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The Morris Building Project: Answering the Question of Housing for Homeless Youth

One historic building's hopeful transformation from dramatic demolition to community youth housing

by Rachel Worth-Cappell

The Morris Building before its move in 2009. Photo Credit: Kim Thompson
The Morris Building before its move in 2009. Photo Credit: Kim Thompson

It takes a village to raise a child, but does it take a village to raise a house?

According to the Morris Building Project, an exciting up-and-coming project which seeks to provide environmentally responsible affordable housing for Halifax youth, it does.

“We hope the Morris will bring to life this housing vision for youth,” says Dorothy Patterson of Ark, a youth drop-in centre in Halifax.

The Morris Building Project came about in September of 2009 when the HRM council approved of building plans by Dexel Developments for a ten-storey building on the southeast corner of Hollis and Morris Street. Included in the plans was the demolition of pre-existing structures on the site.

Unfortunately, on this specific plot of land were several historic buildings, including the Morris Building. Originally designed as the office of Halifax’s Chief General Surveyor, Charles Morris, the Morris Building is considered to be one of the four oldest buildings in Halifax, dating back to the 1750’s.

Not wanting to lose such a historic building, several members of the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia convinced the development company to re-route money intended for the building’s demolition in order to to relocate the Morris Building half a block down Morris Street.

But the unused building spurned the question: what next? Thus, the Morris Building Project was born.

The Morris Building Project is comprised of the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia (HTNS), the Ecology Action Centre (EAC), Metro Non-Profit Housing Association (MNPHA), and Ark. And while the Project was created to save a historic building, it has since transformed into so much more.

“The Morris Building Project represents a new way of approaching building and communities today, one which while celebrating heritage values, also speaks to the enormous environmental benefits embodied in adaptive reuse of existing buildings,” says the Ecology Action Centre’s Morris Project webpage.

At its start, the project was adopted by HTNS and EAC with a vision to restore a heritage building using environmentally responsible building practices.

The Morris Building was envisioned as a pilot project that would have social benefits, but its specific end use was not totally clear.

However, in June 2011, the MNPHA and Ark signed on to the project to guide the direction the building was ultimately to take. MNPHA and Ark are both organizations in the community that are committed to providing safe, comfortable spaces for homeless or low-income Halifax residents. The Morris is now slated to be run and maintained by MNPHA and the ARK to become affordable housing for Halifax-area youth.

The need for affordable youth housing in the community is clear, as, according to Canadian population profiles, youth under the age of 21 are considered to be the fastest growing homeless population in Canada, comprising 40% of the total homeless population in the country.

Unfortunately, within the HRM there is less than a 1% vacancy rate in housing on the peninsula. For homeless youth within the Halifax area, this low vacancy rate forces them to look for apartments to rent on the outskirts of the city, up to a hour and a half’s walk away, “which takes them away from their support networks within the city,” says Dorothy Patterson of Ark.

“Projects with a vision like the Morris are so important because they would offer the space for a partnership with Ark and MNPHA. We believe that housing projects run by Metro Non-Profit Housing provide safe, affordable housing in well-managed and cared-for buildings. We believe in this partnership because of the MNPHA’s philosophy and commitment to this kind of housing,” says Patterson.  

With this vision in mind, the project has begun to move at hyper speed. The building project’s leaders are working alongside several architects, hoping to draft multiple possibilities for building plans that would make the building both user-friendly and ecologically responsible.

Possibilities for the retrofitted Morris Building include things like photovoltaic panels, a rain-collection system, living green walls, large windows to accommodate and create passive solar energy, and state-of-the-art insulation in order to effectively contain the created energy.

As well, the Project is looking at ways of incorporating the building's youth tenants for feedback and ideas on the building’s design plans.

"While it is important to provide a successful, multi-faceted project for the community,” says Kim Thompson, a core member of the Morris Building Project, “we must remember that the Morris is just that - a project for the community - which means utilizing the voices of the youth for whom this is."

But the best laid (building) plans mean nothing when there's nowhere to put your building. At the moment, the Morris Building has found temporary respite from demolition on a plot of land owned and temporarily donated by Nova Scotia Power.

But finding a permanent location is key for the project’s development so that the committee may move out of the design phase and begin to be retrofitted to be made a livable space again. Recognizing this, the project leaders  are working tirelessly with local charitable organizations and property owners to find a suitable permanent home for the building.

Though the committee is currently in the process of negotiations with several parties for potential plots of land, they are hopeful for a resolution in the near future.

In order to fund the cost of procuring land for the building, the committee is seeking charitable donations from supporters within the community.  The project has also recently received a much-needed grant from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) to mitigate some of the project's other expenses, such as the building's re-location and foundation construction.

The project is also turning to non-traditional methods as a means of funding, such as organizing work parties and selling salvaged heritage bricks from the demolition of one of the Morris' neighboring heritage homes.

Not bad for a building that’s over 250 years old, has been moved (at least) once already, and seen so many different kinds of tenants come and go.

“[By] saving the Morris building not only are we maintaining a link to our past but we are making a commitment to our future” says Peter Delefes, Chair of Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia.

If you are interested in buying bricks, donating to the project, or getting involved, contact Kim Thompson at shipharbour@ns.sympatico.ca or Phil Pacey at philip.pacey@bellaliant.net

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