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Commerce alum helping Nova Scotians find a home

Posted by Connor Dalton on July 9, 2024 in News

To Michael Kabalen (BComm’06) and his family, finding a home meant finding safe haven.

His grandparents Youssef and Labibi Metlej arrived in Halifax in 1965 from their mountain town of Diman, Lebanon. Like other Christians from the same town, his family was prevented from owning land and fled a life of poverty. Their first residence in Halifax was a rooming house on Allan Street, near Quinpool Road.

They eventually saved enough money to buy a house for them and their five children, and helped pay for it by renting out several of the bedrooms. Ultimately, they bought the house next door to live in. Kabalen says for his family, “owning land became such an important component of our identity, it’s almost in our DNA.”

Kabalen, now Executive Director of the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia (AHANS), says that appreciation for what a home means continues to motivate him.

An affordable home for Nova Scotians

AHANS is a non-profit that provides Nova Scotians with better access to affordable housing. Its team uses their industry expertise to upgrade, manage, and build long-lasting affordable housing. It also administers the federal ‘Reaching Home’ program in Halifax and rural Nova Scotia. This program connects people experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness with streamlined access to the most appropriate housing options and support programs.

There are a growing number of people in Halifax without a place to live. According to data AHANS collects with its community partners, there are 1,265 people in Halifax who are homeless as of June 2024. What makes AHANS unique among non-profits in this sector, according to Kabalen, is its singular focus.

“We do affordable housing for the sake that it needs to exist,” says Kabalen.

Kabalen became Executive Director in January of 2023, but feels he’s been preparing for this from an early age.

Learning to problem-solve

Growing up, he worked in apartment buildings owned by his family. He jokes that in his family, instead of sports or extracurriculars, “you’re in the business.”

Starting at age 12, he began cleaning some of the buildings. But far from dreading it, Kabalen enjoyed the independence, getting to know the tenants, and answering their questions. Looking back, he thinks he was figuring out how to be resourceful.

“I learned rather young: this is my problem to deal with,” he says. “It's my responsibility and I think I've taken that with me, with every dilemma I face.” By age 18, he was managing some of the buildings, and understood the property management business.

From property manager to classroom

When considering universities, he was drawn to Dalhousie’s Commerce program. Kabalen liked that he could follow the same schedule as his classmates, with the chance to earn work experience via co-op terms.

Once he started his courses, he liked connecting his real-world experience in property management to business concepts in the classroom. He found his class was tight-knit and could rely on each other for support.

During his co-op terms, Kabalen says he learned how to set his own goals and be responsible for his own success. “The commerce program teaches you that you need to show up, and when you show up, you better be ready to go.”

A stroke of luck

After graduating, Kabalen began searching for a job in Halifax. One of his first stops was Killam Apartment REIT, where he showed up unannounced to ask for a meeting.

He happened to meet a fellow Dalhousie Commerce alum, who was CFO of the company.

Robert Richardson (BComm’84) is executive vice president with Killam, and president of Freehold Commercial Realty Limited, a property management and commercial brokerage firm. He remembers being impressed that Kabalen was dedicated to volunteering at his church and already had experience working in property management.

Richardson says, “he carried himself well. I liked that he was community minded.” He offered Kabalen a position as a property manager.

‘I can’t think of a better person’

Richardson says Kabalen was a superb employee and he’s excited his former colleague has stepped into a leadership role with AHANS. With firsthand knowledge of the housing market, through family and private-sector experience, he thinks Kabalen is a perfect fit.

“I can’t think of a better person for this, with his youth and his enthusiasm,” says Richardson. “He’s a go-getter.”

‘We believe in it’

After a move to the public sector to manage properties, Kabalen was encouraged by a colleague to apply to lead AHANS. Despite it being a significant career change, Kabalen was drawn to this role and felt a sense of duty because of the state of housing in Nova Scotia.

After a year and a half in the role, he says the leadership skills he learned in the Commerce program have helped him run the organization effectively.

Kabalen has ambitious plans for AHANS. In addition to providing a more streamlined support net for those experiencing homelessness, he wants to build 1,000 new affordable units by 2030. That would make AHANS the second-largest provider of affordable housing in Nova Scotia, second only to the provincial government. He says that knowing their work makes an impact keeps them motivated.

“We're doing it because it is beneficial to our community,” says Kabalen. “It’s our careers, and our expertise, that we're putting on the line because we believe in it so much.”

Kabalen (second from right) at a federal housing announcement in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia