School property purchase gives Leamington rare opportunity to boost affordable housing

LEAMINGTON — Leamington has purchased two vacant school properties and will use the largest, the 10-acre former Leamington high school site, to build much-needed affordable housing.

The town announced last week it had purchased the two properties — the high school and Mill Street Public School — from the Greater Essex County School Board. Mayor Hilda MacDonald said the purchase of the high school offers the town a rare opportunity to control how the property will be developed.

She said the red-hot realty market in Leamington has made it difficult for families of moderate means to afford entry-level housing.

“We’re calling it affordable-integrated housing so it’s not just assisted housing … you can have rent-to-own possibilities, even condo-style living, so there will be a variety of housing and a variety of financing for housing,” she said. “We want it to be a community of various economic demographics, rather than subsidized or low-income. We feel that when you have a community that has multiple levels everyone will take care of each other.”

MacDonald said the town has surveyors mapping the site and a consultant has viewed the old high school to determine the state of the building. The town property manager will also view the building.

The mayor said it will be up to any future developer to determine whether the high school can be salvaged and converted into housing units.

MacDonald said a request for proposals will be issued soon.

“We do feel a sense of urgency. We’re not going to be sitting on this for a long time,” she said.

The cost of acquiring the two properties was not disclosed. However, land registry records show that Leamington paid $1,343,200 for the high school property and $354,500 for the six-acre Mill Street site. Both properties were transferred on Jan. 14.

“We paid the going price. They don’t give you a deal. We basically paid them what they asked,” MacDonald said.

Right now, given the state of Kingsville’s real estate market, the sites of those schools have the potential to be expensive properties.

MacDonald said the high school property has the advantages of being located close to downtown Leamington and having easy access to sanitary sewers. She said many local developers have approached the town about building “tiny house” starter homes but were limited by lack of access to sewers.

She said there are no immediate plans for the Mill Street property.

Kingsville will be in a similar position in 2023 when the new high school opens off Jasperson Drive. Not only will the high school property be up for sale, but so will Kingsville and Jack Miner public schools.

Coun. Laura Lucier, chair of the town’s planning advisory committee, said the town needs to start discussions about its future plans for the high school and Kingsville Public School sites.

“Right now, given the state of Kingsville’s real estate market, the sites of those schools have the potential to be expensive properties,” she said.

In a recent interview, Kingsville Mayor Nelson Santos said the town needs at least another 200 affordable housing units.

“It’s a regional issue. It’s an issue right across the province, right across Canada,” he said.

Kingsville’s revised official plan, passed in December, promotes the creation of more affordable housing and also incorporates past policies that call for full or partial property tax exemptions to encourage the construction of affordable housing by private developers.

But Lucier, echoing statements made by MacDonald, said the purchase of Kingsville Public School and the high school offers the town a unique opportunity to determine what type of housing will be built on the sites.

Todd Awender, superintendent of education with the public board, said plans for the $45-million school K-12 school will be sent to trustees for approval in February.

He said the plans must also be approved by the Ministry of Education before they can be put out for tender. He said construction could begin within a week of the tender being awarded.

“Once the shovels are in the ground, it’s approximately a two-year process before the kids are in the building,” Awender said.

The board hopes the school — which will accommodate 1,045 elementary and 753 secondary students — will open in September 2023.

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