OTTAWA (CCN) — Ottawa’s Multifaith Housing Initiatives (MHI) started as a committee of the Social Justice Commission of the Archdiocese of Ottawa around the year 2000.
It has since grown to an independent charity boasting volunteers from more than 80 faiths that owns and manages about 140 apartment units in various parts of the city, including a new affordable housing complex of 98 units called The Haven.
The Haven, an eight-building complex, opened in the late spring to early summer of 2017, and is the first place MHI has been able to fully implement its vision, said Suzanne Le, executive director of MHI.
“What we want to do is equip our tenants to be able to live and move comfortably in a multicultural, multi-religious society,” said Le.
MHI has asked its volunteers, who include members of the Baha’i, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh, Buddhist and a range of other faiths, to use the community room at the Haven to celebrate one of their religious holidays.
They are asked to “go through a ritual tied to that holiday,” provide an educational element, explaining what they are doing and why, and to sponsor a community celebration inviting all the tenants, and providing food, Le said.
About 350 people now live in the Haven, including Syrian refugees, seniors, young families with children, and adults with cognitive disabilities living on their own for the first time, said Le. Ten per cent of the units are fully accessible, but all units are “visitable” by someone in a wheelchair.
“We have really built community into it,” Le said, noting the complex has a community garden, and the tenants have organized a gardening club. They are putting in a playground.
MHI has plans underway to build a 40-unit special purpose unit to house mentally and physically challenged veterans, working with Veterans Affairs, The Legion, True Patriot Love, Soldiering on and other groups, Le said. They hope to start construction later this year.
“As a faith organization, our members are always looking for ways they can help and this is something close to their hearts,” said Le. “The idea we have veterans living rough on our streets is appalling to most Canadians.”
“In a nutshell, MHI is faith in action, it is communities building communities. We are faith in action.”
Le, 46, has served as MHI’s executive director for the past five years. She studied comparative religion at Carleton, University, and then went on to obtain a master’s degree in conflict studies at Saint Paul University.
Le said it’s humorous that at the time of her studies, people would ask her, “What are you going to do with that degree?”
“Who knew there was a housing org that could absolutely use that kind of knowledge base!”
Her thesis focused on genocide. “I studied how societies are broken down to allow the absolute worst to happen and this is an organization that takes people of all different religious backgrounds and brings them together to create a real societal benefit. It’s created to serve society.”
Le had no housing background when she joined MHI and the details of property management are contracted out. She works with the volunteers and the various partner organizations to imagine projects, “to move our way through opportunities that will enable these projects to become reality,” she said. “I oversee development from conception to operationalization.”
She also organizes fundraising and navigating the various levels of government from federal to provincial to municipal that have contributed to projects like the Haven.
Le oversees a small paid staff that includes a manager of community engagement volunteers who is Muslim, a manager of fund development who is Buddhist, and an office administrator who is Protestant.
“We are very clear with what our mandate is and who we are,” Le said. “We’re open to everybody who is open to working with others in a respectful manner, and enjoys the opportunity to enrich their knowledge of other people from different cultural and religious backgrounds,” Le said. “You have to have an openness to work with other people. “
“If you’re coming in with a conversion mentality this isn’t a great place for you,” she said. “We want people to learn about each other and respect each other.”
Gay Richardson, an Anglican from St. John the Evangelist, remembers the early days when the Ottawa archdiocese’s Social Justice Commission had formed a committee to address the crisis of affordable housing in Ottawa. At the time it was focused on seeing if they would find a way to re-purpose empty houses left at the closing of a city airbase, she said. “Other people who heard about this committee were invited to join,” Richardson said. At first it was only Christians involved, but they agreed “we should be looking more broadly.”
It evolved into the interfaith housing committee that continued to meet at the archdiocese until MHI was incorporated in late 2002 as a charity.
“At first our goal was simply to encourage faith communities to build housing themselves,” Richardson said. But they soon realized most faith communities’ mission was not housing. So they revised their charitable mandate in 2004.
After 2004, MHI began to slowly acquire properties for social housing. “It’s been this gradual evolution, but the huge leap that we’ve taken has been under Suzanne’s leadership,” Richardson said.
Catholic Deacon Hugh O’Donnell joined the MHI board in 2010 and served two terms as president, stepping down from the board last year. MHI had grown and was managing about 40 units, serving 100 people, 30 of them children.
“Then we did a strategic planning exercise as any good organization should do,” O’Donnell said. “We decided by 2020, we would double our number of units. The plan was to go to 80.”
They were looking at acquiring more properties. In the meantime, Le had joined the staff and, in 2014, the City of Ottawa released some land in Barrhaven and offered a competition to groups coming up with the best social housing proposal.
Le guided the whole process, from entering the competition to completion.
“We won the competition, and built a $20 million facility on Verona Road,” O’Donnell said.
“We are currently managing 140 units,” he said. “So we’ve blown our strategic plan by having 80 by 2020.”
The Haven benefited from funding from multi-levels of government, from municipal to federal.