Affordable housing “changes lives.” It is a “human right that enables individuals and families to flourish.”
These convictions motivated Anne Nicholson and other members of the Markham Inter-church Committee for Affordable Housing (MICAH) to persevere with a recent building project despite the “unique challenges” presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Mike Clare, MICAH’s president, the “hiccups” it had to overcome to complete the project pale in comparison to the need for appropriate housing for vulnerable populations, like seniors. Clare says, “The wait list for a one-bedroom rent-assist apartment in York Region is huge,” an area where rents are higher than the Canadian average.
The new four-storey building at 18 Water Street, Markham, in the Greater Toronto Area of Ontario, completed by MICAH at the end of May will provide 32 units, six of them barrier-free, with several apartments on the main floor for a program called 360Kids that assists at-risk and homeless youth. The main floor also has a common area, offices and storage space.
The greatest challenge yet could be the difficult process of choosing tenants for the new units. Clare says potentially there could be “2,400 applicants for one vacant unit.”
MICAH, which includes Wideman, Rouge Valley and Hagerman Mennonite churches, is an organization with decades of experience building affordable housing, but even its resolve was tested by the unusual difficulties that arose during this build.
The reality of COVID-19 “threw the schedule out the window,” Clare says, adding that MICAH wondered, “Could we continue to build through the pandemic?” But he credits the “amazing team” at MICAH for seeing the project through.
Carolyn Stephenson, a MICAH volunteer, says, “Drawing on our faith, the support of our partners and the support of each other made it all possible.”
First, there was a delay in getting the gas hooked up. Clare notes that to complete a building and get permission to occupy it requires heat. Then the air conditioning systems were installed missing “a major component to regulate individual metering,” he says, leading to a “delay to the construction schedule and a [$5,000] cost over-run,” which was “an extra challenge for a group of volunteers to address.”
“A new schedule was developed to allow trades to work in a safe, socially distant environment,” he says, which pushed the December 2019 finish date back to May of this year.
Now MICAH faces the challenge of getting tenants moved in, hopefully during the month of August.
With 32 units and one central elevator, working “in close quarters with the most vulnerable portion of the population” to move everyone in safely will be tricky, Clare says. Any delay with the move-in could violate the terms of the mortgage agreement.
In the face of these uncertainties, the volunteers from MICAH continue to draw strength from a sense of the value of their work, grounded in the gospel and their faith in God.
According to Barb Ribble, a member of Wideman Mennonite and MICAH’s secretary, “Providing safe and affordable housing is what God is calling us to do . . . this belief and purpose kept us going in all the challenges we faced.”
Yvonne Hoogeveen says, “What got me through the challenges was knowing that this was God’s work and he will guide us.”
Anne Nicholson says, the commandment to love one another “means that our lives are always enriched when we work to make the lives of others better.”
Clare says the MICAH group is inspired by Jesus. “When Christ cured the lame, gave sight to the blind or drove out the demons, Christ said to the cured, ‘go home.’ We are just following Christ’s instructions and providing the place to call home.”
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‘This is what God calls us to do’