On accountability and change

Zaheen’s vision at last year’s public consultation

Zaheen’s vision at last year’s public consultation

As a child I was taught that we would all have to account for our actions on judgment day, which for us is called « Kayiamaat na diwaas », which literally means « explanation day ». I looked forward to it. I love courtroom dramas.

Accountability is not a matter of right or wrong, because who’s to say what’s right and what’s wrong. It is about taking ownership and drawing a line between what one does for one’s sake and what one does for others and for anything that requires a sacrifice or compromise, recognition and respect.

For me, Brick by Brick is my project. For my colleague, it’s her project, for our architect, it’s her project, for our newest investor, it’s their project, for our agent at the credit union it’s her project, for the urban planner at the borough it’s his project, for our partners it’s their project, and for those who have signed up for an apartment, it’s their project.

Community is more in flux than ever before and perhaps those who feel like they can share Brick by Brick so openly appreciate the urgency to build autonomous infrastructure for social change that is founded not on a common vision but rather on trust, on mutual aid, mutual recognition, curiosity, and patience, and the willingness to give each other credit in the absence of understanding. We are accountable to each other, not only to a mission or vision that can easily be appropriated by those who have the means to do so.

So Brick by Brick is not for everyone. But that’s fine. And to be clear I don’t think that because the world is changing fast we should all give up on building a common vision and soliciting a broad mandate. It’s just that I see an opportunity for me to be useful now and it is a relief not to be missed by those who are doing so much good work and who are inspired by an ideal that truly commands accountability. Hey, ideas are people too!

What's in it for me?

I didn't realize it then, but that jersey was worth more than my dad's entire wardrobe.

I didn't realize it then, but that jersey was worth more than my dad's entire wardrobe.

My parents were refugees. They came from Africa, and their parents came from India. My great grand parents sent their children away when they were very young because there was nothing left but hardship in their ancestral land.

The British had made use of a well documented tactic of war called indirect rule characterized by enforced division. An almost unimaginable variety of communities were made to compete for scarce resources by middle-men armed to the teeth.

Eventually the situation became unbearable for my great grand parents, who were members of a small Islamic sect, and their wildly wealthy and well-connected imam urged them to tempt fortune in another part of the British empire where Asians had settled centuries ago and lived in peace ever since.

Asians in different countries of Africa all live differently. My maternal grandfather drove a transport vehicle across East Africa. He would come home bearing chocolate for my mother, who was born in Tanzania. He told me a story one time about running over a snake as wide as a man. He wasn’t sure what it was until he stepped out of his rig and saw locals chopping the snake into meal-sized chunks.

My father’s parents were very “Indian”. They were Ugandans, and from what I can tell, Asian Ugandans never really settled-in, though they are the most nostalgic. Life “back-home” sounds like something out of the Wonder Years... but more paranoid.

What happened in India also happened in Africa. This time we weren’t poor, but we paid a heavy price for not getting involved in countries where waning empires were holding on tooth and nail. After the second world war, Africans took back their countries one after the other.

War was everywhere. And everyone was scrambling for power. The old colonizers refused to let go before getting their hands on every god damn light bulb. Africa was rich and whoever took over would have to be trustworthy. The Europeans knew this, and they knew the country, so the Americans, who didn’t want to lose the world to the Soviets, made sure things went their way. Since this was the first time for as long as anyone could remember that Africans would be in power, suspicion ran high. There were few dreamers and many many bitter people.

In some countries Asians were expelled. Many deserved it. Others left from fear while some stayed and dug their heals in, made compromises or further isolated themselves. It just depended on your community.

Our community in Uganda and around the great lakes, as well as in Zaire and other very unstable countries all left, penniless, to seek refuge in the belly of the beast. Hopping from state to state in Europe and finally settling in Canada, my family made a home for themselves in Montreal. The cold version of America. Whatever, it’s America.

We moved a lot. I never went to any school for more than two years straight. But there was a sort of Headquarters in our community. Actually it was called Headquarters Mosque. My grandparents and my aunt lived right across the street from it, and I lived there more than anywhere else. It was on Van Horne, technically in Outremont, but spiritually in Mile-End because back then, the whole area was kind of a dump.

While Europeans were killing each other and mobilizing their empires for total war, Americans and Canadians were selling them weapons. And after that, they were rebuilding Europe on credit. So basically North America became filthy rich and “ordinary Americans” who had suffered through industrialization in the early 20th century gained access to the middle-class and deserted their crowded cities for greener pastures.

But by the time I was born, the global economy had shifted again and it started to make more sense for white collar workers to live in town. And of course today, anyone who has any pretension to making it in the world wants to live in the city and basically does not in any way separate their personal life from their economic role in society. But that’s for another essay. In Montreal, the middle-class didn’t really return from the suburbs until the 90s because of the recession. My dad talked about the recession a lot.

My parent’s generation of immigrants didn’t want to get attached. But they didn’t really get a chance anyway. While some left for the suburbs because they could afford it and had been wanting to live in a re-run for generations, others left because they saw history repeating itself and didn’t have it in them to fight. The city was changing and after 30 years they still did not feel at home. Living in town became expensive and since they had hit a glass-ceiling they figured it would be best to take up an old house by the highway and just see people at Mosque on Friday.

So little by little many of my friends left the old hood because their families got priced out. We lost touch. Some did OK and some not so well. I recently heard from an old friend who told me that he ended moving nine times since leaving Van Horne. He’s had a hard life, I won’t get into it. Maybe if we had the internet we would have stayed in touch and been able to help each other out. But I’m not sure it works that way.

I don’t know how I managed to do so well. I guess it’s because my dad sent me to college. After all education was the single most important worldly objective for our Imam’s followers.

In any case, our community got split up. A core group maintained the culture as best they could. But we come from many different countries and speak different languages and so somewhere along the line something’s got to give. I believe that many good ways of life have been lost. Many. And everyone has lost their way to some degree. If I cannot speak my language on a regular basis, how will I retain the values and memories it carries? If my neighbors are no longer my brothers and sisters what kind of games will I play? If I walk around and feel more and more like I don’t belong, what will I do to feel free?

Every minority has their strategy. I have gone through the motions and continue to do so. But I refuse to let go even if it means accepting that what I see looking back is just a reflection of what I hope to see ahead. Because what I see is made of the stuff that made me. When I create, nothing is lost. When I allow myself to be in touch with all of which that brought me here, I am making this place my own.

I am never moving again. And if anyone wants to stand by me as I stand by those whose place this is they will have to live up to it as I do beside those whom I have joined. Come hell or high water I am not moving.

The time has come for me to make use of the privileges I have gained from living in a white man’s world. My greatest asset is my ability to understand the fear and hope that inspires those who have power in this society, while still understanding on a deep level what it means to live free as a child of God's medium, nature.

I have had the privilege of attending a few of the worlds most prestigious universities and have presented papers at the National Assembly. But I have also run through dirt streets on my bare feet without any adult supervision from morning to night. I have drunk myself stupid with some of the most sheltered people in the world, but I have also read scripture at Mosque and prostrated in submission to God with people who have no status in this country.

I am in a unique position to build bridges between people who are lost in their excess and fear the unknown more than anything, and people who have seen firsthand what we should be afraid of but have no means to warn the world and show it just how valuable peace really is.

Brick by Brick means different things for each of us who are involved. For me, it’s simply a stable environment to nurture exchanges between people who have a lot to offer the world.

If you are able to see this, then take your money away from the banks that finance the governments and companies responsible for pushing my people out of their homes for generations, and instead put your money to good use. Let Brick by Brick use your capital to take advantage of the real estate market, that absurd commodification of space, in order to prevent peoples homes from ever being sold again.

Building infrastructure for social change in this manner is slow. But it has the immediate effect of making residents feel at home. Their place is secured, rents are stable, and they are given the opportunity to make use of shared space where they can offer and receive services, and practice and perform freedom.

It’s just that simple.

Bringing people together to make a difference, brunch by brunch.

Brick by Brick is building community housing that brings residents together by building a community of investors that bring their resources together.

Brick by Brick is building community housing that brings residents together by building a community of investors that bring their resources together.

From looking into zoning regulations and keeping track of finances, to marketing and getting on the right side of landlords, to organizing events and setting up childcare, not to mention dealing with conflicts that arise from working with so many different people, I can hardly find the time now to meet with potential investors one on one.

To solve this problem, a board member suggested that I meet many potential investors at a time, "you mean like a Tupperware party? But I don’t have a vintage apron..."

Our first party turned out to be brunch on a Saturday, because that’s when everyone was available. I whipped up a batter and made some waffles and in the blink of an eye we were eating and chatting and we managed to get through everyone’s questions and concerned before the last bite!

It was a success. But more importantly, it was fun.

To be honest, a lot of the work that used to take up my time now gets done thanks to dedicated board members and friends of Brick by Brick. I think the real reason why we started organizing brunches is that we’re finally starting to take a page out of that great self-help book written by Emma Goldman in 1931 where she says « If I can’t dance it’s not my revolution. »

Dancing, waffles, potato potato, the point is that a financing campaign can be fun. And it can be fun for you too! So don’t wait:

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Confessions of a sell-out

They say money is the root of all evil: I have to agree.

Brick by Brick is founded on the idea that money can be a tool to transfer power from those that have it to those that don’t. Brick by Brick is founded on solidarity.

But the fact is, I have no idea why our supporters invest in our community housing project. I can only assume that they can appreciate the impact that a stable home in a nurturing environment can have on the lives of low-income people because they themselves have experienced isolation and exclusion.

Recently this assumption was put to the test when I was approached by a private real estate developer who was under fire for disregarding the needs of local residents. His objective is to transform a run-down building occupied by a variety of organisations that serve the local population into an attractive apartment building for young professionals. The zoning is clean and the city welcomes his project. But there is a problem: people are against it.

His project does nothing for locals who can’t afford the rent and need larger apartments and the services of community groups. He has been very candid with the media: he believes that renovating a run-down building is a noble contribution: by bringing wealthier tenants to the area he is helping to create opportunities for local businesses who employ local residents.

In any case, he reached out to me and said that he could help. It seemed like a no-brainer to me: a great opportunity to bag a big investment. The man donated $1 Million to the children’s hospital, he’s a philanthropist. If I met him and explained how his project exacerbates the stress under which residents live, and if I can get him to appreciate the importance of community owned and operated housing, he would pick Brick by Brick as his charity case and we could buy a building outright the next day.

My counterparts from CAPE, École Barclay, and the Parc Extension Historical Society working on a consultation to create a Table de Concertation in the neighbourhood.  

My counterparts from CAPE, École Barclay, and the Parc Extension Historical Society working on a consultation to create a Table de Concertation in the neighbourhood.  

Fortunately, in my excitement I mentioned this hair brained-scheme to some of my fellow residents at the community center after a public discussion organized by the Comité d’Action de Parc-Exention. I was berated for cavorting with the devil. So I came to my senses. Why settle for less? Why not ask for it all? The property that this man is developing is a landmark. It is the gateway to the neighborhood and could be a bulwark against gentrification in Parc Extension.  

I don’t need to sell the project to anyone who does not see its benefits. The benefactors should identify with the beneficiaries, not objectify them. It is in Brick by Brick’s mandate to support and even initiate local organizing. If residents don’t want to let this one go, then I need to add this campaign to my agenda.

By helping to organise a public assembly around this, by pressuring the borough to scrutinize his request for permits, and by bringing media attention to the pressing needs of local residents, he may be forced to back down, in which case, someone will have to buy the building from him ;)

Oh, but buying a building costs money, so... 

Business is more gangster than politics

Faiz Abhuani at city hall: asking for concessions to help Brick by Brick build affordable housing.

Faiz Abhuani at city hall: asking for concessions to help Brick by Brick build affordable housing.

Yesterday I met with Marie Deros, city councillor for Parc Extension. It was an interesting experience that reminded me of a lesson that I still struggle to assimilate: don’t be afraid of anyone. Having no reason to trust someone is not a reason not to trust them.

Needless to say, Marie and I don’t see things in the same way. But that goes without saying: the place from which we intervene offers a different perspective, we work with tools made of different material, and we were born in very different circumstances. After our respective rhetorical exchanges - first my sales pitch, her critique, my demands, her rebuttal, an authoritative re-establishment of balance, followed by a concluding exchange of mutual recognition and praise - I found it easy to find common ground.

At the end of the day, it seems to me that those who work with the means at their disposal to mould the world around them and make social life more interesting, meaningful, and beautiful all have one thing in common: they are political artists or artisans.

I have also met with Rafik Bentabbel from the opposition, who reached out to me, and I felt the same impulse from him. It’s strange to appreciate a form of art that has been so spoiled, but perhaps one day politics will be an outdated and ineffective medium of social control, like radio and cable television. Of course, if it’s between power politics and the matrix I’ll suffer through a few more elections and avoid talking about my work as political.

Business is more gangster anyway.

Speaking of business: 

Step 1: remove property from market. Step 2: everything else.

This week I received some training from our friends at UTILE on how to make a purchase offer. I learned about due diligence, zoning issues and permits, building inspections, decontamination, reasonable delays, and fair market value. But I also learned that the real estate market is a shark tank.

The importance of hiring a notary to deal with all monetary transactions and to insure that everything is in order cannot be understated. One reason that really stands out for me is that the person selling you the property may not in fact be the owner. Let’s say for example that the building you are buying once belonged to a rich and powerful man whose children were jealous and calculating, and that upon this baron’s death there was a succession dispute. And let’s say that the eldest child took possession of the estate. Now, 4 generations down the line the building you are dreaming to turn into comfortable homes and a creative community space for the descendants of those who made the baron so rich may not be for sale after all... Because the great great great grand child of that tyrant of yore just found out that the eldest inheritor was in fact illegitimate!

But there’s no need to worry, insurance companies actually offer “title insurance” so that you don’t lose “your” assets in the event that someone “rightfully” claims it as theirs. Of course, you have to pay lawyers a pretty penny to check the existing records. These records are held in public registries and go all the way back to… you guessed it: colonisation. So if anyone wanted to make a claim on a “transfer” of property that occurred prior to the first white man’s title… well they couldn’t.

Something for Brick by Brick’s selection committee to consider.

And here's something for you to consider: 

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Taking the scenic route


This is really not the right line of work for me. It plays into my fear of not being taken seriously, my completely depleted capacity to manage stress, and the overwhelming revolt I cannot suppress when facing any form of bureaucracy.

That being said, there’s really nothing else I can possibly do because, well, what needs to happen needs to happen. When Brick by Brick’s live-in community center starts setting up its food security initiatives, develops programming for young residents and frees up their mom’s time, and when we’re offering relevant learning opportunities free of charge to low-income people in the area, all of this agonising prep will be forgotten.

That’s one way of looking at it. But in this world everything that happens in time leaves an eternal mark. If I suffer now for tomorrow, then I will always live in convalescence. Perhaps I am starting to realise what it really means to appreciate the journey. The destination is not a real place; it is just a steering wheel. If you’re always looking at your steering wheel you will crash, fast. And here’s the kicker: if you know where you’re going but can focus on where you are, then you can step on the gas.

A lot of what I’m working on is the result of demands placed upon our organization by bankers, lawyers, and bureaucrats: people who are individually or institutionally averse to our vision. I need to remember that we are working on their level in order to attain our objective. If this road is too treacherous, I will take a detour because as far as I am concerned it does not lead to where I want to go. I really don’t mind the scenic route.

On that note: 

Shake what your mama gave you

Stress is a strange concept. In and of itself, stress is meaningless. It is simply the first layer of one’s relationship with a situation that puts into question our perception of the world. What I’m trying to say is that there is such a thing as good stress. Plenty in fact.

As in the romantic analogies that you are probably already thinking of, I was struck by visions of a complete life experience when the owner of a prospective building answered my call by asking how much I would be willing to pay.

“If you send me your revenue and expense figures I’ll run it by our accountant and get back to you with a ballpark number.”

It means nothing. He has two other partners anyway and the building is on the small side. There’s no reason to believe it could be viable. I would need to run it by the bankers and there’s just a whole lot to figure out. But I can’t sleep because I’m in love: the place is right next to the park and the pool, there’s ample room to build the community center, and it’s next to a coop.

So I’m stressed. What if they don’t want to sell? What if the place is in ruins? What if they’re getting offers left and right from developers looking to renovate and turn the residents over? How can we compete with them? Our costs are too high. We have no equity. We have no exit strategy. We have no experience. We have no institutional backing. We have nothing. We’re in WAY OVER OUR HEADS.

Faiz, stop. Remember what you learned from your friends at the “vanguards” conference: who are the owners? Who are you speaking to? Where are they coming from? What is their objective? What do you want to communicate and how are you going to make yourself understood to the people you are speaking to? If you want their attention, you gotta be smart an you gotta work it.

Shake what your mama gave you!

Our consultants at the "vanguards" competition this summer

Our consultants at the "vanguards" competition this summer


Welcome to the founder's blog! Our marketing coordinator Théo suggested that as the founder of this unique organization, I should blog about the trials and tribulations of building a community housing project from scratch. There is no way I can schedule enough time to recap the past year and a half for you, so you’ll just have to hop in while I go to my next meeting!

785 Ball Avenue. Our first attempt to secure a location failed. But now that I think of it, it's pretty small and needs a LOT of work. No regrets.

785 Ball Avenue. Our first attempt to secure a location failed. But now that I think of it, it's pretty small and needs a LOT of work. No regrets.

This week we are facing a big challenge. As we prepare to get on the SVX platform, I am starting to realize that we really need to nail down a site. Chicken, egg, chicken... egg!

We had begun the project with the intention of moving into 785 Ball Avenue. But things didn’t work out as planned because the owner of the building needed to sell fast. Fair enough, we had no money. After losing 2 buildings I decided to turn my attention to financing so that we would be prepared to buy when another property went up for sale.

But investors want to know precisely what it is that they’re investing in, so now we are faced with the HUGE challenge of looking for a suitable building that isn’t actually for sale and convincing the landlord to commit to selling while waiting a long time for us, amateur first-time buyers, to collect the required financing without a downpayment. Good luck me.