(Posted in United Church The Observer magazine)
By Sergio Granillo
A slim high-rise with a small church on its ground floor towers above an old Victorian neighbourhood. Toronto’s Parkdale area was once home to the city’s high-profile inhabitants but is now populated by newcomers and low-income families. Crime, prostitution and drug dealing have followed. But ever since 1976, the slim high-rise, called Phoenix Place, has offered nearly 150 units of safe, affordable housing.
“We are the very last option for housing for a number of individuals and families fleeing from countries in political distress or homeless Canadians. Our goal is to offer a transitional home before integrating them into society,” explains Rev. Shawn Lucas, minister of Parkdale United and head of the Parkdale United Church Foundation, which operates Phoenix Place and the adjacent Shalom House.
But very soon, social housing will be only half of what Phoenix Place stands out for. A $7.5-million renovation project will expand Phoenix Place and Shalom House by 21 units and also make it the most eco-friendly affordable housing and church in Canada — cutting the cost of hydro by up to 84 percent and reducing carbon emissions by up to 200 tons [200 tons is the verified amount] per year.
The “Green Phoenix” project began in 2004 when Parkdale Liberty Economic Development Corporation, a non-for-profit organization, partnered with the church’s foundation to look at the possibility of building environmentally-friendly affordable housing. The idea was to demonstrate that affordable housing could be “green” and therefore sustainable. For Pheonix Place, there was a real concern for the environment, but going green also meant financial savings that would make the affordable housing project financially viable in the long term. [It is accurate.]
In December 2008, the provincial government’s Infrastructure Ontario Program awarded the Green Phoenix project with a low interest loan of more than $1 million for eco-renovations. It was the first time that the province had loaned infrastructure money to retrofit an affordable housing building.
The funds, Lucas explains, will be used to reinforce the existing systems of the Phoenix Place as well as the Heating, Ventilating and Air-Conditioning (HVAC) connection to Shalom House. This HVAC connection will provide thermal comfort, good indoor air quality and low maintenance costs.
The project includes: the largest vertical solar panel array in Canada; 21 new apartments; 13 geothermal wells; high energy windows that deflect 90 percent of ultra-violet rays; new insulation; and a new air exchange system for the whole building.
The first 10 of these units were completed in December 2007. The second phase, a retrofit of the existing building, began this past spring, and the third phase, 11 new units and the creation of a new church facade, will begin later this year or in 2010. A fundraising campaign has begun for the final phase.
“I am extremely proud and excited with the Green Phoenix project, which is a leader in the country for not only green affordable housing but for all affordable housing. It is a great project for Parkdale and for The United Church of Canada,” Lucas says.
The tenants of Pheonix Place are well aware of the ongoing work to make the building more eco-friendly. But their primary joy is in having a safe and affordable place to live.
“It’s a very good place. They keep it very clean. Nothing bad happens in the building,” says Audrey Fong, a long-time resident.
“People actually talk to each other here. A lot of people in this neighbourhood avoid contact with each other, but we feel comfortable with each other in this building,” says tenant Gary Johnson.
“I like the building. It’s very quiet and clean. I feel it’s also a church foundation building; there is a good spirit here. The management is also very friendly, and if there is any problem they are available at any time,” adds Worku Assefa, an immigrant from Ethiopia.
Apart from all the excitement about going green, Lucas says offering a home to those in need — and knowing that Phoenix Place will be sustainable for years to come — is what’s most important.
“Affordable housing is society’s primary safety net that keeps thousands of families off the street. It is a call to everyone to help our needy neighbours, not only for their sake, but for us all,” Lucas says. “It reminds us of our shared humanity.”