It was once a thriving health care campus with an acute care and children’s hospital, training centres for doctors and nurses, and labs that bore groundbreaking medical discoveries.
Today, the old Victoria hospital campus southeast of London, Ont.’s downtown looks more dead than alive. Only two of the five original brown brick buildings remain, boarded up with rotting interiors, and abandoned about 17 years ago.
Now six non-profit affordable housing developers plan to breathe new life into the deserted five acres by taking an ambitious swing at London’s growing housing crisis.
Called the Vision SoHo Alliance and led by the London Community Foundation, the participating agencies have pooled their vision and resources to build a new neighbourhood of 650 homes for more than 800 people in affordable, supportive and market-rent apartments that could be ready for occupancy as soon as 2024.
The coalition is being touted for its ambitious, co-operative approach. Each of the member agencies has committed to building its own housing project within the boundaries of one overarching site plan. The project, estimated to be worth $300 million, will revitalize a forgotten parcel of public land in a city where there are about 6,000 people waiting for affordable housing.
It is targeting 50 per cent affordable units but will have at least 30 per cent affordable.
It’s a strategy that is increasingly being employed by social service and other agencies, who are finding partners — sometimes municipalities, sometimes private developers and sometimes other non-profits — to tap into National Housing Strategy funds, said Greg Playford, a non-profit housing developer, who is past president of the London Community Foundation.
There are lots of examples of team efforts to build affordable housing with municipalities sometimes partnering with non-profits and private sector developers.
“But I don’t think anywhere in Canada could we find an example of six non-profits getting together to put their projects together,” he said.
About two hours west of Toronto on Highway 401, London has, for decades, been viewed as a haven of affordability relative to the GTA. Now the city of about 400,000 is an outpost of the Toronto region’s own pandemic housing bubble.
Home prices that averaged $389,201 there in February 2019 soared to $825,221 by the time the market peaked this February, according to the London and St. Thomas Association of Realtors.
As in Toronto, the rising cost of housing hit hardest among those least able to afford suitable shelter.
Homelessness has exploded in London, as people who had been surviving in cheap rooming houses and apartments are forced onto the streets thanks to renovictions and gentrification, said Abe Oudshoorn, an associate professor of nursing at Western University.
In 2018, there were only 159 names on the city’s list of individuals who have come into contact with London’s homelessness supports. This spring the number had shot up to 1,574 names.
The problem has become increasingly visible too. Oudshoorn said there were 103 encampment sites in London at last count — most of them small groups of six or fewer people sleeping in one to three tents.
He credits the London Community Foundation with envisioning the need for an affordable housing fund to assist private and non-profit developers nine years ago.
“Every community has these organizations often doing things more geared to their cultural development. But the London Community Foundation took on housing as a passion quite early on, before we were even into the crisis,” said Oudshoorn.
That loan fund is now worth about $16 million and has helped build about a dozen affordable housing projects in Kitchener-Waterloo, Chatham and London, said Playford.
In the case of the SoHo Alliance, however, the non-profit developers are bringing their own equity to the project. They include Indwell, a faith-based developer of supportive housing for adults with mental health challenges; Zerin Development Corporation; Homes Unlimited; London Affordable Housing Foundation; Chelsea Green Home Society and Residenza Affordable Housing — all experienced affordable or supportive housing developers.
Their biggest shared challenge, however, is the high cost of land. So the old hospital site presented a rare opportunity, said Playford.
A site with provenance in London’s health sciences establishment, SoHo once housed Western University’s medical and nursing schools and the laboratories that helped establish the city as a global player in medical research in the early 20th century.
Dr. Frederick Banting, part of the team that discovered insulin as a treatment for diabetes, worked there with the Royal Canadian Air Force researching compression chambers. Other groundbreaking discoveries in genetics and the treatment of Hodgkin’s lymphoma took place in the labs, according to a Western University history project called “Echoes of SoHo” that traced the roots of the neighbourhood, including the health care campus.
As the 20th century wore on, the teaching facilities and labs migrated to London’s main campus, while Victoria hospital, which in the 1970s was the largest teaching hospital in the country, moved to a new, modern facility in 2010.
About that time, the province turned the Victoria hospital parcel over to the City of London, which sold half to private developer. That company is in the process of building two towers with about 600 units, said Playford.
Then about two years ago, the city issued a request for proposals for the rest of the land. Playford had already connected to Indwell’s Sylvia Harris and the pair reached out to other non-profits to make a joint play for the property.
“We didn’t know if we were up against major developers or people from out of town or local developments,” he said. “So it was very much an open market and we weren’t getting any preferential access.”
But they had a feeling they could make it work better than anyone else using municipal and federal affordable housing assistance programs.
“One of the requirements was that the two heritage buildings had to be retained and converted and designated heritage. So that was the cost that we kind of thought a lot of other developers might not to take on,” he said.
Indwell agreed to preserve the heritage of the remaining Faculty of Medicine building and the War Memorial Children’s Hospital.
“We put in an offer of $2 million to buy the site,” said Playford, who still sounds somewhat astonished at their success. London city council approved a contribution of $11.2 million, which has since increased to $13.8 million, in development charge and heritage restoration credits.
The main site is being designed as a low- to midrise, livable space that avoids surface parking in favour of underground car lots, parkland and walkways — “areas that the tenants can enjoy.”
The city is building a new park in front of the former children’s hospital.
The alliance has spent the last year having the SoHo plot rezoned so it could build five- and six-storey buildings rather than the prescribed 11 and 12 storeys. The Residenza building for Italian seniors will be 12 storeys across the road from the main site.
There will be space in each building for community support agencies and the London Food Bank is donating $1 million to design food programming for the new neighbourhood that is for now located in a food desert.
For architect Jim Sheffield, the aim is to keep the neighbourhood in scale with the adjacent residential streets. Originally, a working class area that served the city’s early manufacturing sector, as well as the medical establishment, the SoHo area is a mixture of single-family homes and mid-century walk-up apartments.
“We’re not just doing buildings. We’re designing the spaces in between the buildings. So we’re creating a community,” he said.
The apartments will feature balconies and big windows. The interiors will have plank floors and many finishes comparable to a modern condo, he said.
Each building will have its own outdoor amenity space, in addition to a civic plaza to welcome residents and visitors. A five- or 10-minute walk from London’s downtown core, the site will be easily accessible to the new bus rapid transit.
“It’s really designed to be in a neighbourhood pedestrian scale,” said Indwell’s Harris, who describes Soho as a “forgotten neighbourhood.”
“It’s tucked away against the (Thames) river … It has a very important history in terms of black settlers from the U.S. coming through and settling there, Indigenous heritage and working class people that settled there. Lots of migrant workers. And then the hospital.
“We’re just so pleased to be able to preserve it and then bring it back to new life,” Harris said.
Tess Kalinowski is a Toronto-based reporter covering real estate for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tesskalinowski