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Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust: Affordability through community ownership

For sale signs and eviction notices are becoming a more common sight in Parkdale, but so are the signs of a neighborhood fighting back. Taken as a microcosm of the development pressures facing Toronto, Parkdale illustrates the potential negative impacts of a rising real estate market, but more importantly how communities can respond.

The West Toronto neighborhood has historically been home to a high density of affordable rental units—providing critical access to housing for low-income individuals—but that’s changing, according to a recent study by Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust (PNLT). Over the past decade, Parkdale has lost 28 rooming houses to gentrification and renovictions, displacing nearly 350 renters. Today, 59 more rooming houses—home to 818 people—are identified as at risk. [1]

To Parkdale’s affordability crisis, PNLT offers an inspiring and powerful response: community ownership and stewardship of land.

“We realized that the challenges facing Parkdale have to do with who owns the land,” explains PNLT Executive Director Joshua Barndt. “When you own the land, you get to decide what happens on it. Community ownership means we can use land to meet community needs.”

The movement to keep Parkdale diverse, equitable and affordable

Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust is now Ontario’s first-ever community land trust, created to preserve land for affordable housing as well as affordable working spaces for nonprofits, social enterprises, and businesses run by new immigrants.

What sets it apart from other public or co-op land trusts is a unique community governance structure that puts decision-making power in the hands of residents and local agencies with priority given to low-income and marginalized people.

According to Joshua, this is key to the land trust’s long-term success. “Our work comes out of people feeling disempowered and left out of development and city planning decisions, so building back that trust is necessary,” he said. “Transparent and diverse governance is what helps us negotiate between different interests and ensure we’re responding to what the community needs as a whole.”

PNLT board and community members celebrate the acquisition of Maynard Ave.

Financing to give a community a fighting chance

The most urgent need is preserving the neighbourhood’s remaining rooming houses. In 2017, the organization began monitoring at-risk properties as they came up for sale.

In April 2019, with support from the City of Toronto, residents, and Vancity Community Investment Bank (VCIB), the organization’s charitable arm, the Neighbourhood Land Trust (NLT), made its first residential acquisition: a 15-unit rooming house on Maynard Avenue, now permanently preserved as affordable housing.

It was a great success, even more so for the obstacles overcome.

Before the purchase on Maynard Avenue, there were eight other attempted acquisitions which could not be completed due to funding and financing challenges. Each attempt was excruciating as the organization fought alongside tenants to try and prevent mass evictions.

“Our biggest challenge has been mobilizing financing to compete on the market,” explained Joshua. “In some cases, we were successful in getting offers in, but then couldn’t get the funding together quickly enough. In other cases, we had the money but couldn’t reach a deal with the vendor.”

After carefully documenting their challenges, PNLT went to the City with a request for responsive and accessible funding for the purchase of rooming houses by nonprofits. With the support of City Councilor Gord Perks and other municipal housing champions, they came away with a $1.5M grant and the Rooming House Acquisition Pilot Project.

Mission-aligned financing to bring a project to life…

But as Joshua explained, “with any affordable housing development, the project isn’t real until you have all the money.”

Between the generous grant from the city and donations from community members, NLT still needed an additional $1 million in mortgage financing to secure the next rooming house that came up for sale, the one on Maynard Avenue.

VCIB was able to fill the gap, not only with financing but with advice and support as PNLT developed its model.

“Even before we had a project, VCIB was there as a supportive financial partner,” said Joshua. “The team was always available to problem solve and help us understand the challenges and opportunities, and when Maynard came up for sale, we were ready.”

… and to scale

Against all odds, PNLT was able to remove one property from the real estate market. Now, they want to leverage and build on the learning to acquire new properties and help other nonprofits do the same.

Inspired by PNLT’s mission, VCIB is working with the organization to explore new ways to use the tools of finance to scale and build momentum for the land trust model.

“PNLT has demonstrated how public, private and community partners can come together to create permanent affordable housing,” said VCIB Director of Lending, Caroline Rauhala. “They’ve created something we can rally around and we see huge potential in the community land trust model, not just in Toronto, but across Canada.”

[1] No Room for Unkept Promises: Parkdale Rooming House Study. May 2017. http://www.pnlt.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Parkdale-Rooming-House-Study_Full-Report_V1.pdf

The information provided herein is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute investment, financial, legal, accounting, tax, or other advice and should not be relied upon for such purpose. Always consult a professional regarding your specific needs and circumstances. The customer endorsements that appear on this page were solicited by VCIB.

Downing Street Group: Creating a Coworking Community Hub in South Etobicoke

It’s an unlikely spot for a state of the art coworking space.

Nestled in amongst a dozen auto shops, a large pharmaceutical company, and film studios, you’ll find WorkCo, a brand new coworking space — and the latest addition to the south Etobicoke, Ontario neighborhood.

Created out of a retrofitted warehouse, the new 11,000 sq. foot coworking space is helping to usher in a cluster of indie businesses in the newly minted Assembly District. The site boasts a wellness space, contemporary lounges, and a cafe bar. There’s greenery throughout, thick-slab wood tables, ample natural light, and space for approximately 100 members.

Just three months since the space’s soft launch, WorkCo is already 35-40% rented, and is helping to meet the needs of an underserved, entrepreneurial market.

 

Meeting the Needs of a Growing Entrepreneurial Community

“Before WorkCo, many entrepreneurs, small businesses, and start-ups in this area were working in coercive environments,” explained Daniel Odorico, the founder of Downing Street Group, the real estate development firm behind WorkCo.

“Entrepreneurs were sitting by themselves in uninviting business centres, lacking opportunities for connection or inspiration,” he said. “And many start-up companies had it even worse. They were forced to rent out a private office that, in this market, costs about $70,000 per year. All that for the bare minimum — a few private offices, a washroom, and a lobby area,” he explained.

Odorico knew they deserved better.

 

Partnering for Community Impact

In 2018, the Downing Street Group team developed the plans for WorkCo, as one part of a larger, multi-part workspace development project in the south Etobicoke neighborhood.

In getting the project off the ground, they turned to Vancity Community Investment Bank.

“This is a unique venture and we knew we needed a partner who really understood real estate and who could provide us with affordable financing,” Odorico explained.

The VCIB team worked with Downing Street Group to identify an affordable mortgage that provided flexibility.

“What VCIB did for us, in terms of the structuring and costing, was tremendous. It took us a long way towards our goals — especially from a financial standpoint,” he said.

“There was also a significant community benefit in having VCIB as our financial partner,” Odorico explained. “The Vancity brand is known for social impact. When we’d tell our stakeholders that VCIB was part of the project — it acted as a great stamp of approval about the kind of social impact that we’re having. That was a huge benefit for us and really exciting.”

Designing with the Environment in Mind

Downing Street Group broke ground on the project in April 2019 and opened 6 months later.

In renovating the site, they were cautious to conserve as much of the old building as possible.

“Prior to WorkCo, this was an old mechanic shop. The site was contaminated and needed to be remediated,” Odorico explained. “Most developers would have knocked the building down and filled up a landfill site with discarded construction materials. But for us, environmental stewardship is incredibly important. And as a result, there wasn’t an element of that building that we didn’t try and retain.”

That stewardship has had benefits for both the natural world and for the space’s new tenants. WorkCo now features white-painted exposed pipes, “industrial chic” concrete walls, vaulted ceilings, and large, black-trimmed windows throughout.

This environment has proven appealing for the neighborhood’s entrepreneurs. Since launch, WorkCo has become a community hub for a wide variety of start-up businesses, including firms operating in green tech, artificial intelligence, media production, software — and even the trades. WorkCo is the proud home for the sales team of a local painting company.

 

Driving Economic Growth in Etobicoke

This diverse mix of firms is giving life to new entrepreneurial opportunities

“Amongst members, conversations at the cafe or at the open tables have already led to business opportunities,” Odorico explained. “People are saying to one another, “have you ever thought of this? Have you ever thought of that? Have you considered incorporating green energy into that project?” It’s leading to new growth and possibility.”

In launching this venture, the Downing Street team are helping to meet the needs of an emerging cluster of entrepreneurs and innovators, through offering work conditions that foster connection, collaboration and opportunity.

“The former use of the building was an old mechanic shop that employed four people”, Odorico said. “When we’re fully up and running, there will be 120 people buzzing in and out of that space. We’re really excited about that.”

The information provided herein is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute investment, financial, legal, accounting, tax, or other advice and should not be relied upon for such purpose. Always consult a professional regarding your specific needs and circumstances. The customer endorsements that appear on this page were solicited by VCIB.

Trillium Housing: Bridging gaps in the affordable housing market

When Joe Deschênes Smith took the stage at an info night for prospective homebuyers in The Loop—a 62-unit townhouse complex in west Toronto—the need for affordable housing in the city was on display. The room was packed. The lineup snaked out the door, through the lobby and into the parking lot.

“We gave back-to-back presentations and hundreds of people filled out mortgage applications on the spot,” said Joe, a founder & principal of Trillium Housing, the social enterprise on mission to make housing affordable in the GTA.

The Loop was Trillium’s first project, and for many of the families who lined up that night, a rare opportunity to fulfill the dream of homeownership.

“There are literally millions of people – families – in the GTA with incomes between $40-80,000 per year,” said Joe. “Homeownership is not affordable for them now, but with Trillium they can attain what was previously considered to be a typical middle-class aspiration.”

 

THE TRILLIUM DIFFERENCE

As Joe explains it, Trillium bridges the gap between the cost of entry level housing and what modest income families can manage. The organization partners with mainstream housing developers, and then works to sell units to those who would otherwise be priced out of the market.

What makes the model work is the shared equity Trillium Mortgage, a  mortgage the non-profit provides payment-free as long as the home is owner-occupied. When the owner sells, they repay the Trillium Mortgage and Trillium also gets its fair share of the home’s appreciated value.

Joe describes how good it feels to impact people’s lives, including those struggling to enter the housing market with children: “There aren’t many families making $60,000 a year who can buy a 2- or 3-bedroom townhouse in Toronto. By financing these home purchases, we can change the trajectory of their lives.”

For the thirty-three families with Trillium mortgages now living at The Loop, the model has made a big difference. By eliminating the requirement of monthly mortgage repayments to Trillium, each family saves approximately $500 per month.  They have stability; they’re building equity; they’re well-connected to public transit and essential services; and importantly for Joe, they look just like everybody else.

“There is no way to tell who has received the financing of a Trillium Mortgage and who has a conventional mortgage,” he said. “There is no sign that points to the development as having a lower-income component. Our support is entirely invisible, and that’s the point. We don’t want you to see how special this is.”

While all 62 units at The Loop meet the City of Toronto’s affordability guidelines, those with Trillium Mortgages attached are considered deeply affordable.

Trillium Executive Director Joe Deschênes Smith on site at The Loop.

BRINGING DEVELOPERS AND HOUSING ADVOCATES TOGETHER

Joe says this model arose from his previous experience working in the non-profit housing sector, and noticing how isolated it was from conventional, for-profit developers.

“We would go to one meeting, with 500 people from non-profit organizations working on housing affordability, and to another, separate meeting filled with developers building seventy-thousand units a year,” he says. “There was no connection between those worlds.”

The team at Trillium realized that breaking down these silos would be the key to scaling-up.

“There are lots of organizations doing great work,” he says. “But there is only so much you can accomplish with government funding a few non-profits. We wanted to plug-in the idea of affordability into the realm of conventional development.”

“We’ve done that by aligning interests so that what’s good for the developer is good for the community,” Joe explains. “If the developer can reduce costs and increase profitability, we can provide more mortgages and help more families.”

 

FINDING THE RIGHT FINANCING PARTNER

The same logic applied to finding a construction financing partner to get the project off the ground.

“We were attracted to VCIB’s focus on social impact and track-record in affordability, but that wasn’t the main reason we wanted to work together,” said Joe. “VCIB was the best financial choice and that meant we could maximize the funds available for mortgages.”

Motivated by Trillium’s mission and strong impact story, the VCIB lending team worked to find the right financing solution for The Loop.

“We recognize the value in their model, and that’s why we were willing to take the time to underwrite the innovation and the complexity,” said Caroline Rauhala, Director of Lending at VCIB.

With The Loop fully occupied as of October 31st of this year, Trillium is poised to multiply its impact. Two new townhouse developments in Hamilton and one in Pickering are scheduled to break ground this spring, creating a total of 345 new affordable units.

For Rauhala it’s exciting to see Trillium taking off: “We are thrilled with the success of the first project and are looking forward to working with them as they grow.”

The information provided herein is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute investment, financial, legal, accounting, tax, or other advice and should not be relied upon for such purpose. Always consult a professional regarding your specific needs and circumstances. The customer endorsements that appear on this page were solicited by VCIB.

Artscape: The power of creative placemaking

Over the past 30 years, Artscape has earned an international reputation as a leader in “creative placemaking,” a term they coined and a practice that views the arts and culture as powerful catalysts for change, growth and community development.

The not-for-profit urban development organization accomplishes its mission through a range of social enterprises focusing on real estate development and management, entrepreneurship development, community animation and programming. Their growing portfolio of cultural facilities—including 14 in Toronto—are home to arts-based coworking and makerspaces, affordable housing for artist led families, community cultural hubs, performance, exhibition and event venues, and youth empowerment programming.

Central to Artscape’s work, however, is the need to keep communities affordable for artists.

“The urban affordability crisis currently poses the biggest threat to culture in cities,” said Artscape CEO Tim Jones. “The dominant narrative is that artists move into a neighborhood, make it a desirable place to live and work, and then get pushed out due to increased rents. We’re flipping that narrative on its head by showing that if we can keep the arts and culture strong in communities, we can create stronger communities that serve everyone.”

Keeping arts and culture in our communities

While different in conception and design, the organization’s three latest projects – Artscape Weston Common, Artscape Bayside Lofts, and Artscape Daniels Launchpad – each work to change the way Toronto’s creative community can work, live, and thrive in the city.

Artscape Daniels Launchpad is a first-of-its-kind center for entrepreneurship providing facilities, programs and services for artists and designers through a unique membership model. Around the corner on the eastern waterfront is Artscape Bayside Lofts, a new affordable housing development now home to 80 artists and their families. As a community cultural hub, Artscape Weston Common brings programming, performance space and 26 affordable rental units to Weston-Mount Dennis, a west-end neighborhood undergoing revitalization.

While the physical developments themselves are impressive, it’s the intangibles they inspire that really matter.

As Tim explains, each Artscape project happens at the intersection of arts and culture, urban development, community activism, philanthropy, and public policy. These are inclusive places for cultural exchange, for difficult conversations, places where people with different interests come together and define the community they want.

“Our job is to bring the disparate needs of communities together in a place that serves everyone’s interests,” he said. “Our projects allow for us to really engage with the community, hearing what’s important to the diverse groups that belong there.”

What community involvement means in practice differs for each development. Artscape Weston Common, for instance, was developed with a steering committee made up of local people who contributed to the vision and design of the project. At both Artscape Weston Common and Artscape Bayside Lofts, one of the criteria for selecting tenants is their proposed contribution to a value-exchange program.

“Everyone gives back to the community, largely through their art and creative expression,” said Tim.

Finding a financing partner willing to get creative

The things that make Artscape and its developments unique can also present challenges when it comes to finding financing, and that’s where VCIB has been able to make a difference, providing $15,500,000 in mortgage financing for the organization’s three latest projects.

“Our biggest challenge is growth,” said Tim. “Our projects aren’t conventional projects and despite a successful track record of development, we still find it difficult to find lenders who spend the time to understand what we do and work through challenges with us.”

An unusual ownership structure could be one of those challenges. Artscape Bayside Lofts, for example, is built on land owned by the City of Toronto and leased to Artscape at a nominal rent. Similarly, Artscape Weston Common is owned by a private company and leased to Artscape at just $50,000/year over 49 years—an arrangement that allows Artscape to put its own funds to better use, but which also makes it more difficult to find financing. Conventional lenders typically prefer to lend to building owners rather than operators.

In the case of Artscape Daniels Launchpad, a financing structure that involves investment from community members through community bonds plus a new business model based on memberships are two things that make the development unique, but also more complex for prospective lenders.

“We’ve had to do some creative work to make these projects happen. Where other mortgage lenders weren’t prepared to look beyond their standard formulas, VCIB was willing to spend the time to understand our model and work through challenges,” said Tim. “When we’ve had problems, you’ve problem solved with us.”

“Artscape is one of those cornerstone organizations that makes this city great,” said Caroline Rauhala, Director of Lending at VCIB. “We’re proud to be able to support their work and this truly made-in-Toronto solution to affordability and community development.”


The information provided herein is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute investment, financial, legal, accounting, tax, or other advice and should not be relied upon for such purpose. Always consult a professional regarding your specific needs and circumstances. The customer endorsements that appear on this page were solicited by VCIB.

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