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How a church destroyed by Fiona could bring affordable housing to Charlottetown

Church hoping to build 400 apartments on its property

View of Calvary Church in Charlottetown
Perched on a hill, Calvary Church had no protection from the ferocious north winds of Fiona in September. (Kevin Yarr/CBC)

Post-tropical storm Fiona destroyed their church, and now a religious community in Charlottetown is hoping the rebuild will be part of the solution for P.E.I.'s housing crisis.

Calvary Church became directly involved in the province's homeless problem when people started camping on church property. The church did what it could to support the unexpected tenants.

Then post-tropical storm Fiona struck the Island on Sept. 24. The damage was widespread and extensive. Perched on a hill at the top of University Avenue, there was nothing to buffer Calvary Church against the powerful north wind. The damage left the church beyond repair.

The irony, given the church's direct experience of the housing crisis, did not escape associate pastor Brodie MacLeod.

Head shot of Brodie MacLeod.
Fiona has turned into an opportunity to serve the community, says Brodie MacLeod. (Submitted by Brodie MacLeod)

"We found ourselves in that same place, without a home, without a building to be in," said MacLeod.

"As we see ourselves getting back on our feet and having this opportunity presented to us, we're hoping we're going to be able to continue in that vein, [and] support the community."

That opportunity is coming from BGI Group, a property development group in Toronto. In January, as Calvary Church was still struggling with how to move forward, BGI presented them with an opportunity: the church shouldn't just rebuild, it should add two apartment towers and a total of 400 housing units.

Thousands of housing units needed

It was a bold proposal in a province where a project with a few dozen units would be considered large. At 10 storeys, the two apartment complexes would be among the tallest buildings on the Island.

But the units are desperately needed. P.E.I. has been among the fastest-growing provinces in the country since 2016, and the pressure on the housing market has been described as a crisis since 2019.

The province estimates it needs 2,000 new units a year just to keep up, and even more to budge the 0.8 per cent vacancy rate.

"As a church in the community we really see this as an opportunity," said MacLeod.

"There's great needs for affordable housing. If [with] this proposal we can be a part of the solution for that crisis, we would love to be able to contribute in that way."

A dilemma for aging boomers

Affordable housing is in short supply across the country, and the proposal from BGI is part of a program designed to address that problem, not only in Canada but south of the border as well.

Company president Ian Jones said BGI saw a particular need for people who were approaching retirement.

"They've got basically two choices," said Jones.

Satellite view of building site alongside development plan.
BGI has submitted a proposal to replace the church and parking lot with two high rises, a clinic, and a church. (BGI/Google Maps)

"They're either on five to 10 year waiting lists for affordable apartments or they are faced with $5,000 a month in independent living or retirement homes."

BGI not only saw that need, said Jones, but also 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, that could be rented at a starting price of $1,300 a month.

Part of what makes this possible is a design that keeps costs low.

The other piece is an unconventional business model, something BGI calls compassionate capitalism.

BGI created a non-profit division through which it brings 100 per cent of the financing, Jones said, whether that's through bank financing or a construction loan with 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 cash generated by the rents paid each month.

BGI holds the mortgage on each property, he said, and uses those assets as equity to finance the next JOY project.

When Jones heard about Fiona's impact on Calvary Church, he determined the 1.2-hectare property had space for two JOY buildings. One would be designed for seniors, while the other would be family-friendly. The new church is also an important piece of the project.

Head shot of Ian Jones
Ian Jones is frustrated with lack of communication from the City of Charlottetown. (BGI Group)

"Most churches today are what we call a flex building," said Jones.

"They don't want it just used on a Sunday. They want it used for the rest of the week by the community as a community centre, et cetera. That's basically the model that we're using, to have the flex building on the same site which provides the amenity space for the buildings."

There is also space on the property for a health clinic, he said, which will only add to its attraction.

BGI started approaching churches about the JOY Concept in January. It has two projects under contract in Ottawa and is in discussion with two groups in B.C. and two in Toronto. While BGI started with churches, deals with non-profits and municipalities are also a possibility, said Jones.

Waiting for the city

BGI submitted its proposal for redevelopment of the Calvary Church property at the end of April.

The company has had little in the way of response, said Jones.

"It's just been a simple answer, when we know we'll let you know, which frankly isn't acceptable," he said.

"We've got banks, we've got CMHC, we've got everybody that might be interested in it all sort of treading water. And that's not usually the way we do things."

A spokesperson for the city told CBC News it cannot discuss development projects at this stage of the application process.

In more general terms, the city noted in an email to CBC News it was recently ranked number one in Canada for approval timelines by the Canadian Homebuilders' Association.

"Timeframes are largely contingent on project complexity and the planning processes that are required," the email said.

Simple structures such as sheds might be approved in a week, the city said, while major subdivisions might take a year. Some applications may require consultation with public works, water and sewer utility, parks and recreation, Charlottetown Fire Department, heritage, police, and environment and sustainability.

If construction is able to start, said Jones, he expects the church would be ready in 12 to 15 months, and the apartment buildings in two to three years.