Staff housing for Belfast, P.E.I., seniors home the result of duo's shared vision

·2 min read

BELFAST – When Ajay Mathew Punnapadam and Doug MacKenzie first met two years ago, they both saw the same need for housing in Belfast – particularly for MacKenzie's staff.

Punnapadam had just immigrated with his family to P.E.I. from India. They spent their first month living out of a Charlottetown hotel while they tried to secure a more long-term living arrangement, he said.

"It's very stressful," he said. "We couldn't find a place to rent."

Then, the owner of Confederation Construction and Interiors tried to get another P.E.I. project off the ground but it fell through. Meanwhile, MacKenzie needed a solution to support his staff so they could keep working at Dr. John M. Gillis Memorial Lodge in Belfast.

He employs more than 100 staff, a number of whom immigrated from India and, like Punnapadam, struggled to find housing when they first arrived on the Island. Many ended up in urban centres, making it difficult for them to commute to the rural P.E.I. lodge, MacKenzie said.

Because of the lodge's need, a lot of time is spent dropping off and picking up staff from far outside the community. Some staff are able to find boarding arrangements with Belfast homeowners.

"But that doesn't give them their own place. They're still living with somebody else," MacKenzie said.

MacKenzie and Punnapadam were introduced to one another and it wasn't long before they got to work on the solution. Construction on 12 one- and two-bedroom units started across the road from the lodge in mid-2020 and the lodge has a permit to build 12 more, if needed.

"We're trying to make sure we can hang onto (staff)," MacKenzie said. "This alleviates a lot of that."

The furnished units will provide staff tenants with all the main amenities and they are often provided food at the lodge.

"The only thing people will need to come here is their clothes," Punnapadam said.

Staff will get first pick on available units, but they could be rented to non-staff as there aren't many other options for renting in Belfast and it could foster growth in the rural community. The duo will gauge whether the additional 12 units are necessary, but MacKenzie said he expects they would be filled.

Their collaboration on what they both saw as a problem has also resulted in a strong partnership. MacKenzie commended Punnapadam as a committed entrepreneur with high standards, while Punnapadam praised MacKenzie's commitment to community service.

Punnapadam was told by the Construction Association of P.E.I. that his business is the first one of Indian origin to become a member, he said.

Daniel Brown, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Guardian