How to make housing affordable – articles – By relying on donations from suppliers, a Brampton developer has managed to build high-quality abodes for low-income families
January 20, 2008
Leslie Scrivener, feature writer

“I love it down here,” says John D’Angelo, who’s in a freezing cold, 20-metre-deep hole, wearing a hard hat but neither scarf nor gloves, and walking among iron workers and form-work carpenters hollering urgently at one another.

The falling snow adds a delicacy to the robust scene. His joy in this muddy construction pit makes you wonder, because it’s a little scary in this pit – the concrete walls loom high, a power saw roars, a backhoe jackhammers through the shale bottom, a crane swings loads of timber across the site and the spikes of rebar seem like something out of a torture chamber.

It’s not just the construction he loves, though this former high school teacher-turned-builder is at home in these big digs. “We are creating hope here, and aspirations,” he says. “This will give people a chance to put their lives together.”

When the 16-storey “Chapelview” project, on John St. in downtown Brampton, is finished next year, it will provide 200 apartments for seniors and low-income singles as well as people with disabilities, and if all goes according to plan, it will earn LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.

If he’s successful, D’Angelo believes the Chapelview project, which includes a six-storey garage for municipal and tenant parking, will be the first high-rise social-housing project in North America to receive the LEED platinum rating, the highest benchmark for green building and design.

“He’s really shooting for the moon here,” says Stephen Kemp of Enermodal Engineering, a sustainable-building consulting firm. “For affordable housing, it’s amazing.”

Just as he has done on previous housing projects, Woodbridge resident D’Angelo, 53, will ensure the cupboards are stocked with donated food when the tenants move in, and each will be given a quart of paint and a brush for future touch-ups.

D’Angelo’s overall mission is to create non-profit housing of quality and comfort, with better-than-basic finishings and appliances. To achieve that end, he persuades corporate sponsors and construction trades to donate upgrades or cash. So far D’Angelo’s been promised $800,000 in upgrades and donations for Chapelview and is shooting for his goal of $3.2 million.

Future tenants will also have better air quality, since each apartment will be fitted with its own ventilation system, and doorways will be weatherstripped so smoke and other odours don’t penetrate the hallways. Carpeting and wood flooring that out-gas minimally will be used throughout, and the appliances will be energy-efficient, as will the plumbing.

Meanwhile, the building’s design and materials were chosen with sustainability in mind. The steel used in construction is recycled, and the concrete and drywall have recycled content. The accessible green roof and landscaping will be drought resistant, says Kemp, so they won’t need to be fertilized and irrigated.

D’Angelo is also aiming for universal accessibility in the design, which will allow people with disabilities to live in any apartment.

Chapelview is expected to cost about $37 million, with $11 million from the feds and the province, $8.5 from the city of Brampton and about $18 million from Peel Region.

Peel Living, the region’s non-profit housing company, estimates total building costs will be $2 million less than expected market costs for a comparable structure – because of D’Angelo’s fundraising efforts and the efficiencies that come from his past experience.

This isn’t the first time that D’Angelo, a partner in Martinway Contracting Ltd., has broken new ground in affordable housing. He won an award from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. in 2004 for Millbrook Place, a 163-unit building in Mississauga that houses seniors in one- and two-bedroom apartments in one section of the building and singles, including the formerly homeless and people with mental illness, in furnished bachelors in another section.

There’s a desperate need for affordable housing in Peel Region, which has a 21-year waiting list (though it’s considerably shorter for seniors, about three years). The 2007 vacancy rate in Brampton was 1.9 per cent – a drop from 2.6 percent in 2006 – making it almost impossible to find a place to live, says Jack Fleming, executive director of North Peel and Dufferin Community Legal Services. A “healthy” vacancy rate is about 6 per cent.

“We couldn’t afford two buildings,” says Chris Bullock, Peel’s manager of development and construction. “There was no money kicking around – it looked like affordable housing was dead.”

While combining seniors and the homeless under one roof was unconventional, it was even more unusual that the building went up without any money from Ottawa or the province. And at the time it was the largest affordable housing project anywhere in Ontario.

“That kicked off our getting back into the social-housing game,” says Keith Ward, general manager of Peel Living and commissioner of human services. “We kept waiting for the government to announce more funding. It didn’t happen. Now we hope there are more builders motivated by that sense of altruism.”

Building in lean years, without federal or provincial support, D’Angelo was forced to pare the budget to the bone. But when he looked at the quality of materials he was forced to use, he knew they wouldn’t hold up – maintenance and repair costs would be high in no time.

That’s when he turned to the suppliers and trades working on Millbrook Place and asked them to donate upgrades – better-quality appliances, top-of-the-line cabinetry, and comfortable furniture for the common rooms. “The reaction was so good,” recalls D’Angelo, “we extended beyond the circle, to people who have nothing to do with construction – TD Bank, Italpasta and the Knights of Columbus.” He gathered more than $600,000 in contributions at Millbrook Place, including:

Upgraded appliances from Maytag – 19-cubic-foot refrigerators instead of 15-cubic-foot – a value estimated at $75,000. Maytag threw in three high-end washer and dryer sets, too.

Benjamin Moore & Co. upgraded to a new-to-the market washable flat paint. The company got to showcase a new product while residents were able to enjoy paint that cost $7 more per gallon than standard-quality product. “Most contractors would use mid-range paint, but he wanted to use top-of-the-line,” says Doug Funston of Benjamin Moore. “That’s his strategy – he delivers a platinum-level product for a bronze level price.”

Fantastic Kitchens Ltd. upgraded kitchen cupboards from low-end melamine finishes to a higher quality, a value of $17,500.

For its contribution, Martinway – which owned the land on which Millbrook Place now stands – sold the property to Peel Region at a 35-per-cent discount, a value of about $225,000, D’Angelo estimates. Martinway also threw in an elevator without charging.

The value to the corporate donors is a higher public profile, better public relations, new connections in the community, and letters and plaques of appreciation for being good corporate citizens. “It’s wonderful to get those accolades,” says Funston.

D’Angelo’s resourcefulness has likely led to some consciousness-raising. “Years ago you heard `social housing, why put money in when people are just going to destroy it?’ – I’ve heard that from contractors on various sites,” says Brett Barnes, a corporate representative for CMHC. “John has been able to turn that around. The more they contribute to bricks and mortar, the more they also contribute to improving the lives of lower-income households.”

The burly, friendly D’Angelo, a former science and co-op teacher and father of three, speaks across Canada on behalf of CMHC and the province, describing how builders can replicate his model for corporate sponsorship.

He says he finds his work as a builder innovative and creative. “And to impact the lives of so many thousands is tremendously fulfilling,” he adds.

“It’s important to let people know there are things like this that can be done and nobody’s going broke,” he says, driving his black Chevy Tahoe on a tour of some of the 800 units of affordable housing Martinway has built, mostly in Peel Region.

Not all projects are profitable. “On some jobs you make decent money, on some less, and on some you actually lose,” says D’Angelo. “But anybody who owns a business knows this.”

The company lost $65,000 on Peel Youth Village, an architecturally innovative, light-filled transition centre for 44 young people – some of whom had been abused at home, some coming out of Children’s Aid Society care, and some who had been sleeping on friends’ couches for years. Here they learn job skills and how to shop, cook, and live co-operatively.

For Youth Village, D’Angelo negotiated some $200,000 in corporate sponsorships, including a floor for a basketball court in the community centre that shares the building. Designed by Toronto architectural firm Levitt Goodman, with laminated wood structural beams, Douglas fir window trims, motion-sensitive hall lights, the centre features bedrooms and common rooms that are generous and thoughtfully designed. “If you provide quality buildings like this, people know they are valued,” says Gary Faris, a Peel Region supervisor for Ontario Works, a job assistance program.

Now, with Chapelview underway, Peel Region is working with D’Angelo on two more affordable housing projects, one for the Canadian Legion and the other for a Coptic Orthodox Church community, both in Brampton.

His dream now it to make all of them LEED-platinum certified. “It’s less effort or at least the same to do three than to do one. The templates and specifications don’t have to be created again. The groundwork has already been established.”

He adds: “Once I cut my deal with each supplier, I ask, `Okay, now what are you going to do for us, for the people who will live here?'”

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