Churches, Legion build housing

Most days, May Jarrett, 82, leaves her bright, two-bedroom apartment that looks out on Fairy Lake, takes a scenic walk beside the water and joins friends at the Royal Canadian Legion—which is both her social club and her landlord.

When her son visits, says May, breaking off from a euchre game, he always says, “Mom, you have a palace here!” And she’s inclined to agree.

This Acton, Ont., woman is one of the lucky ones. Across Canada, as governments at all levels have cut or reduced funding, seniors have been largely hung out to dry when it comes to non-profit housing.

(One exception is British Columbia where, until the recent election of a cost-cutting Liberal government, construction of senior rental housing has continued at a steady pace.)

In this bleak new reality, it seems only institutions like the Legion and, in some case, the churches—many of them with land sitting idle and awaiting development—have the clout and credibility to get the job done.

Support means success
In St. Catharines, Ont., Reg and Colleen Hayes are enjoying the life-lease apartment they and other seniors built on a site they bought fromt. Alfred’s Catholic Church for $350,000.

“We’re sitting pretty,” says Reg, 75. “It’s a good deal.”

With life leases, what you buy is the right to occupy your unit for life or until you want to move. Ownership of the building resides with the non-profit board. If you die or move out, the life lease is sold and the money goes either to you or your estate.

While only about half of those occupying the 60 units are Catholic, the scheme was promoted through church newsletters.

“Because we were working through the church, people trusted us,” says Reg. “They figured we knew what we were doing.”

The location was ideal—one block from a shopping plaza, close to three bus routes and five minutes from a hospital—and because they were their own bosses, the group was able to tailor the building to its needs.

The wish list included lots of glass, individual heating and cooling units and, responding to preferences, 13 of the apartments have three bedrooms. Prices ranged from $116,000 to $154,000.

Now, a second life-lease project is being built on a site bought from the Catholic Church at nearby Port Dalhousie.

Next page: Project hits roadblocks

Project hits roadblocks
Meanwhile, a group of seniors at Lagoon City on Lake Simcoe in Ontario, which has no institutional backing, has gone nowhere.

Activist Bryan Carter said five years of community work went for nothing when a life-lease project there failed for lack of support from the municipality.

It was also opposed by residents who, in one case, complained that, with elderly people occupying the units, “there would be too much noise from ambulances.” Carter said his group is now seeking a new site and starting over.

And sometimes, even church muscle is not enough. Like most denominations, the Anglicans have sites in nearly every town and city, which would be ideal for senior housing.

“But we are not building,” says an exasperated Brian Mills, director of planning and development with the Toronto diocese, “because we can’t fund the damned things! It’s simply frustrating!”

Government subsidies needed
The church is eager to build social housing, including housing for seniors. But, says Mills, who has 30 years experience in the development industry, without government subsidies, the rent for even a modest apartment would be $800–“And we need to build for people who can only afford $400.”

Even when the church donates the land, he says, that only covers 12 per cent of the cost.

On the bricks and mortar front, although the diocese has two churches available for conversion, says Mills, this option is not usually a practical solution. A church will yield about 18 units. A purpose-built building on the same land can result in about 50 units.

Some community groups have not given up on the idea of building non-profit rental units.

Churches join forces
In Kitchener, Ont., citizen activist Ken Motts is in a race against time. Against all odds, four churches—two United, one Presbyterian and one Lutheran—occupying most of a downtown block, are working together on a plan to build up to 150 social housing units, some for seniors.

“The urgency,” says Motts, “is that in 10 years, most of these congregations will be deceased. Young families are not replacing them. If we don’t seize our opportunity, the land will go to developers. It’s our last chance.”

Until now, says Motts, “we have been trying to find ways around the fact that both senior levels of government have pulled out (of the social housing field).”

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation is assisting, and senior governments are finally showing interest.

“If you want to do a thing badly enough, you can do it,” he says gamely.

In North York, a suburb of Toronto, the Taiwanese United Church in Canada has joined with the congregation of Newtonbrook United Church, whose beam and fieldstone building it shares, to create NUN-NUCT Non-Profit Homes Corporation.

The aim: to build 60 low-rental housing units in the church parking lot, with seniors among the likely tenants.

But, says board president, Evelyn Robertson, the scheme has been 10 years in the planning and although the City of Toronto has pledged a $2.9 million second mortgage, the congregations must raise $500,000 themselves.

Next page: Success stories

Success stories
Two groups, however, have been notably successful in bucking the odds – the Legion and the Mennonite Church.

The Legion now has 150 projects across the country—from St. John’s to Inuvik.

David MacDonald, seniors national housing co-ordinator based in Charlottetown, says the branches are encouraged to use spare land or even buy land to build whatever suits the local style—rental, condo or life-lease.

And, last October, the Legion signed a preferred lending agreement with the Royal Bank of Canada.

While Legion members or their widows have priority, the projects are also open to non-members and are publicized through Legion publications. 

Legion muscle helped
Acton, north of Hamilton, is an object lesson in how Legion muscle can be brought to bear. Local president Gord McCutcheon gleefully describes how his branch bought land alongside the Legion hall on Fairy Lake, subdivided it, sold off part for home lots and used the money to build Legion Terrace, an attractive 48-unit rental building ($690 for a one-bedroom, $770 for a two-bedroom).

“And we didn’t use a single dollar of government money,” says Gord. Grants, even if you can get them, come with strings, he says. Without government interference, they were able to build wider hallways and even a guest suite where tenants’ visitors can stay for $20 a night. 

Obtaining local approvals was no problem. Councillors were not going to cross local Legion members, “and it didn’t hurt,” says Gord with a grin, “that there was an election coming up.”

Mennonites support seniors
Many Mennonite churches with tight-knit community support also do a good job of looking after seniors.

In Vineland, Ont., among Niagara’s vineyards, the United Mennonite Church is building its own life-lease project consisting of 42 clustered bungalows. It resulted by happenstance. Forced to replace its 50-year-old long-term care home, the church bought a piece of land to ensure sewer access for the new building.

”We were land rich,” says the home’s chairman Rudy Thiessen. Finding money for the project “is not a hindrance,” he says. “Credibility is the key.”

Administrator Art Seib anticipates no problem either finding seniors willing to pay $151,900 to $184,900 for the units, which are open to non-members of the church as well. Ultimately, he says, purchasers have an eye on securing a place in the Mennonite long-term care facility—if that becomes necessary.

“People are buying peace of mind.”

Large city examples
Ottawa is once again negotiating with the provinces over housing subsidies, and the tap may eventually be turned on. One man who is not waiting, though, is Bob Hart, 88, a former international aid and refugee administrator who has his own ideas about affordable seniors housing.

Hart, who owns a life-lease apartment in a Toronto project he helped build, calls his idea the Greenhouse Project. It addresses the high costs, which he believes is one of the drawbacks of life-lease projects in large cities.

Focusing on East York, an inner suburb of Toronto with modest homes, his idea is to purchase six adjacent bungalows for an estimated $1.5 million.

In their place—and he sees one of these projects being built in every neighborhood—would rise a three-storied building containing 36 prefabricated apartments with a 200-foot-long solarium—complete with aquarium and raised flower beds—running the length of the building.

Construction, he estimates, would take only a month and local purchasers, after selling their homes, would end up with an approiximate $30,000 to $50,000 surplus.

Build it yourself
Hart is already in negotiations with Royal Homes, a prefabricated homebuilder, and with a solarium firm as well as city planners.

Local high school students would conduct a door-to-door survey of needs, and he is confident leaders for the Greenhouse Projects could be found in every neighborhood.

Across Canada, though, many of the movers and shakers on the senior housing front are in their seventies and eighties.

“Their children don’t come to the meetings,” says one senior housing official.

Baby boomers, says George McClintock, “are refusing to face the fact they are going to grow old. There are no longer the social networks there to catch them.”

It’s time the got the message, taken to heart by seniors groups as well as churches and other institutions, that if you want it, build it yourself.