Nick Volk in 2003 Photo by Michael Swan.

Nick Volk was a housing champion for people in need

  • August 14, 2017

Nick Volk was a fighter who chose sides in the battlefield of Toronto’s pricey real estate market. The Harvard-educated gentleman who began his career in the American foreign service chose the side of the poor.

Toronto’s most persistent and faithful housing advocate, Volk died Aug. 9 surrounded by his family at the age of 85.

Born in Teaneck, N.J., in the midst of the Great Depression, Dec. 17 1931, Volk graduated from Harvard and entered the U.S. foreign service in 1953. He served his country in Cambodia, Thailand and Bangladesh before a posting to Toronto’s U.S. consulate as communications director in 1964. He and his wife Barbara fell in love with the city. Rather than move on to the next posting, Volk landed a job in corporate communications for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, where he remained for 23 years. 

A parishioner at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Toronto’s leafy midtown, Volk eventually became involved in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, visiting the homes of some of Toronto’s poorest families and individuals.

“You would come out in tears because of the dreadful places people live in,” Volk told The Globe and Mail in 2006.

Volk’s concern for the poor and the forgotten of the city eventually extended to regular visits to the Don Jail. He would collect week-old copies of The Catholic Register to distribute to prisoners, most of them just waiting for a hearing or a trial date. They were desperate for anything to read and Volk always delighted in how the newspapers could spark a conversation.

The one-time president of the Toronto chapter of the Harvard Club was never shy about using his contacts on behalf of the poor and underhoused.

When the Ontario government passed legislation to help non-profits build affordable housing in 1987, the newly retired Volk pounced on the opportunity. He formed Vincent Paul Family Homes Corporation and began to raise funds. On just over half-a-hectare (1.5 acres) of barren land in a neglected corner of East York, Volk put up more than 150 modestly priced apartments. Most of them were let to families at subsidized rents. 

It was Volk’s sense of humour that decided the name of the architect-designed mixed residential building — Gower Park Place, a play on Monopoly’s most coveted property.

There was more to it than decent apartments at affordable rents. Working people paying market rents in the building allowed the families on social assistance to stay connected with the wider community and the world of work. A lot of attention was paid to developing a sense of community in the building and ensuring residents received the social services they needed, from training programs for those who could work, to personal support workers for those on disability.

In 2001 the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association named Gower Park Place the “Best Non-Profit Affordable Building in the province.

Volk was never satisfied with just 150 apartments. In the late 1990s, when the Mike Harris Progressive Conservative government in Queen’s Park cut off all the funding and financing mechanisms for non-profit and co-operative housing, Volk didn’t settle for merely condemning the policy change. He became a familiar face at City Hall, Queen’s Park and in the offices of Toronto’s federal Members of Parliament. He talked up the advantages of getting people into decent housing with every politician and bureaucrat he could corner.

He built Gower Park Place in 1994 under budget for $22 million. By 2006, 49 Gower Park Place families previously on welfare moved out to buy homes of their own.

Volk became the chair of Habitat for Humanity Canada when it came north of the border in 1993. He was chair of the Toronto Community Housing Corporation. He was a member of the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association. He was a regular at the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition meetings in Queen’s Park. He took his housing activism to the international stage through Roof Tops Canada-Abri International Board and attended United Nations conferences on housing. He was vice president of the national council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and then president of the Ontario regional council of the Catholic society.

Volk had in recent years managed to raise $43 million from the provincial government and Toronto’s Board of Trade, plus private donations, to build At Home, an affordable housing project that will, once built, provide homes to mother-led households living on less than $20,000.

A funeral Mass is scheduled for Aug. 15, 9:30 a.m. at St. Basil’s, 50 St. Joseph Street. The family asks that donations be sent to Dixon Hall Community Services Capital Fund.

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