Parkdale charity buys $7.2M heritage building to secure affordable housing units

With a little help from the city, a charity in Parkdale has bought a heritage building worth $7.2 million that will give the organization the ability to secure stable housing for nearly 40 existing tenants.

Victor Willis, executive director of the Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre (PARC) Toronto, said the charity has acquired 1501 Queen Street West, a three-storey brownstone with 38 rental units located right next door to the PARC office, 1499 Queen Street West. The deal closed last Tuesday.

The purchase means PARC now owns four buildings and operates 110 affordable housing units in South Parkdale. PARC helps Parkdale residents who live with poverty, mental health and addiction issues.

Willis said the purchase is significant because it means PARC is expanding its role as a charity that aims to provide "safe, adequate, well-maintained, dignified homes" in Parkdale, a neighbourhood where the charity estimates 90 per cent of residents are renters and more than 30 per cent of people live in poverty.

The building's tenants, who pay below market rent, will be allowed to stay. Many use PARC's services and are low income.

"We saw this as a really important opportunity to secure this housing so that it would stay affordable and below market in perpetuity," Willis told CBC Toronto on the weekend.

"We think this is an example of what needs to be done again and again. There are very few purchases like this happening now. There's an enormous trend towards buying up what was affordable housing and converting it into unaffordable housing," he added.

Mary Wiens/CBC

Willis said PARC bought the building from a husband and wife who own a handful of properties in Toronto's west end. The two sold because they had to liquidate some of their holdings.

In the building, which needs about $500,000 worth of capital improvements, 35 out of 38 units are occupied. Rent ranges from just under $600 to just under $1,100. There are an estimated 36 tenants in the building, which has bachelor and one-bedroom apartments.

Willis said the fabric of Parkdale is changing through gentrification. Development pressures are increasing, there are stories of renovictions and people being priced out, and landlords are selling to developers and international investors.

"This is a very different response. It's a community based one," he said. "Anybody who is living there can stay there as long as they wish. And their rents won't go up in any kind of dramatic fashion."

PARC said in a news release: "With the acquisition of this building, PARC intends to prevent the displacement of tenants out of the existing affordable housing stock, and to preserve and protect affordable housing for low-income residents."

As part of the deal with the city, rents have to remain affordable and nobody will pay more than 80 per cent of average market rent. Any vacancies that come up will be made available to people on the city's affordable housing wait lists.

Building is 1 of 2 former Parkdale Mansions

The building itself at 1501 Queen Street West was constructed in 1912, has operated as an apartment building since it opened and is a mirror image of a nearby property, Edmond Place, 194 Dowling Ave., also owned and managed by PARC as supportive housing. These buildings, which are like book ends, were once called the Parkdale Mansions.

In the 1920s, before the great crash of October 1929, Parkdale was a posh neighbourhood with stately homes. Many of the mansions then became guest and rooming homes. In the 1970s, some of the houses became homes for people who had been institutionalized in psychiatric hospitals.

"What's interesting about this is these buildings reflect some of the history of the old days of Parkdale," Willis said.

Michael Charles Cole/CBC

Last September, when water from 1501 Queen Street West migrated into the basement of 1499 Queen Street West, representatives from both buildings went to investigate and the conversation about the sale and purchase of the building began, he said. The owners indicated they were getting ready to sell and PARC officials asked if they could buy.

The owners decided that selling to the charity next door, which means rent would be kept stable, was the right thing to do.

Now, Willis said the building is in need of upgrades to heating and security systems, but the city has provided money for that as well. "There's some work that needs to be done."

Purchase raises charity's profile in Parkdale, treasurer says

For Peter Martin, treasurer of the PARC board and a former lawyer, the purchase makes a difference to the charity. Martin is an Ontario Disability Support Program recipient and once lived on the streets.

"We will be able to maintain affordable housing stock in Parkdale. We are going to be able to improve the quality of life within those buildings through making sure they are kept up to a decent standard. We can integrate the tenants in those buildings into the super structure of PARC's programming policies so that we can provide social supports as well as safe spaces for people to live in," Martin said.

Michael Charles Cole/CBC

"Those are really good things," he said. "A place like PARC can give you the supports. They can provide you with meals, counselling and a social network of support with your peers."

Martin said the purchase gives PARC a larger profile in the community.

"We are now a little bigger in the neighbourhood in terms of being a landlord. And that provides us with a bit more influence and weight when we speak to government about the problems with affordable housing, We are becoming a bigger player in Parkdale in terms of our role as a provider of affordable housing and it makes easier for us for our voice to be heard."

Martin said Toronto's current housing market pushes low income people to the margins. He said he knows about the importance of stable housing because, when he was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder years ago, he had to move to Toronto from northern Ontario to get the help he needed. He had stopped working.

"I have had to live in places where no one should have to live in order to stay in Toronto to get the medical support I needed as I went through my crisis," he said. "The system itself is not designed to help people like us."

Michael Charles Cole/CBC

Financing came from variety of groups

As for financing of the building, the charity received a $4.5 million, 49-year forgivable loan from the city and donations from the ECHO Foundation and the Sheila Koffman fund, individual donors and the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust. The fund of the late Sheila Koffman, former owner of Another Story bookstore and chair of the PARC board, donated $200,000.

The ECHO Foundation, a family foundation that supports charities that help people with mental health histories, has loaned $3 million to the organization.

Founded in 1977, PARC provides a drop-in centre as well as supportive housing and peer-support program and outreach programs. About 20 years ago, it began operating units of affordable housing for low-income adults who are experiencing mental health issues or addiction challenges in South Parkdale.