Post-Tropical Storm Fiona destroyed their church, and now a religious community in Charlottetown is hoping the rebuilding will be part of the solution to PEI’s housing crisis.
Calvary Church became directly involved in the county’s homeless problem when people began camping on church grounds. The church did what it could to support the unexpected tenants.
Then Post-Tropical Storm Fiona hit the island on September 24. The damage was widespread and extensive. Perched on a hill at the top of University Avenue, there was nothing to protect Calvary Church from the strong north wind. The damage left the church beyond repair.
The irony, given the church’s direct experience of the housing crisis, was not lost on Associate Pastor Brodie MacLeod.
“We were in the same place, with no house, no building to be in,” MacLeod said.
“Now that we see that we are back on our feet and this opportunity is presented to us, we hope that we will be able to continue in that spirit and support the community.”
That opportunity comes from BGI Group, a real estate development group in Toronto. In January, when Calvary Church was still struggling with how to proceed, BGI offered them an opportunity: not only did the church need to be rebuilt, it would have to add two residential towers and a total of 400 units.
Thousands of homes needed
It was a bold proposal in a province where a project of several dozen units would be considered large. At 10 stories, the two apartment complexes would be among the tallest buildings on the island.
But the units are badly needed. PEI has been among the fastest growing provinces in the country since 2016, and pressure on the housing market has been described as a crisis since 2019.
The province estimates it will need 2,000 new homes a year to keep up, and more to reduce the vacancy rate of 0.8 percent.
“As a church in the community, we really see this as an opportunity,” MacLeod said.
“There is a great need for affordable housing. If we (with) this proposal can be part of the solution to that crisis, we would like to contribute in that way.”
A dilemma for aging boomers
Affordable housing is scarce across the country, and BGI’s proposal is part of a program designed to address that problem not only in Canada but also south of the border.
Company chairman Ian Jones said BGI saw a particular need for people approaching retirement.
“They actually have two choices,” Jones said.
“They’re either on five- to 10-year waiting lists for affordable apartments, or they’re facing $5,000 a month in an independent living or retirement home.”
BGI not only saw that need, Jones said, but felt it could do something to help. It created the JOY concept – a design for large buildings with comfortable suites designed for seniors, including fully accessible spaces, which can be rented at a starting price of $1,300 per month.
Part of what makes this possible is a design that keeps costs down.
The other piece is an unconventional business model, something BGI calls compassionate capitalism.
BGI has created a not-for-profit division through which it raises 100 percent of its financing, Jones said, whether that be through bank financing or a construction loan from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
The completed projects are turned over to the local charity or non-profit that owns the land, and those non-profits also keep the money generated by the rent paid each month.
BGI holds the mortgage on each property, he said, and uses those assets as equity to fund the next JOY project.
When Jones learned about Fiona’s impact on Calvary Church, he determined that the 3-acre site had room for two JOY buildings. One would be designed for senior citizens, while the other would be family-friendly. The new church is also an important part of the project.
“Most churches today are what we call a flex building,” Jones said.
“They don’t want it to be used just on Sundays. They want it to be used by the community for the rest of the week as a community center and so forth. That’s basically the model we’re using, to have the flex build on the same site that the recreational space for the buildings provides.”
There is also space on the property for a health clinic, he said, which will only increase its appeal.
BGI started approaching churches about the JOY concept in January. It has two projects under contract in Ottawa and is in talks with two groups in BC and two in Toronto. While BGI started with churches, deals with nonprofits and congregations are also a possibility, Jones said.
Waiting for the city
BGI submitted its proposal for the redevelopment of the Calvary Church site at the end of April.
The company has had little response, Jones said.
“It was just a simple answer, if we know, we’ll let you know, which is frankly not acceptable,” he said.
“We’ve got banks, we’ve got CMHC, we’ve got anyone who might be interested, all treading water. And that’s not usually the way we do things.”
A spokesperson for the city told Breaking: it cannot discuss development projects at this stage of the application process.
In more general terms, the city noted in an email to Breaking: that it recently ranked number one in Canada for approval timelines by the Canadian Homebuilders’ Association.
“Timetables depend largely on the complexity of the project and the planning processes required,” the email said.
Simple structures like sheds can be approved in a week, the city said, while large subdivisions can take a year. Some applications may require consultation with Public Works, Water and Sewage Companies, Parks and Recreation, Charlottetown Fire Department, Heritage, Police and Environmental and Sustainability.
If construction can begin, Jones expects, he expects the church to be finished in 12 to 15 months and the apartment buildings in two to three years.