georgian Bay Habitat Humanity has brought in backup. 

“I'm here to be the go-between, between the board and the volunteers and staff,” said Robert Cikoja, CEO of Habitat for Humanity Huronia. 

Cikoja arrived in Collingwood on Monday to meet with the ReStore staff and volunteers and begin “stabilizing” the affiliate. He anticipates running operations for the next four to five months. 

“One of the biggest changes was the fact that the board was very hands-on with the operations here. Moving forward, they will be managing the governance and I will steer the ship operationally,” Cikoja said. 

Last Saturday, the ReStore’s volunteer staff of 21 walked off the job, forcing the store to close its doors without anyone to operate the retail operation. 

ReStore volunteers said they were refusing to come to work due to recent decisions made by the board of directors, including the termination of the executive director Joy Fleury in September. 

2020-03-25 Habitat Cikoja RB 1
Robert Cikoja, chief executive officer with Habitat for Humanity Huronia, speaks to supporters during a gathering to mark the organization's 25th anniversary on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, at the ReStore on Brock Street in Barrie. Raymond Bowe/BarrieToday

“The ReStore staff and volunteers who had built a close working relationship with Joy, felt that it was out of nowhere,” said Cikoja. “The termination wasn’t communicated well. But I think from the board's perspective, that was an internal personnel decision that didn't need to be, due to privacy, brought out into the forum.”

He added that he is unable to discuss the termination further as it is an ongoing human resource matter. 

On Saturday, a number of the local Habitat volunteers expressed concerns to CollingwoodToday that the board was taking actions to change Habitat for Humanity’s application requirements. 

Habitat for Humanity’s mandate is to build homes in the community to help battle the affordable housing crisis. The organization helps low-income families build and buy affordable homes through a no-interest mortgage with payments set at 30 per cent of their gross income.

Volunteer Dan Austen said that if the board were to change the income application criteria — requiring applicants to be in a higher income bracket to be eligible — it would defeat the whole mission of what Habitat for Humanity sets out to do, which is to provide safe homes for local low-income families.  

“To me, consistency of housing is just looking after society itself. We've got people's kids coming home and worrying about where they're living, or what they're living in,” said Austen. “That's really the essence of what this thing's all about as far as I'm concerned… giving them a hand up.”

Cikoja said that, since his arrival, any efforts to change or move the income requirements for potential applicants has been shut down. 

“Nothing is being implemented as of this past Monday. I've said that we are not moving forward on anything until I assess where we're at,” he said. 

According to Cikoja, those income bands are derived from levels provided through Simcoe County’s definitions for affordable housing.

However, while the income bands for applicants will not be changing right now, Cikoja does plan on assessing the affiliates’ current structure and may consider some adjustments, including applying different income bands to different properties or projects to ensure affordability for the incoming family. 

“If you have somebody making $30,000 a year, but I'm trying to fit them into a $650,000 mortgage, those two things don't work," he said. "They may work temporarily, but the family is doomed to fail at some point and we've now put them in harm's way instead of helping them. So that's where a real assessment has to be made, on the viability of a specific project and the potential income band for that project.”

He adds that the location of the site has a major impact on the cost or the build and it potential income band because of donations, supplies, volunteer numbers and cooperation from local municipalities. 

“For example, in Huronia, I have an amazing relationship with a municipality and we do get breaks on development fees and such. So, when you incorporate all those costs, for us, it's much less of a burden than it would be for a traditional builder,” he explained. 

After Cikoja met with staff and volunteers on Monday, the ReStore reopened its doors on Tuesday

“Our volunteers returned to work on Tuesday morning. We are working to resolve all of the issues but in the meantime, we have reopened the store and will be maintaining our regular hours,” said Brad Lebeck, ReStore manager. 

Moving forward, Cikoja will manage the operations for the South Georgian Bay Habitat for Humanity until the affiliate hires a new executive director and its operations have stabilized. 

Cikoja said he is aiming to be more accessible and will work to improve communication to Habitat’s staff, volunteers and the public. 

“Our volunteers' voices have been heard. I think all of this turmoil needed to happen for us to actually flower into something stronger,” said Cikoja. “We're strong and we're going to get stronger. We're going to make an even bigger impact in South Georgian Bay.” 

Habitat Huronia serves the communities of Barrie, Essa, Bradford West Gwillimbury, Innisfil, New Tecumseth, Springwater, Oro-Medonte, and Horseshoe Valley. The South Georgian Bay chapter of Habitat for Humanity serves Collingwood, Wasaga Beach and Clearview Township.