A Scarborough Presbyterian church is launching a bid to build affordable housing

A Scarborough Presbyterian church is launching a bid to build affordable housing

They want to take on one of Scarborough’s biggest problems — a lack of affordable places to live.

They also face the problem of their own extinction.

Their solution to both: tear down St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church and rise again as a church with a new, diversified community right on top of it.

If governments agree to fund the $39-million project, St. Stephen’s can keep up and build upon good work it does already.

The modest Lawrence Ave. church, east of Markham Rd., houses a weekly food bank, after-school programs and activities from karate classes to Al-Anon, a group for families and friends of alcoholics.

It’s occupied seven days a week, says Ron Lackner, a congregation member for 42 years and food bank co-coordinator.

“We need a new building, but our spirit is very strong,” Lackner said.

“We asked people, ‘If we didn’t exist, would anyone miss us?’ Definitely. It would be a big hole in the community.”

But although St. Stephen’s isn’t dying in terms of community outreach, it is dying as congregants age — as are so many mainline Protestant churches in Scarborough. This has prompted discussion on how many can survive.

For five years now, Lackner, pastor Rev. Alex Wilson and others at St. Stephen’s looked over options, including amalgamation with other churches, which congregants didn’t seem to want.

On Sundays, 30 to 40 people come to services. If they couldn’t agree on a new direction, Wilson said, “We were looking at a date to close.”

On April 14, however, members voted 70 per cent in favour of having St. Stephen’s and its district, the Presbytery of Pickering, create a non-profit corporation, apply for federal and city funding, and build an 11-storey apartment block with 101 units.

It’s a chance for St. Stephen’s, which began 62 years ago as a part of the present building called John Elder Hall, to start again on the main floor.

Crucially, the East Scarborough Boys and Girls Club (ESBGC) will fill 20 units with local youth on the margins of homelessness, “which is a huge game-changer for us,” ESBGC executive director Utcha Sawyer said this week.

Instead of having to move elsewhere, these Scarborough youth who face many added barriers to housing will get it, along with wraparound services and support close to home, Sawyer said.

Another 10 units at St. Stephen’s would be subsidized housing for Indigenous people referred by the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, Wilson said.

Another seven apartments will be rented by Reena, a charity for people with developmental disabilities.

Those units will be very valuable for Reena clients who, applying through a provincial authority, Developmental Services of Ontario, may take 40 years to reach the top of the waiting list, said Sharon Magor, the group’s marketing and communications manager.

“That is an incredible lack of supply.”

The building otherwise will be mixed, with different levels of rents. You won’t have to be Christian to live there.

Wilson and Lackner believe the new St. Stephen’s will be a template for renewal and new housing across the city, if governments work with faith groups to make it happen.

Scarborough saw it done before, when Westminster Presbyterian Church on Birchmount Rd. used provincial funds to build Walton Place, a 104-unit apartment building on a corner of Eglinton Ave., over the church and the Isabella Walton Childcare Centre.

The structure opened in 1991, the building and daycare named for the woman who donated her family farm to the church in 1958.

“Everything’s combined here. It has worked out very, very well. We have everyone from everywhere in this building,” Westminster’s pastor, Rev. Linda Martin, said Tuesday.

These days, she said, she’s seeing more people from the apartments, 17 per cent of which are subsidized, at services. New families have joined, as have Indian employees from a nearby call centre.

This year, Martin started a children’s choir and contemporary evening services on the last Wednesday of each month.

People used to call Westminster a dead church, she said. “There’s nothing about it that’s dead now.”

Mike Adler is a reporter with toronto.com and Metroland Media Toronto. Email him at madler@toronto.com

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