“People wanted a place where they could worship and where they can live.”
What’s in a name? When it comes to Hannelore, an affordable housing community planned for the Oakridge neighbourhood, nearly everything. For one, it brings to mind the efforts Hannelore Gerlach, the longtime president of the Oakridge Lutheran Church Council, and one of the driving forces behind the transformation of its church lands into an affordable living development – a project that has become an object lesson in how to build healthy communities.
Along with not-for-profit developer Catalyst Community Development Society, the church congregation is developing a six-storey building that will provide retail space at street level, a new church and community space on the second floor, and affordable rental housing on the top four floors.
The property will stand across from Oakridge Centre, which itself is the site of a huge new development plan. Hannelore will stand out as the only building that contains affordable housing, designated for residents with household incomes of $30,000 to $80,000, with no more than 30 per cent of their income directed to housing. “Catalyst and Oakridge are looking at how to be in the midst of the community and the neighbourhood, what we can do for them, and what we can offer to them,” says Reverend Dorothy Chu, a leader in the Oakridge Lutheran Church. The second-floor church space will be owned outright by the Oakridge Lutheran Church, but the three organizations have a long-term agreement to develop, own and operate the rest of the building.
The church council, including its president Hannelore Gerlach, led the 15-year journey through a maze of legalities, including reversing a covenant that determined the land could only serve as a site for a church. The decision went to the Supreme Court, setting a precedent in B.C. For the Oakridge Lutheran congregation, the “freeing” of the land from the covenant came as a huge relief. For Gerlach and the council, it was a huge step forward for a congregation with a storied history.
When her family joined Oakridge Lutheran in the 1950s, the entire congregation spoke German. Over the years, she’s seen the population’s languages change from German and Icelandic to Mandarin and Cantonese, along with English. Gerlach, 83, has seen the original building weaken over the years. As it aged, bringing it up to code became unsustainable.“It was endless, it was sucking up money and at the end of the day we were spinning our wheels,” she says.
Meanwhile, longtime members of the congregation were aging too. Hit with the affordability crisis in Vancouver, many are forced to travel from outside Vancouver. “People wanted a place where they could worship and where they can live,” says Hannelore, who’s been president of the church council since 1995.
While the Hannelore project is not the first to provide these services, the way the project has been financed and developed sets it apart. The three organizations are collaborating in a social equity investment, so the price of the land has been taken out of the equation. This means the only cost that needs to be recouped is the cost of construction, allowing rents to be 10 to 40 per cent below market value.
A City of Vancouver Housing Infrastructure grant backed the concept and business plan, while Vancity Community Investment and Vancity Community Foundation provided a pre-development loan and construction financing.
For Oakridge Lutheran, Catalyst is providing $1.5 million of the financing for the $29-million, six-storey project. The church will retain majority ownership – a rare outcome in deals with private developers – and will co-manage the rentals with Catalyst.
The unconventional project has drawn attention from urban planners; it’s now used as a teaching tool in urban development studies at UBC and is the subject of a UBC Master’s thesis.
Kira Gerwing is Vancity’s senior manager of community investment. She says Hannelore has been a worthwhile project for Vancity. “It’s our first opportunity to partner in this way with a mission-aligned organization, and each organization has brought something complementary to the table.”
Hannelore herself sees the value in Vancity’s involvement, in terms of financing and its role in connecting Oakridge Lutheran with Catalyst Community Development Society. “Vancity is a big part of what made this possible. The right people, and the right amount of money, put us on the road to do this.”