Seniors displaced from a fire-ravaged subsidized housing complex in Deep Cove have been dealt another blow: a notice from their landlord stating there is no guarantee they can return home.
Mount Seymour Lions Housing Society sent an email, obtained by the News, to Lions Manor residents last week stating their tenancy had been terminated as of July 24 – the day of the fire.
The low-income housing provider explained they had exercised a clause under provincial residential tenancy policy guidelines, called “frustration,” which absolves them from fulfilling their obligations under the contract because of an "unforseeable event."
“The fire effectively eliminated what we were offering under the tenancy agreement,” said Dennis Simpson, general manager of the Mount Seymour Lions Housing Society. “That was our lawyer’s advice, in terms of ending of the contractual arrangement between tenant and landlord.”
A sentence in the email that shook many of the now-former Lions Manor residents reads the Lions Housing Society “will not provide any implied or inferred guarantee of offer of tenancy in the future to any applicant regardless of their prior tenancy.”
The displaced residents, many of whom have disabilities, were also told it could be up to two years before they can even reapply to live in the 60-unit Lions Manor – the estimated time it will take to rebuild the provincially subsidized housing complex.
Upon hearing the news, some of the seniors expressed fear and hopelessness for the future, as they currently struggle to find short-term, affordable accommodation after the fire.
“It is a very frightening thing to be looking homelessness in the eye, most especially for the very elderly and those with disabilities,” said Pam Kennedy, who was just getting back on her feet at Lions Manor after experiencing housing insecurity for 17 years.
Kennedy, 69, has spent countless hours scouring the internet for a new place but has come up empty. She is in rebuilding mode after losing her bed, toiletries and important documents, among other personal possessions, in the fire.
“The biggest thing I lost, though, was not tangible, but was my joy in living in Deep Cove, so near the water, in such a peaceful and pleasant community … after 17 years I finally felt content,” said Kennedy, who is currently sleeping on her son’s couch.
Leah Sand is facing a similar dilemma finding housing for her 73-year-old mother who has mobility challenges. Sand was upset to learn her mother, along with some other seniors from the Lions Manor complex, might be forced out of the community.
"I know a handful of people in that building and I can tell you that many of them rely on each other for help and companionship, so having them split up and taken away from the North Shore is going to be hard on many of them,” said Sand, adding many of the seniors rely on medical services that are within walking distance in Deep Cove.
Mount Seymour Lions Housing Society is trying to fast-track their former tenants’ transfer applications through the B.C. Housing system.
“We’ve asked and received special agreements from B.C. Housing that they will prioritize these residents,” said Simpson.
You can steer your application towards a preferred community, explained Kennedy of how the system worked when she put in her request with B.C. Housing.
"Regardless of where you wish to be you can go through the lists and stipulate via building code which buildings you prefer, thus avoiding areas or types you may not wish to live in," said Kennedy. "Also, there are lists of most of the non-profits ... and (that's) how I found Lions Manor."
In her experience with the B.C. Housing system, Kennedy said those who apply are triaged based on the level of urgency.
B.C. Housing spokeswoman Andrea Coutts said they have received 30 applications from former Lions Manor residents, who can make specific requests as to where they would like to live.
"The Lions Manor residents are a priority for vacant housing; however, timelines to secure alternate housing may differ for each resident, their specific housing needs and requests, and the limited vacancy throughout Metro Vancouver," said Coutts, in an emailed statement.
Deciding who can live in a specific complex is left up to the individual housing providers, who fill vacancies based on their own tenant selection criteria, explained Coutts.
As for why the residents have no guarantee of returning to Lions Manor, Simpson says that’s because they don’t know what changes will be made to the building as it’s retrofitted.
“One issue that comes to mind is that an opportunity like this presents itself to create a non-smoking building,” said Simpson. “We might make that choice. And that’s going to affect a lot of our former tenants because they were smokers.”
The challenge right now for Mount Seymour Lions Housing Society is predicting when the building can be reoccupied, as they wait for professional assessments by many parties to be completed.
“There was extensive water and smoke damage to the interior,” said Simpson, explaining the building will soon be a shell and stripped down to its studs.
The cause of the fire has been ruled as accidental, according to Haida Siegmann, assistant chief, public safety, with District of North Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services. While there were no sprinklers in the 31-year-old complex, Siegmann said fire walls in the building helped contain the blaze.
Fire investigators were able to narrow down the origin of the fire to one suite on the fourth floor, but can’t say definitively what caused it due to extensive damage.
“There’s no indication that it was related to building maintenance,” says Siegmann. “What we are left with is something that happened accidentally in the suite.”
Calling it a “very sad” situation, District of North Vancouver Coun. Lisa Muri said she trusts the district would expedite permits to get Lions Manor rebuilt “as quickly as possible to get those people in.”
“I hope that every effort is going to be made … I want those people to be able to come back if they want to come back,” said Muri.
Mount Seymour Lions Housing Society operates three other subsidized complexes in the Seymour area and has no plans to pull out of Deep Cove, according to Simpson. There is a restrictive covenant on the Lions Manor land, which is leased from the district, that stipulates it is to be used for nothing other than low-income housing.
While the majority of displaced seniors are staying with family and friends, there are a few “complicated cases," according to Fiona Dercole, director of the North Shore Emergency Management Office.
Irene Gyselinck is one of the complicated cases. Her tenants' insurance expired months ago and she hadn't gotten around to renewing it. She is part of small group of Lions Manor residents who have been taken under the wing of the Red Cross.
Stephanie Alexandra, 61, is another former Lions Manor resident left reeling after the fire.
"I don't think it's hit me yet," she said.
Alexandra, who is deaf, lived in in the complex for six years and has a volunteer role in the community that affords her a $100 honorarium each month. Every penny counts for Alexandra, who lives on disability assistance and has about $1,300 a month to survive on for shelter and basic necessities.
Along with personal posessions, the exhibiting nature photographer lost more than 100 prints in the fire. Alexandra is currently staying with an acquaintance until the end of August.
After losing priority placement for Lions Manor, Alexandra fears the life and connections she's made on the North Shore will soon be upended.
Erin Smith, manager of seniors’ services at Parkgate Community Centre, is part of a team working tirelessly to connect the fire victims with offers of local assistance. They hope to uncover any suites in the Cove-Seymour area sitting empty to keep the seniors in the community.
Looking at the makeup of the Lions Manor, Smith says there are a number of eldery residents over the age of 80 and a small percentage of adults, who might have disabilities, between the ages of 50 and 65.
Smith is worried these residents, many of whom attend programs at Parkgate, will be shipped out of the community and become disconnected from their support networks.
The Cove community, meanwhile, has rallied around the displaced citizens.
A barbecue fundraiser is set for Aug. 11 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the plaza at Parkgate Village. That evening the Cove business community is putting on a charity event at the Deep Cove Yacht Club at 7:30 p.m.
The fundraiser will feature live music by the Scott Riddell Band, snacks and a silent auction, with all proceeds going to the myparkgate.com fund in support of the fire evacuees. Tickets are available here.