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When Nancy Campbell of Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation (CCOC), put aside her scissors in 2001 to officially open CCOC's 10-unit conversion of a biker hang out -- the Stirling Tavern, notorious for its fights and fires -- and made a ribbon-parting ride on a 1,500 pound motorcycle, she helped celebrate another instance when "out of the box" thinking created a housing solution.

CCOC is a community-based private nonprofit housing corporation that owns and manages almost 1300 rental units in 47 residential projects across Ottawa, housing more than 2000 Canadians in an effort to strengthen and preserve downtown residential neighbourhoods in the nation's capital. Although CCOC provides housing for the homeless and those at risk in other ways, approximately half of the units are rented at market value.

In 1995, Ontario's new conservative government came to power and immediately cancelled provincial funding for social housing developments, including almost 17,000 units that had already been approved. Many community development groups collapsed under the strain of financing their nonprofit housing projects, but CCOC just got more creative.

The conversion of the Stirling biker bar began in 1996 with a $21,000 grant from the federally-funded Homegrown Solutions initiative to explore the possibility of renovating or converting properties seized by the city for non-payment of taxes.

Eventually, CCOC completed the travern transition with $250,000 from the federal Supporting Communities Partnership Initiative, $180,000 in RRAP (Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program) funding, $200,000 of its own and financial support from municipal sources and private donors. Generous contributions of time, knowledge and resources from staff and volunteers made the whole process possible.

"We are very much volunteer directed with Board volunteers and all major decisions made by volunteer committees," said Ray Sullivan, CCOC Membership and Communication Coordinator for the Ottawa-based community group, explaining CCOC has about 100 volunteers helping with everything from mailing campaigns to volunteer landscaping.

"In 1974, the Centretown Community Association was working to stop the city from demolishing residential neighbourhoods downtown and turning them into highway exchanges and office towers. They had $500 in the bank when they decided to buy properties. They used the federal housing program for low-cost mortgages for social housing and bought turn-of-the-century row houses and smaller buildings. After a few years, they were able to build their own and have continued to do so over the last 28 years."

This year CCOC, completed a 13-unit townhouse complex that emphasizes individuality instead of using a cookie-cutter repeat design common to many townhouse developments. But at CCOC ingenuity and innovation were not limited to architectural design. Financial barriers were overcome with ingenious funding strategies that included a long-term second mortgage of $420,000 from a religious order, the Grey Sisters of the Annunciation.

"We had to scramble to finance the townhouses," said Sullivan. "We have our own staff developer who is very clever at cobbling together sources of funding to finance one building. It is easing up a little bit, but (Ottawa has) the lowest vacancy rates in Ontario. There are 14,000 households on the waiting list, so we have a lot of buying and building to do and little financial support from senior levels of government."

Through their independent development company, Centretown Affordable Housing Development Corporation, CCOC has embarked on an affordable-homeownership project of 30 townhouse units for those with incomes between $31,000 and $48,000.

"It's pretty unique and daring," says Sullivan of the housing development that will be completed in December, but that may be said of everything that CCOC takes on.

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