Fears that a new downtown affordable-housing project may be cancelled due to paperwork delays in the city of Toronto legal department have dissipated, the project’s director says.

Evangel Hall executive director David Smith says his lawyer recieved draft legal papers from the city a few weeks ago and he is now hopeful that the building project, which will create 84 new units of affordable housing and provide outreach services to the homeless, will proceed. “Our lawyer is hopeful that everything can be done by Dec. 15,” Smith says.

On Oct. 24, eye reported that with a final deadline to purchase property on Adelaide West near Bathurst less than two months away, Smith was worried the $11.8-million project could unravel. Evangel Hall’s financing for the project hinges on nearly $5 million in funding administered by the city’s Let’s Build program, and as of October Smith was waiting with increasing anxiety for necessary documents from the city’s legal department to arrive. “I’ve been hearing that the documents are coming ‘next week’ for months,” Smith said at the time. “Now we have one last extension… If we don’t get these agreements, and the time to look them over by Dec. 15, then this project will be cancelled.”

Two weeks after the story was published, the paperwork from the city arrived. “After the eye article ran, things sped up. If it’s a coincidence, it’s a funny coincidence — maybe we should have called the media earlier,” he says.

Smith is not alone in his concerns about the red tape that is tying up affordable-housing projects in the city. On Nov. 22, National Housing Day, the Toronto Star reported that one year after the federal and provincial governments triumphantly announced a plan to build 10,000 affordable housing units in Ontario, half of them in the greater Toronto area, the entire scheme still only exists on paper. Developers and administrators also voiced their frustrations at grant mechanisms and overall delays.

Valerie Elliot Hyman is co-chair of Trellis Housing Initiatives, whose Trellis Gardens project on Lawrence West was the first project built under the city’s Let’s Build program, which is responsible for distributing federal housing grants in Toronto.

Hyman has some advice for governments about working with outsiders to build affordable housing. “If you really want to set up these public-private partnerships, you have to make it easier for the private partners,” she says. “I sometimes feel that for all we’ve been through, we could have built 240 units of housing instead of 24.”

She says the people she worked with at Let’s Build were “wonderful,” though the process as a whole was frustrating. “Because we were the guinea pigs, the legal documents were rewritten four times,” she says. The project, originally scheduled to open on Aug. 1, has encountered construction delays since clearing all the city paperwork, and is now scheduled to open Dec. 1. “We’re all feeling angry and frustrated,” she says.

Mark Guslits, special advisor for housing development with Let’s Build says that people who’ve never worked with the city may be taken aback by the complexity of the process. “Private-sector people are not used to [government bureaucracy], and sometimes it’s overwhelming,” he says. When dealing with taxpayer dollars, he says, “questions are raised that might not otherwise be raised, and delays occur that might not otherwise occur.”

Guslits said in October that Smith’s anxiety was unfounded, and now hopes his fears have been eased. “Some of the legal wrinkles have been ironed out. The final draft was sent out two weeks ago, and the response has been ‘This is working now.'”

Some of the delays can be attributed to the fact that the Let’s Build program is fairly new, and those involved have been trying to sort out how things should be done. Let’s Build was formed by the city in spring 2000 to work with private- and charitable-sector organizations to build affordable housing. It administers $53 million of federal funding for the Supporting Communities Partnership Initiative; an $11-million capital revolving loan fund; helps transfer city-owned land to affordable-housing projects; and arranges tax incentives and fee waivers.

Guslits admits there have been growing pains. “Not much has been happening for years and we’re finally getting things done,” he says. “Things should move much more quickly as time goes by … we’re all going after this for the first time.”

Evangel Hall’s lawyer, Ron Crane, points out that his client is an organization that helps people in need out of a sense of compasion. “When someone’s starving on the street, you don’t ask for paperwork. The city works differently,” Crane says.

Originally published in Eye Weekly November 28, 2002.