Repurposing Existing Taxpayer-Owned Buildings

Finding solutions to the housing crisis facing the most vulnerable in our community will take more than the simplistic – and often polarizing – approaches we are currently presented with.

We need a rethink.

When considering how best to provide much needed supportive/affordable housing, we need to ask a more fundamental question.

Why are we continuously presented with  only one option –  costly development of greenfield sites?

Rather than spend millions of dollars siting, building and servicing a new site, a site often not zoned institutional and without even the basic infrastructure needed to support it,  would it not be more cost effective, efficient, and frankly plain common sense to first consider repurposing existing under and unused governmental buildings?

2 years post pandemic, hybrid work environments for many office-based industries and particularly those related to all levels of government, are now the norm.  This reality has led to office vacancy rates approaching 25-30% in many cities.

Right here in York Region, due to the adoption of a true hybrid work policy, 60% of Regional staff work 50% of their work week off site and 50% in the office.  As a consequence, the $200 million 422,000 square foot edifice on Yonge street built just a few years ago to house all the various regional staffing divisions now sits half empty on any given day of the week.

While we continue to pay to heat and keep the lights on in this cavernous building, shouldn’t we at least consider repurposing even a fraction of that unused tax-payer owned office space for much needed housing, before we spend even more money to build something from scratch?

London, Montreal, Ottawa – just some of cities across the country that are finding ways to repurpose office space for housing space.

Why aren’t we all doing the same?

Consider Calgary, Alberta. Through a public-private initiative of all levels of government as well as substantial investment from private sector donors, two non-profits –  HomeSpace and Inn from the Cold –  were able to repurpose once empty office space into affordable, transitional and emergency housing.

Again, why is this the exception rather than the norm?

We can’t continue to use a 20th century approach to solve a complex 21st century problem.

It makes more sense to site supportive and affordable housing in locations not only already zoned institutional, but already built and often home to many of the services that the residents of the facility will need.  The York Region Head Office for example was specifically designed to provide residents with “…better access to community, health and court services from one central location”.  Would it not make sense then to repurpose empty office space within that existing building to include emergency housing as well?

Before we spend more taxpayer money on the search for and development of another, one-off greenfield site, I believe we should conduct a comprehensive scan of all existing taxpayer owned buildings at all levels of government – Federal, Provincial, Regional, Municipal – and including those “owned” by Boards of education –  and identify those that are under or unused and which can be repurposed for emergency, transitional and/or affordable housing.

It’s time we consider innovative approaches to solve the housing crisis.   Reimagining and repurposing existing taxpayer-owned buildings may be a critical part of that solution.

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7 Responses

  1. Tom I think this is a fantastic idea!!! Time to think outside the traditional box…. How can we support you on promoting this type of project?
    Thanks for all you do!
    Mary and Neil

  2. Hey Tom…weren’t you bellyaching only a few months back about the Town Hall’s space standing half empty due to new work-from-home allowances.

    Excellent location!

    Or will the NIMBY’s include you this time around?

  3. Good old fashioned common sense that puts residents and tax payers first – more more more as the song says -so thanks mayor tom

  4. What a fantastic idea Tom
    The Regional Building is on Yonge Street near both bus lines,easy access all without having to build a new building
    Since it is already heated/ AC and washrooms and Public Health services it sounds perfect.

  5. Fantastic idea—-that has existed for quite a while but York region always seems to be lagging behind when it comes to decision making and implementation

  6. Dear Mayor Mrakas,
    As your motto is “leadership that gets things done”, I hope that you are looking for a site for the Men’s Homeless Shelter. This needs to be done immediately as too much time has gone by already in finding a site for the shelter. It might be able to repurpose a building that the Town already owns. I look forward to hearing about this shelter in the near future. Please keep me posted.
    Sincerely,
    Dorothy Zajac

  7. Glad to read that you are looking ‘outside the box’ for solutions to a real problem with no easy fix! I totally support the idea of repurposing existing buildings for housing purposes! Especially those already available on transit lines and near services. Hope to see this idea gain some momentum!

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