Reside: When heritage preservation translates to affordable housing

Photo courtesy of Clare Ronan


Clare Ronan

Economics of heritage, Buildings and architecture, Environment, Community, Adaptive reuse

Published Date:01 Oct 2019

Photo: Courtesy of Clare Ronan

Raising the Roof is a Canadian charity that provides national leadership in homelessness prevention through various initiatives. Reside is one such project that creates affordable housing by leveraging the availability of vacant and underutilized properties. The overall goal of Reside is to repurpose vacant properties – including heritage sites – into affordable rental units for individuals who are at risk of, or experiencing, homelessness.

Currently, Raising the Roof is renovating two vacant properties in Ontario. One of the two properties in particular is listed on Caledon’s heritage register, which was originally built as a church in the 1850s. The Shiloh Wesleyan Methodist Church building has seen nearly a dozen renovations since then, which eventually led to its being re-zoned into a residential property in the late 20th century. While this house has a rich history, it was transferred to the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, and sat vacant for over a decade – becoming victim to vandalism and occasional burglary – before Reside stepped in. But aside from saving these spaces from continued deterioration, why is it so valuable to renovate and repurpose them? Wouldn’t it be easier to knock them down and remove them entirely?

Heritage sites and buildings have an overwhelmingly positive sphere of influence on the communities that grow around them. Often, these spaces are fundamental to creating a sense of identity in a space and can add elements of distinct character and uniqueness to an area. They serve as a cultural identifier for those engaging with the space. Heritage sites can also be used for housing, education, economic growth, tourism and for creating opportunities of overall shared community involvement and development. People care very deeply for their communities and for their shared local history. Because of this significance, it is important to respect and preserve the cultural value that heritage sites hold.

Recently, Canada adopted its first-ever national housing strategy. The 10-year plan has many ambitious goals, including cutting chronic homelessness in half. One of the biggest goals that the National Housing Strategy focuses on is ensuring that affordable housing in Canada is built for long-term and sustainable use. This includes adding measures to account for housing that is environmentally friendly, socially impactful and ultimately affordable for Canadians at every level. This means creating housing that is viable for everyone from contractors and landlords to tenants and residents themselves. Reside incorporates all of these aspects into its renovation and repurposing of heritage sites.

For environmental sustainability strategies, Canada is also working hard to implement solutions that reduce stress on the environment. The new housing strategy places an emphasis on reducing the amount of energy, land, water and raw materials it takes to build and live in a home. In particular, there is a strong focus on improving the performance of existing buildings to avoid the wastefulness and excessive consumption associated with the process of demolishing a structure – wastefulness and excessive consumption associated with the process of demolishing a structure and then constructing a new build in its place. Reside supports this initiative by significantly extending the lifespan of older structures through its renovation and enhancement processes. These improvements and updates to otherwise vacant or desolate spaces modernize their energy efficiency and usability. Changes to account for contemporary needs such as security, health and safety, and accessibility can impact the cultural significance of a heritage site, which is why it’s very important to understand what alterations and improvements need to be added to the home. Reside is sure to implement these changes in proper form so that they can be added without damaging the cultural integrity of the site. The practical modernization of heritage sites adds many improvements to the space, while still creating a more viable alternative to the high financial and environmental costs of new builds.

Courtesy of Clare Ronan

In terms of social sustainability, we are all in need of access to communities that are more socially inclusive and adaptable, so that the lifespans of these shared spaces are prolonged. A community is seen as socially sustainable when individuals have the opportunities and resources needed to successfully and happily participate or interact within the space. Reside takes great strides to impact communities in socially sustainable ways. The program positively impacts communities through the explicit conservation of heritage sites. By updating heritage sites into usable residential spaces, Reside repurposes and preserves a community’s important cultural value and influence that would otherwise be lost.

Another way in which Reside contributes to social sustainability is through its advocacy for accessible housing, and encouragement of all efforts to foster a wholly inclusive community. This process includes creating viable living spaces close to accessible cultural, transit, social and recreational services. Reside supports inclusive communities by providing marginalized individuals with resources, such as housing and case management, to meet the growing demands of our society. For example, our partnership with Building Up has employed over 80 people to complete the renovations of our properties. These Building Up graduates are then linked to a trade apprenticeship of their choice, helping them to transcend the barriers to employment that they may otherwise face. Reside also supports efforts at every level to improve the ability and opportunity of those marginalized on the basis of their identity, so that they may actively participate in their community.

Canada’s goals toward affordable housing are concerned with propping up the overall economic health of communities. This means producing projects that can pass energy savings along to both owners and occupants, create measures to reduce operating costs, and utilize existing infrastructure around transit and commercial hubs. Reside wholly supports and follows these objectives, and even incorporates innovative financial models for viable affordable housing to support the economic health of both communities and individuals further.

Beyond the immediate goal of developing affordable housing for those in need, projects like Reside are impactful in many additional ways. To achieve the goal of affordable housing for all, Reside incorporates aspects of environmental sustainability, while encouraging impactful social policies and cultural preservation as well.