November 26, 2020
The Globe and Mail: Toronto’s Jennifer Keesmaat launches Markee Developments with a goal: affordable housing. An early conceptual rendering of a community dubbed Tyndale Green, led by Shirley Blumberg and Bruno Weber.
by Alex Bozikovic
Jennifer Keesmaat has a new plan: To build housing.
Toronto’s high-profile former chief planner is launching a company called Markee Developments, partnering with veteran real-estate developer Jason Marks. They’re about to introduce their first project, in North York.
“I fought the good fight as chief planner and raged against the system, and I was proud of what I could achieve,” Ms. Keesmaat said. “But in that role, you aren’t able to do what we’re doing: deliver a lot of affordable housing supply.”
That’s a crucial task in the Toronto region, and it won’t be easy. Markee aims to deliver rental housing, mixing market rentals roughly half-and-half with affordable housing for middle-income earners. They will build on sites that are owned by non-profit organizations in the area.
“We asked, can we take the best from private-sector practice and integrate that with developing a public good?” Ms. Keesmaat said. “That public good is stable, permanently affordable housing.”
Their model is to partner up with landowners including municipalities, faith groups and universities. These partners “aren’t interested in getting every dollar out of their sites,” Ms. Keesmaat said, and so land costs – a crucial ingredient of housing affordability – can be controlled.
Their first project will be on the site of Tyndale University, a Christian seminary that occupies a large campus next to a ravine near Bayview and Finch. The design team includes KPMB Architects and the Planning Partnership. Markee will hold its first public meeting on the project Dec. 7. Ms. Keesmaat said they aim for the project to include a public “community hub” with a daycare and other facilities, a café and bookstore.
Mr. Marks, who was formerly CEO of the privately held Shiplake Properties Ltd., said the company will keep costs down, and is willing to accept smaller financial returns than a for-profit developer would require. He argues they can attract private investment from funds that have a “sustainable investing” or ESG (environmental, social and governance) lens – such as pension funds. And they’ve already helped one of their land partners get some funding from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. to support the development process.
Mr. Marks says Markee aims to deliver roughly two projects, and about 2,000 homes, each year. They are prepared to handle all aspects of financing, development and property management for those buildings. The financial arrangements would vary, he said.
The company’s strategy is similar to that of Creative Housing, an initiative launched by developers Westbank and Allied. Ms. Keesmaat took over as CEO of Creative Housing in 2018 and left that venture to run for mayor of Toronto later that year. Ms. Keesmaat now says she has no plans to run for public office, and is focusing on Markee and her consulting practice.