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This Woman Sees Big Possibilities in Small Spaces

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The cubbyhole that Lisa Lipowitz calls her office is located in one of the buildings operated by Kehilla Residential Programme, an organization that identifies and champions affordable housing in the Greater Toronto area. Modest is an understatement, yet what she's almost apologetic about on the day I try to fit into the crammed space packed with file folders, is the fact that the office is comfortably air-conditioned.

She is worried about the optics of the office space air conditioning working, whereas it's not operational in the residential section of the building. The unit needed to be replaced and complications ensued.

The office air conditioning had not been working on my prior visit during a sweltering August week. Tenants come and go right by Lisa's door. So the three Kehilla employees with offices in this building literally live and breathe their work. The organization has lofty goals for a skeleton staff in a small space. But the physical confines that Lisa works within pales compared to more serious limitations over which she has no control.

"There has been no meaningful housing program since 1995," she laments. "In the absence of government funding, Kehilla is trying to make a difference." Glamorous work this is not. And yet, Lisa has been at it for over 25 years, primarily with Kehilla. She's seen tenants come and go, buildings rise and fall, legislation change and governments dissolve.

Are there any constants? Well, some of the tenants in the building are original residents who have resided there for over 20 years. There are people who have become seniors and seniors who have gotten really old.

"Families do move on," Lisa says, "and if I don't hear from them again, that's probably a good thing. Like everbody else, our tenants lead complicated lives. But once you can afford your housing, it frees you up to tackle other challenges." Kehilla clients' lives can be complicated by financial woes and sometimes physical disabilities. Each building has a distinctive personality whether it's the popularity of pets or some element of assisted living through another social service agency that Kehilla partners with.

Lisa has a dual role at Kehilla. As Director of Community Initiatives, she is responsible for all of Kehilla's agency and community-based partnerships. Her work includes community development, inter-agency communication, and government relations. As supervisor of property management, she is responsible for the overall operations of all Kehilla's self-managed and third-party projects. Lisa has been actively involved with the development of Kehilla's initiatives and has extensive experience with all of its projects.

She rattles off statistics easily. As of December 2011, there were 156,558 households on waiting lists for affordable housing in Toronto. This figure is comprised of 56,130 families with children. 39,463 seniors and 58,995 singles or couples under the age of 65.

This is "not a hopeful situation" Lisa admits. And yet, she is busier than ever before as Kehilla engages in third party property management as well as initiating projects and acting as development consultant. In addition to these other ongoing projects, Kehilla conceived of a way to raise funds and awareness around the issue of affordable housing in Toronto. Kehilla is running a design competition and Pop-up exhibit called Sukkahville 2012. What better way to draw attention to the need for affordable housing than with the sukkah, a symbol for temporary shelter?

"I am not the hero you make me out to be!" insists Lisa. Maybe so, but everyone in the community has an easy opportunity to be a bit of a hero by attending Sukkahville 2012. Sukkahville 2012 will simply allow Kehilla to help more families. The event will take place at Mel Lastman Square, 5100 Yonge Street, on September 30, from 12 - 4 pm. There will be live music by Klezconnection, snacks and a hands-on build opportunity by Habitat for Humanity, Toronto. The event is free as funds are coming from donors and corporate sponsors such as lead sponsor, The Daniels Corporation.

Sukkahville has sparked interest from schools and groups who use the exhibit as an educational opportunity. For this reason, the sukkahs will remain on display until October 3.