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ROAD HOME: Innovative partnership turns vacant home into affordable housing

August 12, 2023

Posted on: August 12, 2023. By: Michael Braithwaite,, Original Article.

‘In a housing and homelessness crisis, no house should be vacant for years while our children, neighbours, and aging parents are forced to sleep on the street,’ says Blue Door CEO of partnership with Parks Canada

With Canada welcoming refugees, I think of all the reasons this country is amazing and, of course, the challenges we face today and in the future.

Housing — more specifically, affordable housing — is the biggest challenge.

Thousands of people are on wait lists for affordable housing.

Encampments continue to grow and new ones are popping up as the cost of living continues to skyrocket.

It’s time to look at the housing crisis through a different lens, to challenge the status quo and push ourselves to be innovative as we look beyond the usual suspects of potential partners in creating new affordable housing for all.

A couple of years ago, Blue Door did just that.

In exploring new options and partners, Blue Door learned of a few vacant homes in Parks Canada’s Rouge National Urban Park. Not only are most people unaware Parks Canada is a landlord, but perhaps even more surprising is it has more than 40 vacant older homes in different states of disrepair in Rouge National Urban Park. Without the capital dollars to invest in repairing the homes, the properties continue to sit vacant.

In a housing and homelessness crisis, no house should be vacant for years while our children, neighbours, and aging parents are forced to sleep on the street.

We cannot and we will not sit idly, knowing there are empty homes that could house our most vulnerable citizens.

Leading the way in 2020, Blue Door approached Parks Canada with an innovative proposal. If we raised the capital needed and fixed up a home, would Parks Canada then enable us to use the property for affordable housing?

Not long after, a deal was struck and a new partnership was born.

Blue Door was offered a 25-year, nearly cost-free lease in return for restoring the property into a duplex, to provide two families in need with safe, secure, and dignified housing.

Next, we worked to raise the capital funds needed for the repairs. Quick to support were our long-standing partners, United Way Greater Toronto, which granted us funding through the Government of Canada’s York Region Reaching Home capital projects, and the Regional Municipality of York, with funding through the Social Services Relief Fund aimed at creating long-term affordable housing.

With the capital raised, Blue Door was ready to tackle the work with the help of two construction social enterprises. Building Up in Toronto took the lead on the repair project, and our own employment social enterprise that had just started, Construct, was assisting.

Together, the employment social enterprises Construct and Building Up would use the property renovations as a hands-on, real-world training site for more than 20 vulnerable individuals enrolled in the enterprises to gain skills training and rapidly launch their careers in the skilled trades, ultimately securing well-paying careers and escaping poverty.

Renovated during the height of the pandemic, the project navigated and overcame many challenges and barriers.

Today, the home is beautiful.

Parks Canada still owns the house, without having to invest capital.

By engaging employment social enterprises, vulnerable folks gained the skills training needed to escape homelessness.

At a fraction of the cost it would have taken to build a similar duplex, Blue Door now provides supportive housing to vulnerable families facing barriers for decades to come.

Through the renovated duplex, families will have access to a safe, supportive, and affordable place to call home.

The project and partnerships prove that with a little creativity and hard work, true win-win-win solutions exist.

This is only the start of what is possible.

As you drive around your community, how many vacant homes do you see?

Now that you’ve read this, I guarantee you’ll see a lot more. There are thousands of vacant homes across Canada that can be repurposed into affordable housing. Raising the Roof Canada has a wonderful program called Reside that repurposes vacant homes across the country, which are then run by non-profits in the housing sector.

Imagine if we took a few thousand of these vacant homes and turned them into housing. Imagine how many lives would be impacted for the better, with access to housing and opportunities for hands-on training needed to be launched into the trades.

The Parks Canada home wasn’t the first time, and hopefully will not be the last.

I previously worked with an unusual suspect on a project like this. Years back, the ingenious Darry Gray from the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) worked with me at 360°kids on a similar type of project with a vacant home in Markham, and then again at Raising the Roof for an old TRCA farmhouse in Caledon that housed adults with intellectual disabilities who were looking for affordable, supportive, and semi-independent living.

If you would have told me more than 10 years ago the TRCA or Parks Canada could be part of the solution to the affordable housing crisis, I would have laughed it off, but it turns out they can be, and are.

All it takes is the willingness to have big and innovative conversations on the toughest of topics with potential partners from all sectors to discover a viable solution.

As we work to bring to life the right to housing for all, it will take all hands on deck.

So, bring on the unusual suspects to be part of the solution.

Michael Braithwaite is the CEO of Blue Door, host of the housing and homelessness podcast On the Way Home, board chair of the youth homelessness-focused organization A Way Home Canada, and a tireless advocate for people experiencing homelessness.