SAHIL (Stay at Home in Leaside) was built at Bayview and McRae 15 years go – not by a developer, but by a courageous group of seniors and activists determined to create the kind of senior housing that Leaside really needs.
There were struggles, looming disaster, fear of failure and ultimate heart-warming success.
If one person can be credited with the idea of SAHIL (pronounced “Say-hill), it is Bob Hart. A tall, stately man of boundless energy, Hart was an international civil servant who ran UN relief operations in China after World War II. In retirement, he brought his organizing zeal to Toronto where, at Leaside United Church, he met four widows who told him of their sense of being stranded in homes too large for them, yet feeling an urgent desire to remain in their old neighbourhood.
The women exemplified Leaside’s looming problem: with one of the oldest age profiles in the city, Leaside would see more and more seniors anxious to not be displaced, but with no other housing choices.
Geoff Kettel, a land use planner and community activist, remembered meeting Hart, “in his 80s and very lively,” at the church. “He had this vision for retired residents of Leaside. And he knew how to do projects.”
Their first SAHIL venture would be the handsome 107-apartment development on Millwood Rd. called Leaside Gate. Intended as a seniors building, it ran into financial difficulties and was completed by a developer. Under condo legislation, age restrictions are not allowed; so today about a third of the Leaside Gate residents are not seniors.
Ten years later, undeterred, Hart told Kettel and Edna Beange, a former East York councillor with a strong interest in social issues and marginal involvement in Leaside Gate, “It’s time we built another building.” One by one, they began reeling in the people they would need to help them.
Beange recruited Barbara Carter, a Leacrest Rd. neighbour who has written a book on seniors’ housing choices, titled Where Will They Live? “Bang went five years of my life,” says Carter, smiling ruefully. “All those sleepless nights!”
George Knott, a retired T. Eaton Co. store manager, was attending a summer concert in Trace Manes Park with his wife Georgina when they were handed a SAHIL flyer. They attended a meeting at Leaside United Church and, like other would-be purchasers, put down a $1,000 deposit. Soon SAHIL meetings were being held in the Knotts’ dining room, with Georgina providing homemade cookies. Ian Ellingham, a development consultant, was active on the project until he went to study in Cambridge, UK. His place was taken by another dynamo, Deirdre Gibson, a planner experienced in non-profit housing. At SAHIL one of her biggest jobs would be working to raise capital from reluctant investors.
With Ellingham and Gibson came one more player: architect Seppo Kanerva, who had designed Suomi Koti, the Toronto Finnish-Canadian seniors centre on Eglinton Ave. East. Thanks to him, SAHIL has a distinctly Scandinavian feel.
The new SAHIL would be different from Leaside Gate. It would be smaller, and just like the Finnish project (and Bethel Green, a Millwood Rd. seniors project built since) it would be life lease, a scheme unfamiliar to many Canadians.
What is life lease? As the Government of Ontario’s online Life Lease Housing Resource Guide explains, life lease (LL) “is an increasingly popular housing choice primarily for older adults still living independently.” Under LL, residents pay a lump sum for the right to occupy their units for life rather than owning the unit itself. As with a condo, they pay maintenance fees and property taxes, but are unable to take out a mortgage on their units. Owners, or their heirs, are free though to sell the unit at market value to those who qualify.
Unlike conventional condo boards, LL boards have the right to limit occupancy to seniors (choosing their own age definition), and to prevent units from being rented out. And in SAHIL’s case that means the board must verify that at least one of the potential purchasers of a unit is 65 or over, so its LL seniors building can remain just that.
If Bob Hart and company thought they had found an easy solution in life lease, they were wrong. Life lease was no easy sell. There were times when it looked as though SAHIL might never be built.
The project got off to a promising enough start. At a meeting of some 40 people at Leaside United Church on April 26, 1997, charismatic Hart was at his persuasive best as he described his vision of what SAHIL could mean for its future residents. Subsequently, 23 people put down $1,000 deposits on their future apartment units.
As the team encountered one setback after another, nothing seemed to happen. By the end of the year, 21 of the original investors, many of them discouraged by skeptical lawyers who didn’t understand life lease, had withdrawn their deposits. The deposit fund had shrunk from $23,000 to $2,000.
“People were scared to death they would lose their money,” recalls Carter. “Life leases should have been springing up everywhere – it’s a fabulous concept – but there’s a lot of trust involved. And in the big city, people don’t trust.”
Finding a building site was the first challenge. There was no obvious and sizeable site to buy as there had been with Leaside Gate. The search narrowed down to a small garden centre at the southeast corner of Bayview and McRae.
“It was such a crazy shape,” says Beange. In addition to being small and irregular, the site was seriously contaminated after serving for years as a FINA and later Petro-Canada gas station.
For residents, it had one big advantage: location. It was within walking distance of two supermarkets, several restaurants and the small-town ambience of the flourishing Bayview shopping strip. It also had bus service almost at the door.
Considering the battles that lay ahead, it was fortunate that the SAHIL people had useful political connections. The local MP, John Godfrey, was persuaded to write to Petro-Canada’s president in Calgary urging that the property be sold to the SAHIL hopefuls.
When the Petro-Canada lawyers – used to dealing with big firms and quite unfamiliar with handling small citizen groups like SAHIL – stalled the negotiations, former East York mayor and SAHIL’s legal counsel, Alan Redway, stepped in and got things moving again.
After negotiations, the price was settled at $600,000. Petro-Canada paid for the site cleanup and testing. Before SAHIL could move forward, the provincial government insisted the soil testing be done over again – at considerable expense to the group, which was now painfully short on cash.
Although thousands of seniors now live in life lease projects across Canada, many built by churches and other community groups, it is still a novel concept to many lawyers, insurance companies, municipalities, and – most importantly – banks. Confronted with the unfamiliar life lease arrangement, the banks rejected the SAHIL people’s request to borrow money.
“They did nothing to help. They were unwilling to take any risks with us,” the frustrated SAHIL treasurer Knott told Sheila Kieran in a 2002 Toronto Star article. “How can communities come up with housing solutions without support from their lending institutions?”
NEXT MONTH: More near disasters, but a happy ending.
Former Toronto Star columnist Frank Jones is a resident of SAHIL