Diocese of Ottawa considering sites for affordable housing projects

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Julian of Norwich Anglican Church, in Ottawa’s Nepean neighbourhood, could potentially be torn down to enable the construction of anywhere from 40 to 80 new affordable housing units, says Archdeacon PJ Hobbs, the diocese of Ottawa’s director of mission. Photo: Contributed

The diocese of Ottawa is considering tearing down some of its existing churches and replacing them with complexes that would include, among other things, affordable housing units, its director of mission says.

“We’re looking at some properties where there could be a complete demolition of the entire church property site, with a whole new campus emerging that would include a worshipping community but also a number of other community partners, creating a hub that would include the provision of affordable housing,” says Archdeacon PJ Hobbs.

One of these properties, he says, is Julian of Norwich Anglican Church in Ottawa’s Nepean neighbourhood, which could potentially be torn down to enable the construction of anywhere from 40 to 80 new affordable housing units.

Julian of Norwich was one of two sites the diocese chose for feasibility studies looking into the practical considerations of redeveloping them for affordable housing. The other, he says, is Trinity Anglican Church, in Old Ottawa South. Trinity, he says, is now in the process of discerning how to respond to the study, but Julian of Norwich has decided to look in more detail at the project—examining, for example, who they might partner with, how to make use of some of the site’s commercial potential and getting an architectural design done, he says.

The diocese was able to do the two studies, along with a survey looking at affordable housing possibilities across the diocese, with the help of a $75,000 grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, a granting agency of the Ontario government. The diocese began the studies in early 2017 and concluded them this past January, Hobbs says.

A Homelessness and Affordable Housing Task Force created by the diocese in 2015 set the goal of creating at least 125 new units by the time the diocese celebrates its 125th anniversary in 2021—and Hobbs says he expects the diocese will succeed.

Cornerstone Housing for Women, one of the diocese’s community ministries, is  renovating a building formerly belonging to the Sisters of Jeanne D’Arc, a Roman Catholic religious community, to create affordable living spaces for 42 women. Meanwhile, the diocese is considering other projects as well: it’s looking at expanding the space for seniors’ affordable housing already created by one parish a number of decades ago, and working with one parish that wants to demolish its rectory to create affordable housing.

Not all of the projects the diocese is now looking at, Hobbs cautions, are likely to have been completed by 2021, since the amount of work involved is vast and complex. Part of the complexity, he says, is financial. The projects will require partnerships with public sources of funding as well as private donations.

The diocese, Hobbs says, wants its housing projects to be about more than simply giving economically disadvantaged people a place to live. It also wants to ensure the people who live in these new spaces have access to support services and a community they can belong to—one need, he says, that the church is uniquely posed to fill.

“We are an engine for community—when we do our work well, and when we’re at our best, we create and expand community,” he says.

While the diocese has a history of providing affordable housing, Hobbs says, the current task force arose out of a resolution at the 2014 diocesan synod to make homelessness and affordable housing a priority in the diocese. That resolution in turn, he says, was spurred by a resolution at the 2013 Joint Assembly of the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, committing the two churches to take action against homelessness.

Hobbs says one of the most important recent developments in affordable housing creation across the Anglican Church of Canada was the repurposing of St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Winnipeg—a massive church that had seating space for 1,200 people—into WestEnd Commons, a complex with 26 units of affordable housing for families plus a neighbourhood resource centre as well as space for worship. Construction on the $7.5-million project went on from 2012 to 2014, when the first families moved in.

Canon Cathy Campbell, who was incumbent at the church during much of this process and until her retirement in January 2016, says she’s very happy with how the project has turned out.

“I think that it’s at least fulfilled my dreams, which many people thought were a bit extravagant,” she says. “The neighbourhood resource centre is self-sustaining, the tenants are happy living there, there’s good community, there’s good spirit and the facility serves the wider neighbourhood.”

WestEnd Commons was the subject of a three-year case study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a public policy research group. The study, released in March, points out funding challenges facing the Commons, but reports a range of benefits enjoyed by its tenants, including stronger social networks and reduced isolation, improved mental health and greater financial stability.

Campbell says the church should set itself the challenge of setting aside a certain portion—say, one-third—of all the property it sells for affordable housing.

“There is no money to be made, revenue to be generated, from affordable housing, but there’s a tremendous increase in social well-being and in the health of neighbourhoods,” she says. “Is that part of our mission as a church? I would say absolutely.”

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Tali Folkins
Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.

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