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Diocese’s gift gives family a ‘huge step up’

The Brimley Road site under construction as of Jan. 9. Photo by Habitat for Humanity GTA,
The Brimley Road site under construction. Photo by Habitat for Humanity GTA

By Stuart Mann

A mother and her three children who live below the poverty line in Toronto can now afford to buy their own house, thanks to a generous gift from the Diocese of Toronto.

The Diocese has tithed $100,000 to Habitat for Humanity GTA to help build 15 affordable housing units on Brimley Road in Scarborough. It is the largest cash donation ever given by a faith group to the local non-profit housing organization.

Enloe Wilson, a spokesperson for Habitat for Humanity GTA, says the new house will be a “huge step up” for the family. “All of our families are vying with various degrees of unsustainability, unaffordability and overcrowding. The family has mentioned all of those, including living in a neighbourhood that is less than safe. They lack heat in the winter. These are the sort of things out of which the mother has tried to lift her family.”

The gift from the Diocese will be used to build a two-storey, 1,300 square foot, semi-detached house with three bedrooms. All of the houses, which are similar in size, will have underground parking.

Construction at the site, located just north of Lawrence Avenue East, began in September 2014 and is expected to wrap up by the end of this year. During that time, the Diocese will have four days in which to send teams to help build the house. On one of those occasions, they may be working alongside the family.

Artist's drawing of the finished site. Image provided by Habitat for Humanity GTA
Artist’s drawing of the finished site. Image provided by Habitat for Humanity GTA

“I’d love to see members of the parishes out on the build site,” says Mr. Wilson.

When the house is finished, representatives from the Diocese and the family will take part in a “key ceremony,” in which the Diocese will present the key to the front door to the family. The Diocese will also be able to present the family with a Bible.

In lieu of a cash down payment for the house, Habitat for Humanity GTA requires families to put in 500 hours of labour, called “sweat equity,” usually at the construction site or at the organization’s retail stores, head office or outreach events. The families must attend training courses in personal finance, mortgages, insurance, home maintenance and legal matters. They also need to have a good credit rating and not rely social assistance.

Once those obligations are fulfilled, the organization then arranges a 20-year, interest-free mortgage with the family. The monthly mortgage payments are never more than 30 per cent of the total family income.

Mr. Wilson says the formula not only provides affordable housing for families in need, it enables low-income families to build assets. “It’s key to breaking the cycle of poverty,” he says. “You allow these families to accrue equity on their home and build an asset that they can pass down.” Since the families also pay the property taxes, they are contributing to the wider community, he says.

The mother and children who will own the house built by the diocese have almost finished their 500 hours of labour. “They’re very excited,” he says, adding that the oldest two children have graduated from high school and plan to pursue post-secondary education.

Diocesan Council approved the tithe at its meeting in December. The Diocese tithes 10 per cent of the funds that go into the Ministry Allocation Fund for projects that are not covered by the Diocese’s operating budget. Past recipients include Home Grown Homes and the Seeds of Hope Foundation, which provide affordable housing in the Diocese, the Council of the North for suicide prevention and the Diocese of the Arctic to rebuild its cathedral after it was destroyed by fire.

“Housing is one of the key priorities of our diocesan social justice advocacy,” says Archbishop Colin Johnson, explaining the decision to make the gift to Habitat for Humanity GTA. “Recent studies from St. Michael’s Hospital demonstrate that stable housing is one of the largest determinants of good health and a major factor in poverty reduction. The Diocese has been involved for decades in social housing, but construction and maintenance are not our forte. Instead, it makes much more sense for us to partner with agencies, especially a Christian charity like Habitat for Humanity, whose primary mission is housing. It makes a difference in people’s lives.”

Ruth Schembri, chair of the Diocese’s Housing Advocacy Subcommittee, echoes his comments. “Having worked for 30 years in housing for people with mental health issues, my feeling is that about 80 per cent of poverty is about housing,” she says. “If you can get into affordable housing, you can have a life where maybe you can go out for coffee twice a week; if you can’t, your whole cheque goes to a room somewhere.”

She adds, “I think it’s amazing that the Diocese has priorities for advocacy and that we’re really trying to make some kind of a difference. That’s why I’m involved, because I have hope that something may actually happen.”

The Diocese and its advocacy partners are asking the provincial government to build more affordable housing units. Ms. Schembri says efforts by the Diocese and parish churches are important when talking to the government. “I don’t think people should always be looking to government for everything, but on the other hand government has the resources to actually fix things, so we need as much leverage as we can get.”

There are 156,000 families on the waiting list for affordable housing in Ontario, nearly half of those with children, and the waiting time can be up to 10 years, according to the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association. Most of those families live in the GTA.

Learn more about the Diocese’s social justice and advocacy initiatives.