Rebuilding neighbourhood one house at a time

by Todd Lewys

As a REALTOR® who specializes in Winnipeg’s West End, Frank Zappia knows the area intimately.

So when a landlord (one of the good ones in the area) told him he was tired of looking at a derelict ancient two-storey home next to his well-kept rental property on Toronto Street, Zappia simply shrugged his shoulders.

The reality was there was little anyone could do. The house had been that way for years, and likely would be for some time. That is, until 652 Toronto went up in flames in February 2009.

With the home officially classified as a burnt-out property, Zappia and his colleagues at Winnipeg’s Housing Opportunity Partnership (HOP) sprang into action.

Together with the Winnipeg Housing and Homeless Initiative (WHHI) and the Manitoba Securities Commission, the property was purchased and the home levelled. Now, a new 1,200-square-foot  two-storey infill home sits on a lot that was once an eyesore.

The project represents HOP’s continued commitment to revitalize not only Toronto Street — where a total of 13 homes have been either renovated or built in recent years, with two more to come — but other streets in the area.

The thinking behind the renovations and infill projects is to restore pride of home ownership among local residents, said HOP’s president, Lori Thorsteinson.

“It’s had a huge impact,” she said. “Renovating homes encourages people to improve their neighbourhood and increases pride of ownership among not only homeowners, but rental-property owners.

“Most importantly, we’re still an affordable-housing initiative. Our goal is to provide area residents with good, solid homes they can be proud to own.”

Zappia said the understated program — HOP tries to do things with as little fanfare as possible — is quietly working wonders.

“It’s become a pillar to the area. It’s sparked renovations among homeowners who've taken note of HOP’s renovated and infill houses. It's essential that it continues on to maintain loyalty in the neighbourhood. Restoring pride of ownership to an area can really spark the transformation of a neighbourhood.”

Having access to affordable, quality housing can also transform lives.

Take the new residents of 652 Toronto, Tsehay Tessefaye and her daughter, Semeret Araya. Residents of the area, they had been renting since immigrating to Canada. After missing out on one HOP home, they were elated when Zappia told them that they’d qualified for this one.

“They were so happy to have a home,” he said. “Now that they’re in the home, they’re thrilled to have become homeowners. They love the home, and take a lot of pride in owning it.”

Not surprisingly, their new acquisition has sparked a chain reaction of interest among friends.

“Our friends are now interested in how they can get a home like this,” said Tessefaye. “We just love that it comes with appliances and is so low-maintenance. We’re very happy in every way with the home.”

Zappia added that another HOP property at 720 Toronto is now also occupied by some very grateful homeowners.

“They’ve been there just over a month — they’re originally from Burma, where they spent time in a refugee camp in Thailand,” he said.

“This is a very big deal for them; they just love it. It’s been an unbelievable experience. I’m so excited about it, and I’m just the agent. This is what really makes my job worthwhile.”

HOP’s former president, Peter Squire, said the street has undergone a real transformation for the better over the last decade. However, with rising acquisition prices and construction costs, HOP is going to be increasingly challenged to keep the projects coming.

“We're kind of a victim of our own success,” he said. “We started selling homes at $59,000 back then. This home sold for $129,000.

“In the future, we’re going to have to pay more to acquire properties, and to build the homes. That just means we’re going to have to bide our time and be more strategic about what projects we undertake.”

That commitment is critically important to continuing the resurrection of streets like Toronto and others in the area, said Zappia, adding that more infills are coming to Toronto and two more to McGee Street.

“Again, it’s such an essential thing for the neighbourhood. If we don’t keep on doing it, there's the danger of other investors outbidding us and turning homes into slums. We can’t allow that to happen.”

Thorsteinson said more infill homes — which come with a 10-year ownership commitment — will be going up in the coming years, as opposed to renovations.

“In the past, we looked at a lot of smaller two-bedroom bungalows and tried all kinds of designs to save the homes, but that just didn’t work for families. That’s why we got into doing infill homes. It just makes more sense to build a new two-storey home that fits the area, to create a home for buyers who are good  hard-working people with the desire to own a home.”

For the time being, HOP and other like-minded organizations will continue to do what they can to breathe new life into the city’s west end.

“We’re now targeting the Daniel Macintyre and St. Matthews areas, which incorporate streets from Home Street to Agnes Street,” said Zappia. “So far, Home and Simcoe have done well. Now we’re targeting Toronto and Victor. Our goal is to make progress one house at a time.”

For more information on the HOP program, call 784-2352.

(Reprinted with the permission of the Winnipeg Free Press.)