A growing chorus of activists across the country is calling for governments to convert abandoned or vacant buildings into affordable housing, and while experts say the strategy may not be the most economical option available, factors such as the limited availability of land for new housing can make conversion attractive.

“The cost of converting an abandoned building depends on the condition of the building,” says Avi Friedman, director of the Affordable Homes Program at McGill University’s school of architecture. “It can often be more expensive than building a new one … often you have to bring [abandoned buildings] back from the brink. You cannot just enter the building, turn on the lights, [and] turn on the water.”

On the other hand, Friedman says, there are other considerations besides cost. “These [abandoned] buildings are centrally located,” close to social services and public transit, so “socially it makes sense.”

Moreover, he points out that a lack of available space for new affordable housing is a point in conversion’s favour. “There’s no free land in Toronto. [Conversion] is a way to address the problem,” he says. “The city needs to invest in solving the problem.”

Activists from the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) and other organizations in cities across the country staged marches on Oct. 26, attempting to seize vacant buildings to give them over to homeless squatters (see sidebar).

The organizations in Toronto, Montreal, Guelph and Vancouver put forward a “Give It or Guard It” manifesto in the form of a proposed city bylaw, in which they demanded that buildings that sit empty for six months be turned over to the city for use as affordable housing.

Sue Collis, a spokesperson for OCAP, says conversion is a matter of political will. “There is a vast number of buildings in this city” that are sitting vacant, she says, “that should be seized and turned into affordable housing.”

Collis thinks any argument about the prohibitive cost of converting buildings must be weighed against the huge public expense of keeping people in the shelter system. Cathy Crowe of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee estimates that it costs governments over $1,000 a month to provide for a person in the shelter system, “which is supposedly a temporary measure.”

A recent large-scale conversion project in New York City may provide some ideas for Toronto’s housing quandary. Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration recently turned 11 city-owned buildings over to a non-profit organization that intends to give them to the squatters who’ve been living in them.

“The linchpin to this is that there’s no city financing at all,” says Marina Metalios of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB). Her organization bought the buildings from the city government for $1 each, and has arranged private loans from banks and community service organizations to finance renovations.

UHAB intends to help the squatting residents, some of whom have been living in the buildings for more than 20 years, to set up limited-equity co-ops. The process will transform the officially vacant buildings into 167 legal units of affordable housing for the 236 people who live in the buildings.

Although Metalios says that the costs of renovations to the New York squat buildings are very reasonable, she’s quick to point out that the squatters living in them have been making renovations with their own money for years.

The city of Toronto has done some conversions, but Liz Root, a housing-development officer with the city’s Let’s Build program, says converting commercial and residential properties to new rental units has sometimes been unexpectedly expensive.

“We had one project where we took a rooming house and renovated it and we ran into a lot of unforeseen costs, dealing with code issues. It is a challenge and it can often be very expensive.” Asked if the city gives priority to affordable housing when considering uses for city-owned vacant properties, Root says, “It all depends.”

Another large obstacle lies in identifying vacant properties and determining who owns them.

While OCAP says there are many vacant properties in the city that are easily located — the group says it’s found 35 in Parkdale alone — city staff appear to have abandoned an attempt to compile a master list of Toronto’s vacant properties.

Following this summer’s Pope Squat, Mike Leonard, the city’s district manager for municipal licensing and standards, south district, told eye the city would be compiling a list of vacant buildings within several weeks. At the time, he said the objective of such a list was not to find buildings that could be turned into affordable housing, but to secure vacant properties from squatters.

But now Leonard says that compiling such a list isn’t possible. He says his staff have old computers, and that it’s “like trying to hit a moving target,” because businesses constantly fold and others move in. “[The list is] something that can’t be done,” he says.

With files from Jennifer Prittie.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on October 31, 2002.