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CanadaAffordable housing project in Leslieville cancelled as construction costs escalate

20:10  24 april  2019
20:10  24 april  2019 Source:   thestar.com

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Affordable housing project in Leslieville cancelled as construction costs escalate © Justin Greaves The planned development on Coxwell Ave. became unsustainable when construction costs shot up.

An accessible, affordable housing development slated for the northeast corner of Upper Gerrard St. and Coxwell Ave. is no more.

Faced with financial challenges, Innstead Co-operative Housing Inc., a 52-property co-op based in Leslieville, has cancelled its 33-unit, six-storey mixed-use apartment building.

The new development at 355 Coxwell would have been the first significant co-op housing expansion in Toronto in 25 years. In 1994, provincial funding was eliminated for co-operative housing projects.

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Innstead received just over $4 million for the project through the city’s Open Door Program, which provides capital funding, property tax breaks, development fee exemptions and a faster approval process based on units being affordable for 25 years. The rest of the funding needed for the $12.5-million project would have come from the sale of its former office building as well as a mortgage, which would have been paid back from members’ housing charges (similar to rent).

The development became unsustainable when construction costs nearly doubled to $21 million in three years. Despite efforts to find a solution, the co-op was unable to come up with a plan to make ends meet and decided to halt the project.

Co-op members learned of Innstead’s decision to call off the development and sell the land at a Jan. 31 meeting.

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“It was a shock because the momentum seemed so strong toward completion,” said 30-plus year member Jan O’Brien.

“It did take us by surprise that they pulled the plug. … It’s a tragic loss.”

O’Brien, who lives in a two-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a large house, had put her name on the waiting list for the new building.

She has mobility challenges caused by a stroke and rheumatoid arthritis. Like several co-op members who are getting older, O’Brien would have greatly benefitted from the new building’s accessibility.

“I have to face reality. … I realize my mobility is declining,” she shared.

“This apartment would have been a great opportunity to continue to be a member of the co-op community and the Coxwell-Gerrard area. (This building) was hope for the future.”

O’Brien couldn’t say enough about the years of hard work and volunteer hours that went into the project.

“I really have admiration for everyone who tried to make this work. … I have to believe they tried to save it,” she said, adding she’s confident Innstead will come up with a plan to support its members with mobility challenges.

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“Innstead took the bold step to try to address (a critical need for more affordable housing).”

Bill Perry, a 25-year co-op member, sat on Innstead’s new development committee. He was opposed to the cancellation and is disappointed the co-op didn’t try harder to save the project.

And while he said he can’t speak to the board’s decision, Perry said he’s “aware that there is a new paradigm for developing affordable housing.”

“The city wants to increase the supply of affordable housing without owning it. Section 37, inclusionary zoning, and especially partnerships between non-profit and for-profit housing developers are the wave of the future,” Perry said, pointing to different tools that can be used to mandate and support affordable housing projects.

“Innstead’s proposal was missing a for-profit partner that could make the excessive building costs of the project sustainable.”

The Co-operative Housing Federation of Toronto (CHFT), which represents 160 non-profit housing co-operatives in Toronto and York Region, and the city’s Affordable Housing Office worked together to try to help save the project. New Commons Development, a construction and development consultant company, was also involved in this stage of the process.

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“You can’t build something that’s not viable. You have to be able to match income with expenses,” said Tom Clement, CHFT’s executive director.

The director of Toronto’s Affordable Housing Office said there just wasn’t enough funding available for the project to be built, even with $3 million in approved capital funding from the city.

“It wasn’t possible to break even,” Sean Gadon explained during a recent interview.

“We exhausted every possible avenue to achieve the project. They had the best consultants at their disposal.”

He said Innstead wasn’t prepared to use equity from its member-occupied properties, and potentially risk losing them, or dramatically increase housing charges, to secure enough money to build the new apartment.

“At the end of the day, we worked very hard with the co-op to ensure their objectives were met,” Gadon said, adding because the project was smaller, it was also difficult to find any significant way to cut costs.

“Maybe it’s not the right time but the vision doesn’t necessarily have to be abandoned. I’m optimistic they’ll put this behind them.”

Ward 14 Councillor Paula Fletcher, whose ward abuts the failed Innstead project, said more must be done to support co-op and non-profits trying to build affordable housing. She said the city’s Housing TO Action Plan 2020-2030, which aims to address Toronto’s housing and homelessness challenges, will meet that need.

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“The plan has a budget line to support co-ops and non-profits to ensure they make good development decisions, which make good financial sense,” she said.

The Toronto-Danforth representative said another way to build more affordable housing is through partnerships with private developers who want to build on city-owned land. It’s a concept she’s currently exploring in Ward 14.

Fletcher, who has been very involved and supportive of the project, also applauded Innstead for its efforts, but said the project was too great of an undertaking.

“It was a great idea if it could have been accomplished, but I think it was a little too ambitious,” she said.

“There was not enough expertise in decision-making. The costing seemed to have got out of hand. It’s a big shame.”

In an email, Ward 19 Councillor Brad Bradford said, “Toronto needs every unit of affordable housing we can build and we need them in communities across the city.

“This site was going to be developed for affordable housing by the co-op and I hope that any plan for its future will include affordable units. With Canada’s first National Housing Strategy and Toronto’s efforts through the Open Door Program and Housing Now, I’m confident this site can contribute to the city’s affordable housing stock,” he wrote.

The Beach-East York Neighbourhood Voice requested an in-person interview with Innstead Co-op, but we were told they’re “not available for interviews or photos at this time.” They did say in an April 15 email: “ … we are happy to respond that we are still enthusiastic about the opportunity for the development of affordable housing on the site and know that there are many others in the community who will support and encourage this goal.”

Joanna Lavoie is a staff reporter for the Beach Mirror and East York Mirror, and www.toronto.com. Email: jlavoie@toronto.com

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