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300-unit YWCA residence opening for low-income women

The YWCA Elm Centre, left, has 300 units with 100 subsidized units set aside for women with health and mental issues.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Nestled in downtown Toronto, surrounded by hospitals and businesses, sits what is believed to be the largest affordable housing project to be built in the city in at least a decade. And this one is only for low-income or at-risk women and their families.

The 300-unit building on Elm Street, which opens its doors Tuesday for a public viewing, looks like any other apartment building, with a concierge, courtyard and a rooftop garden – exactly the look that the YWCA Toronto planned in the hopes of allowing low-income women, aboriginal women and those suffering from mental health or addiction issues to feel like they're part of a community. The building is almost full.

The price-tag was $80-million, with more than half the money coming from donations and from three levels of government. Sarah Blackstock, director of advocacy for the YWCA, sat down with The Globe and Mail prior to the opening.

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What inspired this project?

There are 150,000 [people]currently waiting on the affordable housing list in Toronto. The women that we work with, their lives have been significantly marked by trauma, violence, and often that results in poverty and homelessness. A lot of the women we work with tend to be written off. Our experience has been that you can support those women. Having a roof over one's head is significant. But you have to have the support to help those women stay, and that's what the YWCA has built here, the necessary supports.

How is this different from other affordable-housing projects?

It's also women-centred housing. So many of the women that we work with have survived trauma and violence. And we've developed services and a support system that is informed by those experiences.

What has the reaction been from women?

When women moved in, they talked about how they had a beautiful home after often living in unbelievable conditions. One woman, who hasn't been able to have her family into her home for years, said she can now invite them in and just offer them dinner.

Why is this needed?

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People work in downtown Toronto, services are in downtown Toronto. For a single mom, who is likely working shift-work, having a home close to her work is essential to the well-being of the family.

Why is public housing slow to build?

There was a time when affordable housing was completely funded by public dollars. That's not the case any more. For the YWCA, we still continue to believe there's a role for public funding. We are enormously grateful to our funders, but absolutely, governments need to fund affordable housing. It's a smart thing to do. We know the costs of poverty far outweigh the investments in ensuring people are properly housed.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Education Reporter

Caroline Alphonso is an education reporter for The Globe and Mail. More

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