Canada's United Church to turn churches into rental homes for 34,000 people

May 4 2022, 4:41 pm

If all goes as planned over the next 15 years, as many as 34,000 people could be housed in the United Church of Canada’s church properties across the country through its redevelopment into mixed-use buildings with rental housing and new replacement congregation spaces.

The church will tap into its nationwide portfolio of properties in both larger urban areas and smaller communities, according to the announcement made in a news release earlier this week.

To implement the strategy, Kindred Works, a brand new development company, will be given the responsibility to pursue the redevelopments. It is both the development and asset manager for United Property Resource Corporation, which was founded two years ago by the United Church of Canada.

All residential units will be rentals, with 33% of the units available to rent at below-market rents for lower incomes. Proceeds from the for-profit market rental housing component will provide a “solid financial foundation” for the church’s venture, while also funding the renewal and replacement of aging and outdated church and community gathering spaces.

The buildings will have a high degree of low-carbon design, project costs will be spent locally to provide communities with the economic spinoffs, and there will be “collaboration with neighbourhood stakeholders” for each project to ensure gathering spaces are part of the developments.

At the same time, Kindred Works is taking a portfolio approach that considers a number of projects simultaneously, which potentially provides the firm with more funding opportunities, and streamlines design and construction to reduce costs. Funding from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation will be pursued to help cover the cost of below-market rental housing.

Currently, the company already has eight projects in active pre-development — a combined total of 600 homes. This includes the Toronto locations of St. Luke’s United Church, Church of the Master United Church, Wexford Heights United Church, and Wilmar Heights United Church, as well as Queenswood United Church in Ottawa, Regent Park United Church in Orillia, Westminster United Church in St. Catharines, and Portland United Church in Saint John, New Brunswick.

According to its website, the United Church is the largest Protestant denomination in Canada, and ministers to over two million people in about 3,000 congregations.

But the concept is not entirely new, especially in Canada’s most expensive real estate market where churches are tapping into their highly valuable properties to partner with developers and create a new revenue source.

For years in Vancouver, various churches have turned to redevelop their properties with a market housing component to provide not only the congregation benefit of renewing and replacing their aging church spaces but also the wider community benefit of added rental housing. After a decades-long declining trend in membership, churches need to turn to new revenue sources to sustain their properties.

One of the first and largest projects was the 2018 completion of downtown Vancouver’s Central Presbyterian Church into a 22-storey tower with a new replacement church space in the base of the building, plus 168 units of market rental housing and 45 units of non-market rental housing above.

As another unique example, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver has been considering adding an 18-storey office tower to its 1900-built Holy Rosary Cathedral in downtown Vancouver. This would provide the revenue needed to fund much-needed historic church rehabilitation work and seismic upgrades.

Holy Rosary Cathedral Vancouver

Outdated 2017 concept for the office tower addition to Holy Rosary Cathedral in downtown Vancouver. (Oberto Oberti Architecture)

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