SAHIL: At one point it looked dead

The story of SAHIL part 2

At the end of last month’s Part 1, banks had refused to provide loans to the planners of SAHIL, at Bayview and McRae, because they were unfamiliar with the life lease program. Money was eventually found, and so were more problems. But the end was a happy success.

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) eventually approved a $45,000 seed loan, and ultimately got back every penny. That loan allowed the SAHIL activists to order up planning drawings from Seppo Kanerva.

Money, however, remained the stumbling block. Deirdre Gibson, Barbara Carter, Geoff Kettel and others were hunting for financing. One loan fell through when the broker imposed a requirement that only union labour be used on the project. That would have destroyed the construction budget, according to George Knott. Backing out of the deal resulted in a $25,000 contract penalty, a bitter pill for the activists to swallow.

Under the unit sales agreements, purchasers were offered incentives to put more money in the pot: if they put up $25,000 they would receive a 15 per cent discount on the price of their unit; for a $50,000 down payment they could discount the price by 20 per cent.

Knott admits that at one point he was so discouraged that he told Carter he felt the project might not fly. Edna Beange pointed out that at least with the site now purchased, those early investors felt confident that if things went wrong they would get their money back, especially since land values were likely to rise.

Leaside Life January 2016Then former East York Mayor Alan Redway, SAHIL’s lawyer, found a group of Florida investors willing to loan the money for a generous return. With every mortgage payment, the investors demanded extra fees, Knott recalls .

When all but $200,000 of the loan had been repaid, the committee asked the lenders to allow them time to make one last payment.

“They refused,” says Knott. “They wanted us to take out a whole new mortgage with all the costs that entailed.”

Under life lease regulations, the building mortgage must be paid off when construction is completed. Knott, Beange and others would eventually put in their own money to pay off the loan. SAHIL’s total cost came in at close to $4.5 million. Of that, the cost of financing was $313,000.

To be financially viable, SAHIL – a small development – needed sufficient units and owners to cover its running costs without charging exorbitant maintenance fees. The official plan allowed for four storeys, but the committee discussed and then rejected a plan for five storeys. “It would have involved fighting with our neighbours (on McRae Dr.),” says Knott.

Instead, the SAHIL group went to East York’s Committee of Adjustment with a proposal for a four-storey, 21-unit building. Another challenge. The committee ruled that the plans did not provide enough parking spaces. This meant the number of units had to be reduced to 18 to accommodate cars rather than people, a decision that still rankles some, considering Toronto’s modern-day efforts to limit car ownership in the city.  Beange points out that reducing the apartment count actually resulted in a more attractive plan.

Finally the team was ready to begin construction. Five companies tendered for the construction contract, and Trexcon Construction was selected. Yet the committee’s work increased. From painting the construction hoarding to stuffing sales flyers in mailboxes, the work never stopped.

“We were always chasing the next cheque,” says Knott. “In one case, I had to go to the office of one of our purchasers and show his secretary the receipts for the money we were spending.”

At the time, they also were unaware that the site had a stream running beneath it that would require the installation of caissons at considerable extra cost.

Finally, the apartment suites began to take their final form.

Kanerva, who studied architecture in Finland and at the University of Toronto, was still in for a surprise. He had previously designed at least 10 senior projects throughout Ontario, several in cooperation with Gibson and Ian Ellingham. The emphasis had always been on keeping costs down. So his initial idea for the SAHIL site was to have 30 units with a modest 500-600 square feet of space.

Members of the SAHIL committee told him, “We are not that poor, you know.” Some of them were getting up to $400,000 selling their Leaside homes (today that figure would be more than $1 million). “It was kind of shocking,” says Kanerva, laughing.

Instead, the architect proposed units that ranged in size from 700 to 1,400 square feet, and he was able to include SAHIL’s unique wide and winding corridors and other improvements.

The proposed prices for the units ranged from $149,000 for a one-bedroom unit to $273,000 for the largest two-bedroom corner unit.

For Kanerva, working with the SAHIL group was a mainly positive collaborative experience. The committee members, unlike the developers he usually dealt with, would be living there for the most part. He recalls that the big question was not ‘Will it be saleable?’ but rather ‘Will it be comfortable for me?’

What did comfortable amount to? First, says Kanerva, it meant he didn’t have to stick to straight hallways, and could incorporate handsome birch benches and handrails.

Kanerva, 70, is especially proud of the two-bedroom layouts he developed while working on other senior projects. In most of the units, the two bedrooms are on opposite sides of the apartment. It means, he says, that, for instance, brother and sister occupants or senior and son or daughter (not an uncommon arrangement) can live together with reasonable separation. Wide doors accommodate wheelchairs, and the bathrooms have substantial grip bars – often derided by purchasers at first, but later seen as wonderful assets.

Kanerva is also proud of the kitchens (which Carter says are nearly always larger than the kitchens their owners left behind in their Leaside homes).  Large drawers, rather than deep cupboards, make it possible for seniors to reach pots and pans without going down on their knees. Deep, traditional sinks make the use of water-saving plastic washbowls easy.  Keyhole-shaped counters give residents a comfortable vantage point to eat and view their domains. Low-level windows make seeing out easy, while elevated electric outlets make it easier to plug in machinery.

As the building took shape, Kanerva revelled in it. Driving past it on his way to work, “I could drop in every morning, say hello, and get a pretty good feeling of how things were going,” he says.

On May 15, 1999, though the roof was not yet finished, 45 people attended a joyful Scandinavian-style “roof-topping”. A fir tree was hoisted to the roof, and later planted at the rear of the building. Unfortunately, it did not survive.

Sales, however, were slow coming. By June, 1999, the building was 60 per cent complete, with four units unsold. Phone calls from prospects dried up. A survey of callers showed the main concern was that the units were too expensive.

In desperation, the board offered a $3,500 bonus to any real estate agent bringing in a buyer. There were no takers.

Carter organized a move-in schedule to begin August 9, but on July 15, Kanerva reported delays due to the window supplier’s non-performance.

Buyers who had already sold their homes were moving their furniture into incomplete units while volunteers had to be on the site every day to let workers in. “Some families are handling the disruption better than others,” a note in the board minutes recounts.

The building was supposed to be ready June 1, but Toronto Hydro didn’t approve SAHIL for occupation until Sept. 3. Then the big move began. New owners wore hardhats as they moved around the building, trying to keep out of the way of workers. At one point workers downed tools temporarily because they couldn’t get on with their work.

At last, the building was complete. The SAHIL group could hardly believe their ordeal was over. A year after construction began, Knott looked back in amazement at what had been achieved.

“On January 1, 1999, we were on the hook for a mortgage loan of up to $2.3 million,” he told the committee. “Our contract with Trexcon Construction was for a building worth $2.9 million. We had $181,000 in personal loans with six purchasers and three outsiders. And we had sold only 14 units.”

At that point, foundation walls had been poured, but construction was four weeks behind schedule due to weather and groundwater problems. A year later, the building was completed, the mortgage, contractor and architects had been paid in full, 17 of 18 units had been sold, and the building had come in under budget and with a small profit.

“Pretty good for a small group of amateurs,” Knott said with quiet satisfaction.

First SAHIL resident found raccoon in bathroom

Drawing of SAHILThe very first residents of SAHIL, former Toronto Telegram editor Art Cole and his wife, Elva, were excitedly exploring their new home in September, 1999. And there, sleeping in the bathroom, was a large raccoon. A workman removed it.

George Hart, 101, is the resident poet of SAHIL.

His 100th birthday last year was marked with a reading of one of his poems titled To SAHIL Friends. It begins:   Eighteen homes in this mansion, This Leaside haven we enjoy…  This laughing, twingeful, helping place.

Long time SAHIL treasurer George Knott, was a T. Eaton Co. store manager before he retired. His last job of the day was always to check the store. Habits die hard: George is still making the rounds last thing at night to make sure SAHIL folk sleep easy.

Even though she helped get it built, former East York councillor Edna Beange never expected to live there. When she was 78 she thought she was “too young”. Then, one day, she realized that the arguments she was making in urging seniors to buy into the life lease idea applied equally to her. She has lived in her favourite fourth floor apartment ever since and, at 95, is still SAHIL president.

Original architectural drawings called for a clock on SAHIL, which would have made it a landmark at the corner of Bayview and McRae. It was dropped for cost reasons — a cutback that architect Seppo Kanerva still regrets.

Visionary Bob Hart, whose idea it was to build SAHIL, was the first to put down a $1,000 deposit for a unit. Once moved in, he was always ready to waylay visitors and sell them on the idea of buying. Bob died three years later, just after his 90th birthday. His wife Margaret, died before taking up residence. A bench out front of SAHIL bears her name.

Barbara Carter (author of Where Will They Live, a book on senior housing choices) was one of the key influences in getting SAHIL built. “I never passed that building without a smile on my face,” she recalls. Last year she and her husband, Barry, moved into the suite she had always hankered after and now she is the SAHIL treasurer.

When it comes to moving to a seniors project like SAHIL, men are always the hardest to persuade, says Barbara Carter, who sold many of the original units. “Single women, no problem, they got it. But I had to get to the guys.”

Her secret: persuade men they were doing it for their wives. If their wives were left alone, she explained to them, they would be among friends and within walking distance of stores and services.

Article written by Frank Jones.