Housing
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Evicted to make way for a new development, low-income seniors face finding a new home

Housing providers weigh how to build more units on land already occupied by residents

By Jolene Rudisuela
November 7, 2022
Housing
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Evicted to make way for a new development, low-income seniors face finding a new home

Housing providers weigh how to build more units on land already occupied by residents

Dawson Heights cottages residents have known their eviction was coming. But now that it's here, some are scrambling to find a place to go. Photo: Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily
Dawson Heights cottages residents have known their eviction was coming. But now that it's here, some are scrambling to find a place to go. Photo: Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily
Housing
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Evicted to make way for a new development, low-income seniors face finding a new home

Housing providers weigh how to build more units on land already occupied by residents

By Jolene Rudisuela
November 7, 2022
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Evicted to make way for a new development, low-income seniors face finding a new home
Dawson Heights cottages residents have known their eviction was coming. But now that it's here, some are scrambling to find a place to go. Photo: Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily

Paul Monfette has lived in a small one-room cottage at Dawson Heights for the past three years. At 68 years old, the Saanich seniors independent living complex has been the perfect spot for him—he has a small garden space outside where he can grow flowers and make art, his window looks out at a beautiful Garry oak meadow, and he has found a community like he has never had before. 

As Monfette walks me through the small maze of cottages, he gives me a rundown of who has lived in each one. Most of the cottages at still have tenants, but some are vacant as the residents have moved out or passed on.

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Peggy Flett’s cottage near the centre, with its large garden and eclectic assortment of pots out front, is like the community hub—it’s a place where anyone is welcome. 

Another cottage used to be the home of a man named Ron, until he died. Now it sits empty. Ron was like an ambassador, Monfette tells me—he would talk to everyone and greet them with a “how you doing?” 

Down the row of one-bedrooms, he points out Suzanne’s cottage. Suzanne used to to live next door to him and they would often go blackberry picking together. She has a young grandson, who Monfette has known and watched grow up since he was three. 

“It was great for me to have that sense of community with little kids because I never had my own,” Monfette said. He paused, lost in thought about the people he has grown so close to over the years at Dawson Heights.

“It’s like breaking up a family.”

Paul Monfette sits outside of his small studio cottage at Dawson Heights. Photo: Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily

Monfette and the rest of the two-dozen seniors living in the Dawson Heights cottages are being evicted on Jan. 31. The 32 studio and one-bedroom cottages, which were built in the 1950s, are being demolished to make way for a new 85-unit seniors independent living housing development. 

The cottage residents were first informed that their homes would eventually be torn down for a new development nearly five years ago. Every resident who has moved into the cottages in the years since has moved in knowing that they would eventually lose their home. For the latest additions, this was a clause included in their rental agreement. 

It’s not the fact that they’re losing their home that has some of the residents angry—though many of them describe it like a loss; like the death of a loved one. It’s the fact that they’re being evicted in the middle of winter, at a time when the weather is cold and wet and sidewalks are slippery—a real concern given many of the residents’ ages, health, and mobility challenges. December to March is also statistically the time when the vacancy rate is the lowest, making it even more difficult for the residents to find an affordable home. 

Monfette agrees that more affordable seniors housing is desperately needed in Greater Victoria as the rental market gets tighter and more expensive. But in the meantime, he doesn’t yet know where he is going to go.

The Oaks

After the cottage residents each received their eviction notices in mid-September, 14 sent letters to the board asking for a two-month extension to move out on March 31 when the weather should be better and there should be more housing options. Only two, the two who wrote hand-written letters, received a reply. 

The letter, signed by Peter Parker, the chair of the board of directors at Dawson Heights Housing Ltd., read that delaying an “already delayed project” is not an option the board can consider. 

“As the project is using some public funds through B.C. Housing, and since inflation and rising interest rates are already impinging on our costing, it would be irresponsible of us to invite the extra costs a further two month delay would incur,” he wrote. He added that March also has the potential to be windy and rainy, and there is little advantage weather-wise to delay the eviction date.

In an interview with Capital Daily, Parker maintained the same points, emphasizing that the board has decided the project cannot be delayed any further due to ever-rising costs. The more than $20-million project is being funded through funding from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and BC Housing, as well as some of the non-profit housing society’s reserve funds—“We’re hoping that we don’t have to dip too much into those because they look after the unforeseen costs of running already two major buildings,” Parker said.

The new development at Dawson Heights is the third and final phase in the housing society’s development plan. The board currently operates The Dawson, an 82-unit 55+ independent living building, and The Cedars, an assisted living facility off Cedar Hill Road. This new development, set to be called The Oaks, would make more use of the housing potential of the rest of the society’s land. 

A archetectural drawing of what The Oaks will look like. Photo via Jensen Groups Architects

Parker said the 70-year-old cottages are all due to be replaced anyway. A decade ago, the housing society renovated them to extend their lives slightly, but they’re quickly deteriorating. Three are already uninhabitable due to mould and water damage issues. 

In May 2021, Saanich council unanimously approved the development proposal for The Oaks. At the time, the applicant stated that the majority of tenants had moved out of the cottages already or were planning to move shortly. But in the year since, the cottages are still almost completely full. 

“The pressure on housing in Victoria, through word of mouth and almost no advertising has kept the cottages full of temporary residents, people who have no other options,” Parker said. “They’ve all signed a lease agreement that they understood the day they moved in that [the eviction] day would come.”

The housing society recently received its demolition permit and issued the eviction notice shortly after. It is still waiting to receive the building permit, which Parker said should be issued by February or March. He says cottage residents will be first in line for a spot in the new building, but it’s still years away from being completed.

“The irony of the situation is that since 1950, we have been working hard to provide the low-market rental for seniors, and it's ironic that in order to improve our work, and to provide significantly more spaces, there's this time when we have to turn people out of their low-rent accommodation,” Parker said. “It's sort of opposite to who we are and what we really want to do. But there is no choice.”

Catch-22

Kathleen Cox, who has been living at the cottages for 17 years, said she received her eviction notice on the day she arrived home from hip surgery. 

Cox, 68, is using a scooter to get around after the surgery and is thankful for her ground-floor accessible unit. But she’s worried about finding another place that meets her needs and the mental toll of moving at her age. She says she has PTSD and the thought of moving has already had an effect on her.

“I have not only physical but mental challenges too,” Cox said. “I know there are others here too, and it’s twice as hard to cope. Stress kills.”

Another man, Tom McGuire, 86, announced that though he wasn’t eager to leave, he’d accepted a spot at Chown Place, another affordable independent living facility. 

For the past year, Dawson Heights has been working with other housing providers to find housing for tenants of the cottages. The housing society has also offered all residents $250 to help with moving expenses. Some have used the aid and found accommodations elsewhere; others have refused in the hopes of staying in their beloved cottages for as long as possible. 

Chown Place, which has 108 units for seniors in Burnside Gorge, is operated by the Gorge View Society. Corinne Saad, the society’s executive director, said the society has put Dawson Heights residents at the top of their list for housing when spots open up, but they currently have no vacancy and their turnover rate is very low. 

Dawson Heights residents also received applications for Kiwanis Village and Mount Douglas Seniors Housing Society, both of which have also moved Dawson Heights applicants to the top of their waiting lists. Jason Mason, the chair of the Mount Douglas Seniors Housing Society, said four cottage residents have applied and each received an offer of accommodation. Only one of four accepted the offer; two declined because they were looking for a one-bedroom, and another turned it down because they had found accommodation elsewhere. 

Melinda Vale, a receptionist with the Kiwanis Village Society, said several cottage residents are on the waitlist. Currently, their waitlist has over 300 applicants, but the housing society’s annual turnover averages only 7% for the Victoria location and 5% for Sidney. 

There are definitely not enough affordable housing options for seniors in Greater Victoria, Saad of the Gorge View Society said. The average senior who is entirely dependent on government assistance receives around $1,500 a month, which makes the normal rental market completely unattainable. According to the most recent Rentals.ca report, the average cost of a one-bedroom in Victoria rose to $2,148 in October. 

Saad recently closed the Chown Place waiting list because it’s just become too long—“I feel that putting people on the list gives them unrealistic expectations,” she said. But even so, the housing society gets a few people calling every single day, asking about their vacancy. 

“When I started here a year ago, we had fewer calls, and they were from younger seniors. Now it’s really not unusual for us to get calls from people who are in their 80s who might be living on a child’s couch, or there was one man a couple weeks ago who’s living in his daughter’s tent trailer in her backyard and he’s dealing with multiple complex health issues as well.”

The Gorge View Society’s 5.5-acre property has been rezoned for a total of 313 housing units that will be built out over the next few years. The society is already anticipating the opening of its newest 58-unit independent living facility early next year after some COVID- and worker shortage-related delays. For future buildings, the society will be facing the same issue as Dawson Heights.

“As we move forward with that redevelopment, we’ll need to bring down units in order to build up and provide more,” she said. “The problem is the interim. What happens to our residents during that interim period where we’re in that construction process?”

She says the society will also work with other housing providers to find places for Gorge View tenants, but she would like to see multiple levels of government work on longer term solutions. One solution, she said, could be creating an interim housing facility to house seniors temporarily until the new accommodations are ready. This building could be used by different housing providers that have to displace residents in order to construct new buildings. 

She also wants to see development proposals for affordable housing sped up. Earlier this year, the City of Victoria became the first municipality in the province to approve a motion to expedite the process of building affordable housing by allowing some of these proposals to skip rezonings or public hearings. The District of Saanich is following Victoria’s lead.

“If there is that sort of determination that this is an urgent crisis, then let’s treat it as an urgent crisis and make sure that we’re taking some really bold steps,” Saad said. 

Mourning the loss of community

Gathered out in front of the cottage's welcome sign, eight residents shared their stories with me, their worries for the future, and their unwillingness to leave. 

Tamaya Moreton says when she first moved to the cottages in December 2021, she had lost almost everything she owned, “and one of the first things that happened is a stranger, Peggy, gave me a winter coat. I thought, ‘Oh my God, they care.’”

Tamaya Moreton stands with Paul Monfette in front of the cottage where she has lived for the past 11 months. Photo: Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily

Moreton, whose name has been on the BC Housing list for three years, is planning to sleep on a friend’s couch once she is forced to leave. 

Cox says she hasn’t had a feeling of community like she has found at Dawson Heights in many years. Residents, many of whom are single, have gathered for Thanksgivings and Christmases and help each other out when they need a helping hand. “People are like your brothers and sisters,” Cox said. “It feels like that type of community.”

Some residents said Dawson Heights is where their support system is. Others talked about the strain of moving on their mental and physical health. One mentioned just wanting to feel settled at her age. But they all agreed that they will miss the cottages and the community they built.

“We knew this was coming, but it’s kind of like a death,” Monfette said. “This is a home, and has been a whole lot more than some other places that are just a house.”

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