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

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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!

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.