https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2022/04/08/this-downtown-rooming-house-may-soon-be-home-to-homeless-toronto-youth-fighting-to-stay-in-school-thanks-to-a-twist-of-fate.html

When Steve Doherty first saw the brick residence at 556 Bathurst St., with 24 bedrooms inside, he saw its potential to house young city-dwellers fighting not to fall through the cracks.

For nearly a year, Doherty and his team at the charity Youth Without Shelter had been looking for a property like this: somewhere they could expand an existing program that offers a safe bed, supports and scholarships to homeless 16-to-24-year-olds in full-time schooling. Each time they found a small site, they lost out to other bidders often with loftier redevelopment goals.

But this time, a twist of fate at city hall — and a surprise cheque — may have sealed the deal.

Just days ago, the charity’s plans were on shaky ground. It had made a conditional offer for the property for less than $4 million, which was accepted. The site seemed ideal, near high schools such as Central Technical School and Harbord Collegiate.

But as the clock ticked towards a closing date, their meetings with lenders proved fruitless. The charity needed another $3 million that hadn’t materialized, to close the deal and manage some of its operating costs.

“We looked at every single pathway that we could, and we realized that we were going to be falling short,” Doherty said.

Last week, they appealed to area councillor Mike Layton for help — but he could only scrounge up about $500,000 in funds set aside for housing projects.

That’s when the twist of fate unspooled, with Layton soon notified that a team of developers, who promised the city millions years ago in exchange for zoning tweaks for a Yorkville condo, had recently turned up at city hall for their permits. That meant it was time to pay up — including roughly $2.5 million for affordable housing, which would now be available to allocate.

“They walked in the door with their cheques,” Layton said.

And on Thursday, council voted in favour of a motion from Layton that allocated the full $3 million to the Bathurst project, and provided some tax exemptions — as long as there was a sound business case and a deal to protect the units as affordable for at least 99 years.

Lee Koutsaris, an executive with Metropia, which is part of the Yorkville condominium team along with RioCan and Capital Developments, confirmed the deal that delivered the money had been inked more than two years ago, but that they’d only recently sought out their permits.

“I think that this is wonderful news,” said Koutsaris, who hadn’t known that Layton was searching for extra funds, nor where their cheque would go.

“I couldn’t imagine going through school, and being a student, and not having that stability every day of going home — to a home to do my homework in, have a restful place to sleep, have a good meal and start my day again.”

While some details are yet to be ironed out, including whether the new units will come with a small rent cost or be fully subsidized, Doherty said their pledge was to protect the 18 existing rooming house tenancies, and integrate their young residents as vacancies arise.

The idea of the charity’s Stay In School Program was to create stability, Doherty said — offering not only a bed but resources from laptops and cellphones to scholarships, mental health care and case management. Before the pandemic reduced their capacity, the charity offered 20 beds through the program at a site shared with their emergency youth shelter.

At any given time, their wait-list could be just as long, Doherty said, with referrals coming in from school boards, educational institutions, and child welfare workers. Many of the program’s participants had weathered through abuse, neglect or breakdowns in their family’s finances.

“You don’t have any control over that when you’re 15, 16 years old,” Doherty said. Some struggled with mental illness or turned to substance use to cope with their circumstances, he added, and between 25 and 30 per cent were typically young refugee claimants.

But all too often, housing efforts don’t shake out like they have for the Bathurst site.

When affordable homes are put on the market, housing advocates often raise concern about new owners snapping up the properties with hopes of driving up the rents — cutting down on Toronto’s existing affordable housing supply as officials have striven to get new units built.

Too frequently, Layton says the city has known that affordable housing has hit the market, but has been unable to offer any financial assistance to bring the homes into non-profit hands.

“More often than not, we just can’t move that quickly,” he said. “Or the money is just simply not available.”

It’s a familiar situation to Dominique Russell, co-chair of the Kensington land trust. Watching the chips fall into place for the Bathurst site so quickly left her “astonished.”

Both Russell and Layton are hoping to see the speedy turnaround replicated in the city’s emerging affordable housing acquisition and preservation program, which will allow non-profit and Indigenous housing providers to apply for pre-approved funds to snap up properties. The program launched its first request for proposals last Thursday, with an application deadline next month.

Doherty, meanwhile, is cherishing what he sees as a stroke of serendipity.

“Sometimes, we just need to accept that it was meant to be, because it was the right thing to do.”

Victoria Gibson is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering affordable housing. Reach her via email: victoriagibson@thestar.ca