Sunday, April 09, 2006

Building a Caring Approach

Mitchell Cohen never set out to be a developer, and anyone who witnessed the launch of his career would never have pegged him as one either.

In fact, he got his first taste of the industry when he was fighting against a big development in Montreal.

Back in 1973, at the age of 22, the young social activist organized residents of a rundown apartment complex to take on the landlord who wanted to demolish their walk-ups and build three 22-storey condo towers in their place.

He was successful in saving half the units and turning them into non-profit co-operatives, among the first of their kind in Canada.

While it may be ironic that Cohen today finds himself sitting at the helm of the Daniels Corp., one of Canada's largest development firms, the Saskatchewan native still tries to put his progressive mark on many of his projects.

"We build homes, and our success has given us both the opportunity and responsibility to do everything we can to assist the thousands upon thousands of people who can't put a meal on the table for their family, let alone buy a new home," he says.

Cohen has overseen the development of about 16,000 homes around the GTA. The firm was honoured by the Greater Toronto Home Builders' Association as its first Home Builder of the Year, and has also been a repeat winner of Tarion's prestigious Service Excellence Award.

Daniels builds a wide variety of residential products, from rentals to luxury homes at prices ranging from $120,000 to $2 million.

Major projects include the award-winning NY Towers community near Highway 401 and Bayview Ave., the upscale Kilgour Estates near Bayview and Lawrence, and the high-end One Eleven Forsythe in Oakville.

But the projects that get Cohen really excited are the ones at the lower end of the affordability scale. Daniels is responsible for building 3,600 rental housing units, more than 700 rent-to-own units, and 716 affordable properties aimed at first-time buyers.

"A lot of what we do (is about) pushing government to put real money behind their announcements, developing innovative ways to help tenants become homeowners and working with community-based groups to find ways for homeless people to become tenants," he says.

Just last week, Daniels launched its latest affordable housing project: Wave Lakeshore West. The 13-storey condo — comprising studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units — is being built near Lake Shore Blvd. W. and Kipling Ave. in Etobicoke.

Daniels got both the federal and provincial governments on board with the project, which is targeted to tenants who are having trouble cobbling together a down payment. With both Daniels and the two levels of government helping out with the down payment, the company says it's possible for a couple earning minimum wage to afford one of the units.

It's undoubtedly Cohen's circuitous route to the world of development that has shaped the way he approaches his work. That he became a developer is more a result of happenstance than calculation.

He didn't study architecture, engineering or business. He didn't spend his early working years on a construction site. Even today, you're more likely to see him in his trademark beret than a hardhat.

Cohen studied social psychology at the London School of Economics in the early '70s. His very first job was as a community outreach worker at the Montreal YMCA in 1973. He helped residents in a poor neighbourhood with health, social and recreational programming.

When the residents were about to be turfed from their rundown apartments to make way for a condo, they turned to Cohen for help.

"These tenants came running into my office, saying, `Mitchell, we've got these eviction notices. What should we do?'" he recalls. The city's vacancy rate at the time was less than 1 per cent.

"There was nowhere for these tenants to go, literally nowhere in the City of Montreal. They were in crisis," he says.

Cohen and the residents marched on Montreal's city hall to demand that the walk-ups be spared from the wrecking ball.

At the same time, he spotted an ad in the Montreal Gazette inviting community groups interested in forming non-profit housing co-operatives to contact the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. The groups would buy apartment buildings and turn them into co-ops — some subsidized and some not.

Canada's co-op movement was just getting started at the time and the National Housing Act had been amended to facilitate such organizations.

Cohen made the preliminary calls and his group was given more than $6,000 by CMHC to undertake a feasibility study on creating a co-op. Architects were retained to determine if the buildings could be saved. Accountants were hired to crunch the numbers.

In the end, Cohen was successful in helping create the Cote Ste. Luc Housing Co-operative, which continues to thrive today.

"It's a wonderful community and a lot of the people we worked with back then are still living there today. It was a wonderful success story," he says.

"It was my introduction to the world of affordable housing and what it means to be a tenant, getting an eviction notice when there's nowhere else in the city you can live. I learned a lot about rehab of housing, restoration, renovation, how to do all that," he says.

Cohen moved to Toronto in 1979, landing a job with the Co-operative Housing Federation of Toronto. He worked as a managing consultant, helping organize and manage co-ops. Within two weeks of his arrival at the CHFT, its director of development took ill and Cohen was parachuted into that job.

"That's how I segued into the development side," he explains.

Now, Cohen found himself negotiating deals with developers and builders, and ultimately looking for opportunities to build more co-ops. Many notable co-ops were built in Toronto in those days, including those in the St. Lawrence neighbourhood and in the Bathurst Quay.

But, in what was to become a theme in Cohen's career, a change in government led to a change in his work. The election of the Brian Mulroney Conservatives in 1984 saw the cancellation of national affordable housing programs.

"It came to a screeching halt ... There was nothing like that available anymore," says Cohen, who found himself unemployed.

Searching for a job, he hit up his contacts in the development industry. He phoned John "Jack" Daniels, former chair of Cadillac Fairview, who had just started up another development firm, the Daniels Group.

Cohen would become Daniels' first employee, letting it be known that his foray into the world of private development was conditional.

"I wanted to do it only if we could have an agreement that if there was an opportunity for us, as a private-sector company, to be involved in the development of affordable housing ... I wanted us to be able to use our resources to do that," he says. "Jack's response, without pausing, was `Absolutely.' That was an incredible response. Not everyone would have done that."

One of the first projects Cohen undertook for Daniels was an energy-efficient condominium in Erin Mills.

"I didn't even know what a condominium was," he admits. "I knew co-ops, but I didn't know condominiums."

He oversaw the development of the first Canadian community that complied with the new, environmentally stringent R2000 standards.

"I decided that one of the ways we could stand out from the rest of the competition in the market was to embrace this energy standard," he explains.

"It was rigorous in terms of air infiltration, in terms of how you wrap the home, in terms of receptacles and not having air blow through them," he says. "What we learned in doing that has proved to stand us in good stead all the way through, generation after generation of homes that we've built."

Cohen's career shifted again in 1987, this time with the election of the David Peterson Liberals in Ontario. The Liberals had campaigned on a promise to build 30,000 non-profit housing units, and immediately after the election, Cohen tapped into it.

"Here I am now in the private sector and I have an agreement with Jack (Daniels) and there it was, there was an affordable housing program. So I phoned up my friends at the CHFT and said ... "Let's work together.'"

Daniels went on to build 3,600 non-profit housing units for a range of groups, including seniors and the disabled.

"By going to Daniels, Mitchell has ensured a lot of social housing has been built," says Tom Clement, executive director of CHFT.

Clement keeps in touch with other builders in the city, but no one as much as Cohen.

"He is concerned with the city in general. He likes the idea of civic engagement. He wants to give people a say in where they live," Clement says.

An election would once again change the course of Cohen's work, with the arrival of the Mike Harris Conservatives.

"One June 8, 1995, the provincial government changed and, the next morning at 8 a.m., an email went out to every housing office in Ontario, telling them to stop processing all applications for affordable housing now," Cohen recalls.

The provincial government pulled the plug on almost 900 supportive housing units that Daniels had been working on.

"We immediately had to pick up the pieces, shift gears, and think about who we wanted to be," Cohen says.

That's when Daniels began getting involved in charitable works. The company became the principal financial sponsor of Toronto Tastes, the main fundraising event for Second Harvest, which delivers fresh surplus food to those in need.

"There was nothing that we could do to foster affordable housing of any kind," Cohen recalls. "We thought that, as a private-sector company, there had to be something we could do to provide some assistance to a group that needed help."

Zoe Cormack Jones, executive director of Second Harvest, says Cohen has become an invaluable ally to the organization. When Second Harvest moved to a new location, the development firm used its resources to donate and install a toilet, sink and dishwasher.

And when it comes to raising money, Cohen isn't shy about sending letters out to his contacts in the building industry, she says.

"He's very responsive when he is phoned about anything. He's certainly keen and tries to help us in a lot of ways."

Abby Robins, communications manager for Second Harvest, says Cohen is as comfortable at a black-tie gala as he is helping out at a soup kitchen.

"I think he has a broader outlook on life. He has this thing about a community being only as healthy as it's poorest person," she says.

Daniels also supports other causes, including Eva's Initiatives, which helps street kids, and the Toronto Film Festival.

To balance the demands of his professional life, Cohen spends time with his wife, Janice Lewis, a therapist, and his two children, Hannah, 23, and Jacob, 22.

He also likes to lose himself in his music, playing keyboards in a rhythm-and-blues band. The 10-member group won some acclaim in 1995 when it opened for Aretha Franklin at the O'Keefe Centre.

Daniels has continued to diversify, venturing in the mid-'90s into seniors housing. It entered into a joint venture with Amica Mature Lifestyles to create state-of-the-art retirement residences.

"We toured a whole bunch of retirement homes and were mortified at how awful they were," says Cohen. "We were mortified at the attitude of some of the people who delivered that housing and the approach they took to it ... It was more warehousing than housing.

"We wanted to create places where people wanted to live, not places where people were shipped to by their kids because there were no other options. We wanted to create communities that would be alive, that would be vibrant."

In 2000, Daniels began building rental housing and introduced a creative rent-to-own program.

Under the Home Investment Program, or HIP as it's known, $200 from a tenant's monthly rent can be directed toward the eventual purchase of a Daniels home. This savings account can grow up to $6,000 over five years.

"We're giving this group of people who are renters today a leg up into home ownership," Cohen says.

Daniels has so far built 700 townhouses under the HIP program. And it is now offering the same rent-to-own scheme in highrise developments.

The company has also broken new ground on the environmental front, building the first community in Canada to meet the rigorous Energy Star standard.

Construction began last year on the 354-unit, stacked townhouse community in Mississauga. A similar project, with 96 stacked townhouses, is underway in Markham.

"We're also always looking for ways to build a better home, a more comfortable and more energy-efficient home," Cohen says. "If we challenge ourselves to build a more energy-efficient home, and if that results in other builders following suit, and if ultimately the entire industry embraces a more sustainable future, we will all have won."

The Energy Star homes are targeted to first-time buyers. Daniels made them more affordable by building up — rather than out — on expensive lots of land. And instead of expensive underground parking, there's surface parking with fewer spots available to buyers, many of whom don't own cars. They have easy access to public transit.

This is part of Daniels' FirstHome program, which the company started two years ago. Even though there are no pricey marketing campaigns for these homes, they sell out quickly, with prospective buyers camping out overnight in long line-ups.

"There are many, many untold thousands of people who would love to buy," Cohen says. "They have good jobs, they have good income, but they don't have enough money for a down payment. They need help and they need something accessible in the marketplace."

Former federal housing minister Joe Fontana praises Cohen and Daniels as good corporate citizens.

"They think about what's good for communities and neighbourhoods. Their approach shows that they have a broader vision than just profit," he says.

As for the next social housing project Daniels will take on, the company has put in a bid to redevelop Regent Park.

But just how much new social housing will be created in the GTA could depend on whether the new Conservative government in Ottawa follows through with the multi-million-dollar deal for social housing made by the previous Liberal government. The deal would create housing for 20,000 families.

"We are hopeful that the new federal government will honour the commitments made by the previous government," Cohen says. "This agreement, which committed $602 million to Ontario over three years, was a long time in the making and is critical to increase the supply of affordable housing in the province."

But observers say that no matter who's in power in Ottawa or Ontario, Cohen will always be there.

Says Clement: "The thing that's interesting about Mitchell is that when the programs are around for social housing, he's there. But when the programs aren't there, he continues to be there."


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