Father Pishoy Salama said he witnessed the needs of the poor while on a study sabbatical at Harvard Divinity School in 2019.
The head of St. Maurice and St. Verena Coptic Orthodox Church said he saw the difference between the prestigious students at the well-maintained campus and the homeless just outside it.
He decided his end-of-term project would be about “living with dignity and respect.”
“I want to do something to help people have a roof over their head,” he said. “The best way for humans to live with dignity and respect is to have a roof over their heads, and to have some kind of independence in their living.”
Now, Salama and his congregation hope to achieve that in Newmarket. Under the newly formed Trinity Coptic Foundation charity, they have purchased a plot of land at 17151 Yonge St., across from the York Region headquarters. There, Salama said they plan to build a 12-storey, 290-unit apartment building, designed entirely as affordable housing.
“We’re very excited about the project because it’s going to provide a living necessity to so many people who have been marginalized or forgotten,” he said.
The Markham-based parish is part of the Coptic Orthodox, a church originating in Egypt. The parish was established in 2007, and it created a landmark church building in 2016. The province later recognized it as a tourist attraction in 2019.
Many of the Coptic Orthodox Church have moved overseas due to religious persecution, Salama said.
“It’s important for us to give back to Canada because so many of our community members came as immigrants, came as refugees,” he said. “We now feel like it’s time for us to give back to the community for our adopted homeland.”
The property purchase came about thanks to the previous owner agreeing to donate one-third of the cost, he said, with the remainder being covered by a bank loan. To build, Salama said they will be relying on the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation to cover part of the construction costs, along with grants from other government entities. Fundraising is a possibility if needed, he added.
The foundation has not yet formally submitted a planning application, so details are yet to come. But Salama said they had positive pre-consultation meetings with the town.
Ward 5 Councillor Bob Kwapis said housing options are vital in Newmarket.
"Affordable rental units, located on a main corridor are extremely important,” Kwapis said.
“We need to plan for a pipeline of affordable housing opportunities and projects of varying types,” Mayor John Taylor said. “It’s far from done, and it’s early stages, but I’m very excited.”
The property has sat idle for several years and has mixed-use zoning for commercial and residential. Its neighbours are businesses, including restaurants.
Mission Thrift Store is a couple of places down from the property. Manager Liz Croft said it is a good thing for the town.
“If it’s just condos going up, then I have reservations. But if it’s affordable housing for people, then I think it’s needed,” she said.
The community has a solid understanding of the affordable housing need, Taylor said.
“We’re an incredibly inclusive community that wants to make sure we’re building a community that provides housing options for everybody, and not just those who can afford a single-family home.”
The development will have to go through a planning process just like any other, Taylor said. Nothing has yet been formally approved.
The timeline is to be determined, but Salama said they hope they can get shovels in the ground by next summer, with an expected two-year construction timeline.
“This is a grassroots movement from an immigrant community to embrace the bigger Canadian family.”