Many traditional church congregations are shrinking in Canada, but Hamilton’s Hughson Street Baptist Church is bucking the trend. Established in the late 1800s, it was on the verge of shutting its doors in the early ’90s, back when the city’s economic downturn had bottomed out and attendance was at its lowest. But over the next decade something shifted. A new pastor was hired; programming began focusing on younger worshippers; clergy came up with programs that involved partnering with local sports programs and schools. By the early 2000s, weekly attendance had quadrupled; by 2009, the church had moved its Sunday services to the gymnasium of a local school across the street. But the congregation eventually outgrew that space, too, and so the church started looking to build another space of its own: a new, larger facility that wouldn’t function entirely like a traditional Sunday service building.
“In their understanding of what a church is, they see it as a hub. They wanted it occupied seven days a week,” says Jeff Neven, executive director of Indwell, an affordable-housing non-profit that Hughson Street Baptist worked with to develop the space. The building, which broke ground for construction last fall, will feature a public gymnasium, a community kitchen, and, in the true spirit of that 24/7 usage ideal, 45 units of affordable-housing apartments geared specifically toward the congregation’s North End neighbourhood, which Neven calls among the most rapidly gentrifying in the country. “It went from the poorest to a very rapidly changing one, very quickly,” he says.
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Every week for the past couple of years, Neven’s office has received calls from congregations across the country with questions about how to use their capital or land resources to help address Canada’s well-documented affordable-housing crisis. The context of the request may differ — many of the inquiries come from dwindling congregations with excess property they can no longer afford to maintain — but, says Neven, a few factors are consistent. “There’s the rapid rise in the cost of market housing and an increase in our society’s awareness and appreciation and need for affordable housing,” he says. There’s also a changing sense of what a place of worship should be: “More often now, we’re hearing from people who just want to meet in a space, who say, ‘If we can take our rent or our fundraising and put it towards being a part of something else, we can leverage the opportunity instead of it being a sacred space.’ It’s a massive shift.”
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As the demographics of worship in Canada have changed, so has its relationship to real estate. Denominations such as the United and Anglican Churches of Canada are facing dwindling congregations but have large amounts of property on their hands (the United Church, for example, is insured for about $5 billion worth of property nationally). Some faith groups have opted to put their churches on the market. Increasingly, though, faith groups are turning to methods of redevelopment that maintain the spirit of the building’s purpose. In 2015, the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa launched a working group to identify church properties in its catchment that could be redeveloped for affordable-housing projects. St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, in Guelph, is looking to tear down three properties it owns in the city’s downtown and replace them with housing units. And last month, the British Columbia Conference of the United Church announced a partnership with the provincial government that will involve building 414 units of below-market rental-housing units on current church sites.
According to Carla Leon of the Edge Network, a research and development arm of the United Church, the denomination has a history of supporting affordable-housing initiatives that goes back decades.
“The 1970s was a big time for churches to invest in affordable housing,” she says. At the time, the United Church was the largest denomination in Canada, and “there was a huge policy push for affordable and available subsidies. All you needed was land.” Many churches applied for government funding, donated land for housing developments, and then made separate incorporations to manage them. Leon estimates there are about 17 such developments still operating in the GTA alone, including St. Matthew’s Bracondale House in Toronto’s St. Clair neighbourhood and Community Homes at Mortimer.
In 2013, the Anglican and Lutheran Churches of Canada passed a joint resolution that made combatting homelessness and promoting housing affordability ministry priorities. Two years later, the Diocese of Ottawa established the goal of creating 125 units of affordable housing by 2021, its 125th anniversary. “The reality is that the Anglican Church of Canada, and our diocese, we have a lot of land,” says P.J. Hobbs, director of mission at the diocese. “We are in a time, in the church, of consolidation of our ministry and a refocus and a renewal of our mission.”
Through Cornerstone, a women’s housing branch of the ministry, the Ottawa diocese began concverting a former Roman Catholic convent into a community home with 42 units of affordable housing for women in need of shelter. The project, which Hobbes calls a cornerstone of their 125-unit goal, was funded in part through federal grants and Ontario’s Investment in Affordable Housing program, and operational costs are overseen by Cornerstone. It’s currently slated to open this coming fall. Last year, two other Ottawa church properties were surveyed and studied for redevelopment through an Ontario Trillium Grant.
Having available land, though, doesn’t necessarily guarantee a successful redevelopment. “The challenge is that affordable housing needs to be subsidized in and of itself, and extensively,” says Neven. “It’s not a money-making proposition. We tell people if you want to add affordable housing to your site, we’re going to make your financial situation worse.” So many church groups had aspirations similar to Hughson Street’s that earlier this year, Indwell released a guide to development partnerships that covers financing, fundraising, site planning, and managing operations of the finished project.
After spending a couple of years looking for a funding partner to redevelop a string of properties, the United Church’s British Columbia Conference teamed up with the provincial government through B.C. Housing. Four former churches in Coquitlam, Nanaimo, Richmond, and Vancouver are now being rebuilt as rent-geared-to-income housing; two more locations are also in the early planning stages. All of the buildings will incorporate worship space.
Unlike a number of these church-to-housing developments, this B.C. partnership won’t produce subsidized housing, says Terry Harrison, the property-resource team lead for the United Church’s British Columbia Conference. “It’s specifically designed for working families and individuals, or students, who can’t afford to get into the marketplace right now because rent is so high. We want to keep the rent as low as possible and keep it financially viable.” The Coquitlam development, for example, will accommodate renters with household incomes of $48,520 to $72,000; monthly rent for one- to two-bedroom units is projected to be between $1,200 and $2,000 a month.
“We didn’t want to sell property,” says Harrison. “We wanted try to retain partial or full ownership so we could leave a legacy for the United Church and people beyond our generation.”