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Co-housing deal breathes new life into historic West Vancouver cottages

A group of owners will share ownership of the Horseshoe Bay cottages they live in, thanks to a new co-op housing deal.

On Horseshoe Bay’s normally quiet Nelson Street, there’s been a recent buzz of activity as a set of century-old cottages get spruced up, ready for their newest occupants. In one cottage, a bathtub that’s being replaced has been hauled out to the porch, while a shelving unit is hoofed up a set of stairs to another.

This time, though, the people moving in will have a much bigger stake in their new homes. The eight historic cottages are being preserved as the backbone of a new and unique co-housing community.

Cottages between 400 and 700 square feet

The funky cottages, each between 400 and 700 square feet and about 100 years old, sit on three sloping lots on Nelson Avenue.

Their exact history is murky, despite digging by heritage buffs. Some say they were occupied by fishermen, others that they were associated with the Union Steamships that pre-dated the current ferry terminal. Regardless, the cottages have been well-loved landmarks in the waterfront community over many decades.

“It’s almost impossible to meet someone in Horseshoe Bay who doesn’t know somebody who lived here at some point,” said Matt Fidler, one of the driving forces behind the co-housing project.

For much of the past 50 years, the cottages have been rented.

Heidi Woodley moved in to one of them with her two kids a year ago at Christmas. Once she settled in, Woodley said she soon realized how special the cottages are. “I realized I really liked this village, and I liked the house. I realized I could make it work, and that I'd landed somewhere pretty cool,” she said.

A few months later, however, she got the bad news that the whole property was going up for sale for $3.8 million.

Tenants worked with co-housing group

But instead of giving up, Woodley said she started thinking about ways the historic cottages might be saved, which then put her in touch with CoHo BC, an organization that supports, and encourages, collaborative ownership of property in the province.

Fidler joined the group and propelled it forward for the next eight months that it took to put the co-housing property deal together, with “no shortage of people saying it wouldn’t be possible along the way,” he added.

The group was lucky: the seller, Jim Bardal, who has cared for the properties for close to 30 years, was also interested in saving the unique property and was willing to give the group time.

“He could have easily sold it. He had all sorts of offers,” said Fidler. “But he wanted to find somebody that wanted to preserve it, and breathe new life into it.”

Similar values important

Once people read about the project in the newspapers, or heard about it through word of mouth, there were also no shortage of people who wanted to buy in. But the group took time to ensure those who would be living on the property had similar goals and values. “We had those conversations before we even started talking about money,” said Fidler.

Some people, for instance, wanted to rent out the cottages as short-term rentals, which wasn’t going to fly. “We’re building a community here. We want people on site pitching in, doing this together,” said Fidler.

“Pretty quickly, you can see where people are coming from and why they're drawn to it.”

When everyone’s moved in, there will be a mix of people. Woodley is the only one with kids. Other cottagers range from younger to later middle age and include both singles and couples.

Each owner gets a share of the property and pays “rent” towards the private mortgage every month. More unusually, there are also several investors who have paid into the project who don’t live on the site, but who wanted to help save the cottages.

Amber Storie and her fiancé Ben Vadasz are among the first of the cottagers to move in to a cosy one-bedroom with crisp white walls and a front porch looking out towards the bay. Storie grew up in West Vancouver and the couple was renting downtown when they heard about the plan from Fidler. “I've got tons of friends and family around on the North Shore. And this looked like such a beautiful area to live and a great community,” said Storie.

Many more Zoom calls followed about what the community would look like in the future.

Woodley and Fidler are hoping to create a balance between private and communal living, with gardens, a possible communal deck space, or even group Costco membership in the mix.

New owners starting to move in

Owners are moving in over the next several months as updates like new paint, plumbing repairs, and perimeter drainage are completed.

Already there’s a shovel in a new garden area, while the old stone pathways meander between the cottages with exteriors painted colours like periwinkle blue, red, and mint green, past ferns, huckleberries and whimsical garden statues. A steep but solid set of stairs behind the cottages leads up the hill to a lookout point and chairs with stellar views out over Horseshoe Bay.

“It’s about saving the cottages and breathing new life into them. And that's what brings us all together,” said Fidler. “Individually, would we assemble the same group of strangers and buy an apartment building with eight units? Probably not. It’s all about the cottages in this unique property. It’s one of a kind, so it's worth fighting for.”

Horseshoe Bay Cottages PM 3 web
A summer view of the cottages in Horseshoe Bay. Paul McGrath, North Shore News