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From schoolhouse to home: community creates affordable housing

Darrin O'Brien and his group, Parry Sound Non Profit Housing, took an unfortunate situation and made it work. The organization repurposed a school into 45 housing units for those in need.
The entrance to Francis Parkman School is boarded up in Chicago, Illinois, May 8, 2015. Forty-nine elementary schools were targeted by the country's largest mass closing in 2013, and most are still empty two years later. (REUTERS/Jim Young)

Darrin O'Brien is a member of the Parry Sound Non Profit Housing organization in Parry Sound, Ont. which has converted a closed public school into affordable community housing. The repurposed school now has 45 housing units and offers shared spaces for community organizations and recreational activities. This development project is a creative solution to a lack of affordable housing and acts as an innovative solution for closed public school property. O'Brien spoke about the project with Checkup host Duncan McCue.

Darrin O'Brien, of Parry Sound, Ont is converting middle school into affordable housing via co-op. 6:28

How a closed public school became housing:

Affordable housing is a matter close to my heart. I am part of a non-profit housing provider in Parry Sound and we have 85 units. We are the result of two non-profit providers amalgamating, and together we decided to go out to the community and see if there was a need for more affordable housing. We applied for a CMHC grant that allowed us to facilitate this study. It turned out that we had hundreds and hundreds of people in our town of 6,500 that required affordable housing. These were people across the whole spectrum: single seniors to families who aren't ready to enter the housing market, or were struggling with the local market rate for rent. 

Around the same time that we put this study together, we noticed that our public schools were beginning to close. With that survey and study in hand, we applied for another CMHC grant to develop a project. We were able to acquire one of these public schools and I'm proud to say that we're in the process of converting the former school into 45 new housing units. Not only that, we were able to save the gymnasium and other parts of the school and offer it to service groups, such as a kid's play place and a seniors' activity group, and we just got approval for a day care. We were able to create what we now call a "community hub" out of a building that was previously unused.

We haven't cut the ribbon on our first project yet. We're still half way through the development of the building. The classrooms have now been converted into housing and over the next couple of months they'll put the finishing touches on.

On Parry Sound's housing challenges:

What's driving up housing prices is that we don't have the ability to grow. We are a rocky crevasse on the lovely Georgian Bay, and we don't have the ability to expand our housing geographically. 

I'm also a realtor and I know for a fact that some of the issues getting young people, or anybody, into housing in these rural communities are that there is no longer solid jobs with a guaranteed paycheck. A lot of people work in the trades or they're seasonal workers. Their employment comes in contracts that are one or two years long, and because of this, they don't necessarily qualify for traditional mortgages the way they would have in the past. Homeownership is a challenge in these rural communities because of the inability to qualify for a mortgage.

We have a community of elders with unique situations that find them in need of affordable housing. There are also people that are transitioning from one situation to another and could take advantage of accessing affordable housing for a certain period of time. 

On the project's financial viability:

The bulk of the funds came from a private developer who helped us develop this project. We were able to show through the balancing of the books that this project can run on its own. We're able to collect enough resources from the tenants and users to carry this project forward. In fact, we should be able to have a contingency fund every year to put back into the community hub by improving the building or providing more services. 

Provincial government takes note:

This community hub is one of the first in Canada. We've been invited to Queen's Park in Toronto in May to speak to this issue of repurposing public buildings because the province just announced they will be closing 300 public schools over the next year. This is a great opportunity for small communities, like Parry Sound, to take advantage of the situation and if the federal or provincial governments actually do want to get involved it shouldn't be in the sense of funding it outright. It should be in the sense of making sure that regulations and the ability for non-profit housing providers to get their hands on these public schools make it a much easier than what we went through, which took many years. This project's taken about six years now to put together. 

Darrin O'Brien's comments have been edited and condensed. This online segment was prepared by Champagne Choquer.

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