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Rebuilding Halifax’s most feared neighbourhood

This story first appeared in the Globe and Mail on Sept 24, 2010:

Gottingen Street, Halifax’s premier retail strip in the 1960s, has an unenviable reputation these days. Lining it are a mix of abandoned businesses, vacant lots, antique churches and the odd hip café. Violent crime is high, as is unemployment – one in 10 residents is on social assistance – and in a poll in May, Haligonians named it and the surrounding area the most feared neighbourhood in the city.

Perfect place, then, to build a chic, environmentally friendly condominium.

That’s Dalhousie University architecture professor Grant Wanzel’s vision, and while condo developments have begun popping up regularly here, his project does not aim for gentrification. The founder of Creighton/Gerrish Development Association, Prof. Wanzel intends for his condos to be affordable to those making as little as $31,000 a year.

The professor is known as an affordable-housing guru in this city, with a seat on the boards of Halifax’s non-profit housing society, the Metropolitan Regional Housing Authority, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. and countless other national housing coalitions. In the past 12 years, he’s made it his mission to transform the Gottingen Street area.

His latest effort, the 48-unit Gottingen Terrace, is in the planning stage and on the market with one-bedrooms starting at $124,500 and three-bedrooms at $189,500 – about $100,000 to $150,000 less than equivalent listings in the area. The monthly mortgage rate is only slightly higher than what CMHC calls “deeply affordable” rental rates.

Home-ownership schemes for low-income families exist in Vancouver, Montreal and Ontario, but no one has done it quite like Prof. Wanzel. He keeps prices low by mobilizing government bureaucracies, highly skilled volunteer architects and social service agencies.

Gary Chandler is one of 24 confirmed buyers for Gottingen Terrace. He grew up one street over and works as a hospital porter, earning a little over minimum wage. The condo, he said, “gives me a chance to pay for something brand new, something of my own. With no more rent increases.”

In a poll in May, Haligonians named Gottingen street and the surrounding area the most feared neighbourhood in the city.

For Prof. Wanzel, this project has been his toughest challenge. It has received verbal support from the non-profit sector, all levels of government, and private and public loans, but it has not received the subsidies – from any level of government – that could make home ownership affordable to an even lower income bracket.

And while he has had a series of positive meetings with Nova Scotia’s deputy minister of policy and priorities, rising bank rates have already increased anticipated costs. “The loan was more expensive than I expected and the lender required a guarantee,” he said. “We went back to get the province to guarantee the loan. It’s been with them for several weeks now.”

Which means a stalled project for Prof. Wanzel.

Even if he gets a construction loan, without dedicated government funding to subsidize purchase prices, these properties will be inaccessible for low-income families. Ideally, the new homeowners would come from renters – 87 per cent of neighbourhood residents – particularly the half of them using social and public housing.

Dan Troke, director of housing at the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services, says his department is paying attention to Prof. Wanzel’s progress, but the province’s focus is on rental accommodation. “The highest need is where people are paying more than 30 per cent of their income on rent,” he said. “There is a lot of other activity happening in the Gottingen Street neighbourhood, with non-profits buying land and looking to develop rentals to balance out all the condo developments happening there now.”

Prof. Wanzel’s condo project is the fourth and final phase of a rebuild he started in 1998, when he persuaded the Halifax Regional Municipality to donate two properties and give tax exemptions on others as prices bottomed out. “The area was in serious decline,” he recalled. “There was lots of government investment but it wasn’t coming together. The slumlords were speculating on a vacant property … so we wanted to get it off the market and dedicate it to households with moderate means.”

The land has since tripled in value. The not-for-profit organization Prof. Wanzel founded, Creighton/Gerrish, parlayed those gains into building 29 single rental units, six affordable townhouses and 12 affordable family apartments.

Creighton-Gerrish then invested $2.5-million into a fund held by the provincial affordable-housing program. When a family buys a unit, it takes a share of that value as debt in the form of a second mortgage. If it sells within five years, it has to pay back the second mortgage to the province, but if it holds it longer, the second mortgage is forgiven. That prevents house flipping and the money can be recycled into more affordable housing.

“People keep telling us it’s had a visible impact,” Prof. Wanzel said.

Several new businesses have started up in recent years and the area has begun to draw students and artists. A few quality housing projects can’t single-handedly resolve interwoven issues of crime and income disparity, but Prof. Wanzel hopes that giving residents the chance to build equity will provide a layer of security they haven’t had before.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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