It was once a thriving health care campus with an acute care and children’s hospital, training centers for doctors and nurses, and laboratories that pioneered groundbreaking medical discoveries.

Today, the old campus of Victoria Hospital southeast of downtown London, Ontario, looks more dead than alive. Only two of the five original brown-brick buildings remain, boarded up with rotting interiors and abandoned some 17 years ago.

Now, six non-profit affordable housing developers plan to breathe new life into these five deserted acres by making an ambitious turn in the face of London’s growing housing crisis.

Called the Vision SoHo Alliance and led by the London Community Foundation, the participating agencies have pooled their vision and resources to build a new neighborhood of 650 homes for over 800 people in affordable, supported and rent-to-rent apartments. market that might be ready to be occupied. from 2024.

The coalition is touted for its ambitious and cooperative approach. Each of the member agencies is committed to building their own housing project within the boundaries of an overall site plan. The project, estimated at $300 million, will revitalize a forgotten piece of public land in a city where about 6,000 people are waiting for affordable housing.

It aims for 50% affordable housing, but will have at least 30% affordable housing.

It is a strategy that is increasingly being used by social services and other agencies, who are finding partners – sometimes municipalities, sometimes private developers and sometimes other not-for-profit organizations – to tap into the National Housing Strategy fund, said Greg Playford, a non-profit housing developer, former chairman of the London Community Foundation.

There are many examples of team efforts to build affordable housing, with municipalities sometimes partnering with nonprofits and private sector developers.

“But I don’t think you can find anywhere in Canada an example of six non-profit organizations coming together to do their thing,” he said.

About two hours west of Toronto on Highway 401, London has been considered a haven of affordability from the GTA for decades. Today, the city of about 400,000 people is an outpost of the Toronto-area’s pandemic housing bubble.

According to the London and St. Thomas Association of Realtors, home prices that averaged $389,201 in February 2019 soared to $825,221 by the time the market peaked in February.

As in Toronto, rising housing costs have hit those least able to afford adequate housing the hardest.

Homelessness has exploded in London, as people who had survived in rooming houses and cheap flats are forced off the streets thanks to renovations and gentrification, said Abe Oudshoorn, associate professor of nursing at Western University.

In 2018, there were just 159 names on the city’s list of people who came into contact with London’s homeless support services. This spring, the number had jumped to 1,574 names.

The problem has also become increasingly visible. Oudshoorn said there were 103 campsites in London at last count – most of them small groups of six people or fewer sleeping in one to three tents.

He credits the London Community Foundation with envisioning the need for an affordable housing fund to help private and not-for-profit developers nine years ago.

“In each community, these organizations often do things that are more focused on their cultural development. But the London Community Foundation took up housing as a passion quite early on, even before we entered the crisis,” Oudshoorn said.

A rendering of the larger hospital site.

That loan fund is now worth about $16 million and has helped build a dozen affordable housing projects in Kitchener-Waterloo, Chatham and London, Playford said.

In the case of the SoHo Alliance, however, the nonprofit promoters are bringing their own capital to the project. They include Indwell, a faith-based developer of supportive housing for adults with mental health issues; Zerin Development Corporation; Unlimited houses; London Affordable Housing Foundation; Chelsea Green Home Society and Residenza Affordable Housing — all experienced developers of affordable or supportive housing.

Their biggest common challenge, however, is the high cost of land. So the old hospital site presented a rare opportunity, Playford said.

Originally the site of London’s establishment of health sciences, SoHo was once home to Western University’s medical and nursing schools and laboratories that helped make the city a global player in early medical research of the XXth century.

Dr. Frederick Banting, a member of the team that discovered insulin as a treatment for diabetes, worked there with the Royal Canadian Air Force researching compression chambers. Other groundbreaking discoveries in genetics and treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma have taken place in the labs, according to a Western University history project called “Echoes of SoHo” that traced the neighborhood’s roots, including the health care campus.

As the 20th century progressed, teaching facilities and laboratories migrated to the main campus in London, while Victoria Hospital, which in the 1970s was the largest teaching hospital in the country, moved to moved to a new modern facility in 2010.

Around this time, the province deeded the Victoria Hospital parcel to the City of London, which sold half of it to a private developer. That company is building two towers with about 600 units, Playford said.

Greg Playford (left) and John Nicholson, members of the London Community Foundation's Community Action Committee.  The team says they will maintain the two heritage buildings on site.

Then, about two years ago, the city put out a request for proposals for the rest of the land. Playford had previously connected with Sylvia Harris of Indwell and the pair reached out to other nonprofits to make a joint play for the property.

“We weren’t sure if we were up against big developers or people from out of town or from local developments,” he said. “So it was a very open market and we had no preferential access.”

But they felt they could make it work better than anyone by using municipal and federal affordable housing assistance programs.

“One of the requirements was that the two heritage buildings should be retained, converted and designated as heritage. So that was the cost that we kind of felt a lot of other developers might not afford,” he said.

Indwell agreed to preserve the heritage of the remaining building of the Medical School and the War Memorial Children’s Hospital.

“We made an offer of $2 million to buy the site,” said Playford, who still seems somewhat surprised at their success. London City Council approved a contribution of $11.2 million, which has since increased to $13.8 million, in development charges and heritage restoration credits.

The main site is designed as a low-to-mid-rise habitable space that eschews surface parking in favor of underground car parks, parks and driveways – “areas that tenants can take advantage of”.

The city is building a new park in front of the old children’s hospital.

The alliance has spent the last year rezoning land in SoHo so it can build five- and six-story buildings rather than the prescribed 11 and 12 stories. The Residenza building for Italian seniors will be 12 stories across from the main site.

Windows are still boarded up in the few buildings still standing on the site of the former Victoria Hospital on South Street in London, Ontario.

There will be space in each building for community support agencies and the London Food Bank is donating $1 million to design food programs for the new neighborhood which is currently located in a food desert.

For architect Jim Sheffield, the goal is to keep the neighborhood on the scale of adjacent residential streets. Originally a working-class neighborhood that served the city’s early manufacturing sector, as well as the medical establishment, the SoHo neighborhood is a mix of mid-century single-family homes and walk-up apartments.

“We don’t just make buildings. We design the spaces between buildings. So we are creating a community,” he said.

The apartments will have balconies and large windows. Interiors will have plank floors and many finishes comparable to a modern condo, he said.

Each building will have its own outdoor amenity space, in addition to a civic plaza to welcome residents and visitors. A 5 to 10 minute walk from downtown London, the site will be easily accessible to the new rapid transit system.

“It’s really designed to be on the scale of a pedestrian neighborhood,” said Harris of Indwell, who describes Soho as a “forgotten neighborhood.”

“It is nestled against the (Thames) river…It has a very significant history in terms of black settlers from the United States who passed through and settled there, native heritage and the working class who settled there . Lots of migrant workers. And then the hospital.

“We are so happy to be able to preserve it and then give it new life,” Harris said.

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