‘We want our village back!’ These Nanaimo seniors say they lost the ‘heart of their community.’ Now they’re fighting back.

Tenants say Nanaimo Affordable Housing Society is putting money over their wellbeing. This is Part 1 in our series It Takes a Village.

This article is the first in a multi-part series, It Takes a Village. Sign up for our newsletter to be the first to read the next story.

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It was an unseasonably cold spring day on April 8 when I showed up at the Buttertubs Drive seniors complex to report on a protest there.

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A group of about a dozen elderly tenants had gathered outside their residences with signs stating “Low income seniors matter” and “Give back the seniors’ hall!” 

They slowly made their way across the street from 11 and 15 Buttertubs Dr. — some pushed in wheelchairs, others using walkers or canes — to where a brand-new 159-unit senior’s complex stands on the same property at 10 Buttertubs Dr.

Days earlier, my editor Lauren Kaljur had forwarded me a tip about the protest from a concerned resident, and glancing at the location, I was surprised to see it was my father’s address.

He had not told me there were any issues going on in his complex, nor did he speak to me for this story. But I do have first-hand experience with the history of these buildings. 

My grandmother had lived in one of the units for more than a decade; I visited her there often. And after he became a tenant, my dad used the community hall — where these seniors now stood — to host my wedding reception.

Today the hall is gone, torn down in 2019 to make way for the new six-storey residential building. Though frequently described as affordable seniors housing, these 159 new units are not subsidized housing with rents geared to income. They are “below market” rentals aimed at independent middle-income seniors. 

Rental rates here range from $500 for a 385 sq-ft studio unit, up to $1,665 a month for a one bedroom and den. Officially completed in January, it features many modern amenities and some fully wheelchair-accessible units, as well as a communal dining hall, activity space and commercial kitchen on the ground floor. 

Related: Low-income seniors in Nanaimo struggle to find affordable housing

The new Buttertubs seniors housing complex is shown on the left with the old low-income complex on the right.
New and old: Residents in the low-income housing across from this new seniors complex say they feel like they’ve given a lot and gained little in the transition of ownership. Photo by Julie Chadwick/The Discourse

Residents of the new complex I spoke with say the building is beautiful and that they are happy with the accessibility and amenities in their new home, with one resident remarking that it was “like a hotel” and that “the elevator talks.”

However, these protesters — and my dad — live in the low-income residential housing across the street, in an 82-unit complex at 11 and 15 Buttertubs Dr. Here, rental rates for longer-term residents range between $400 and $700 a month.

These patio-style buildings were constructed in the early 1970s by the General George R Pearkes Senior Citizens’ Housing Society (GGRP) via the Branch 10 Legion, who sponsored the project, along with additional provincial and federal contributions. In 1989, GGRP added to the complex by building a community hall across the street as a social space for the tenants.

The Legion’s intention was to ensure low-income veterans and people with disabilities would have an affordable place to live as they aged, though renters did not necessarily have to be Legion members nor over the age of 65 to live there. 

By 2014, management and ownership of the properties and the surrounding land passed hands from the GGRP — which had managed it for decades — to the Nanaimo Affordable Housing Society (NAHS).

Eight years later, the seniors who gathered on April 8 in the place where their community hall once stood say this is when their troubles began.

“Before they changed over, the maintenance was good. Everything was pretty good. Now, everything’s gone downhill,” says Dave Ball, 88, who has lived in the complex for about 20 years. “They don’t care anymore about us. They care about how much money they can take off us.”

In the months since the protest, I’ve spoken to tenants, former board members and employees, and combed through pages of archive news stories, tenancy documents, contracts, meeting minutes, emails and shared communications to piece together a picture of what happened to this community in the years since NAHS took over. 

These residents claim a range of issues have emerged: a general decline in maintenance, lack of a regular on-site manager, disruptions and cuts to some support services, confusing changes to rent and billing and higher rents.

At the heart of these concerns, however, is how the loss of their hall and gathering space has affected residents’ connections to one another and the wider community. Many people I interviewed say they thought the transition from a small non-profit society to a larger one would offer more security and services, but now feel like they are the ones who have done all the giving, with little in return.

“Here’s the question you need to ask yourself. When GGRP signed it over to Nanaimo ‘unaffordable’ Housing, there were no mortgages on any of these places,” says Roxy Noble, who was at the protest and served on GGRP’s board for 15 years. “That hall over there was built by Branch 10 Legion, cash money. No mortgage. The tenants here have lost the privilege of using their own hall, their own space, and for what?”

Roxy Noble who still acts as an advocate for the low-income seniors holds a bright yellow sign with a drawing of the older low income units and the new six-storey complex for middle income seniors. It reads "All seniors not equal."
“These mortgages were paid off by low-income seniors,” says Roxy Noble, former vice president of GGRP’s board, who still acts as an advocate for the residents here. Photo by Julie Chadwick/The Discourse

During construction of the new building, temporary-use trailers for communal activities were placed on the property for tenants of 11 and 15 Buttertubs Dr. to use. After two years of closure due to COVID-19, the trailers reopened on June 1. But their future is uncertain, and though the common space in the new building will host some activities, access for residents across the road is limited, which some say makes them feel like second-class citizens.

“They’ve got a whole bunch of new buildings… but we don’t get anything. They promise us stuff and they never do it,” says Roberta Campbell, a former NAHS housekeeper who has lived in the complex for two years. “I just figure they think we’re lowlifes.”

‘The heart of their community’

Before it was demolished to make way for the new housing complex, the hall was once a hub of activity that hosted about four to five scheduled events a week, all organized and managed by a full-time activity director. Birthday parties, art and exercise classes, Christmas dinners, pancake breakfasts, murder mystery theatre, carpet bowling, Wii games and bingo tournaments were among the activities available to residents. 

The open-door policy meant residents also just hung out there to socialize, use the free wi-fi, drink coffee or play a game of pool or crib. There were weekly donated deliveries of free bread and pastries, and family members were encouraged to join residents for meals. Summer weekends were often filled with barbecues, wildlife walks and garage sales.

“That was the heart of their community, was that hall. There was always something happening there,” says Betty Barthel, who served as the president of GGRP’s board for nine years. “We made enough money on those units, at low income, to support all those programs and everything. And there was enough money left over that we saved. ”

Residents of the low-income Buttertubs complex gather for one of many meals in the hall before it was torn down.
“The manager was always there Monday to Friday, the activity director was there, the hall was always decorated, there was a puzzle table always on, coffee pot was always on, and it was a community,” says Betty Barthel, who served as the president of GGRP’s board for nine years. Photo submitted by John Berlinghof

Funding for these and other services was also sourced via the Seniors’ Supportive Housing program (SSH), an initiative delivered through BC Housing that helps low-income people who might need some supports to live independently. In addition to social activities, the program also provides meals, light housekeeping, linen and towel services and an optional Lifeline emergency response system.

In 2008, the GGRP board saw an opportunity to offer the residents much more than just a roof over their heads, and signed an agreement with BC Housing to join the program. The province then kicked in $3.8 million to provide extensive upgrades to the complex, including a commercial kitchen for the hall and new showers, bathroom grab bars and safety features like sprinkler systems and improved lighting for the units, among other things.

“When we had it, it was the successful SSH program in B.C. at the time,” says Barthel. 

A former NAHS employee that I contacted confirms this, saying that GGRP’s legacy of how it had executed the program at Buttertubs was viewed by BC Housing as “a shining example of how SSH could work.” This ex-employee, who did not want to be named for legal reasons, also says they were invited to speak to other organizations at the time, to explain how the program functioned at the complex and why it was such a success. (BC Housing was unable to confirm this because the staff member who dealt with GGRP has left.)

Though GGRP only received funding for 45 participants, Barthel says at times staff allowed more people to use the services if they needed to, and just made it work.

A photo of the low-income Buttertubs complex in 2011 shows the community hall that was torn down to make way for the new complex at 10 Buttertubs Drive.
A photo of the low-income Buttertubs complex in 2011 shows the community hall that was torn down to make way for the new complex at 10 Buttertubs Drive. Photo submitted by John Berlinghof

When GGRP passed the property on to NAHS in 2014, the SSH program went with it, and the contract with BC Housing was renewed for another ten years. 

Despite its apparent success, on April 13, 2022, tenants at Buttertubs were informed via letter that the SSH program would be coming to a close. No new tenants would be permitted to join, and those currently on the program had the choice to opt-out at any time.

Once the program’s contract expires at the beginning of 2024, a meals-only service will be offered as an option to those residents still on the program — but at an adjusted cost, stated the letter, which was signed by representatives of NAHS and BC Housing.

An image of the letter from Nanaimo Affordable Housing Society sent to tenants at Buttertubs on April 13, 2022. The letter informs them that the Seniors Supportive Housing program they were part of would be coming to a close Jan. 31, 2024.
On April 13, 2022, tenants at Buttertubs were informed via letter that the Seniors Supportive Housing program they are part of would be coming to a close. Letter courtesy of tenants

“[The SSH program] was a 10-year contract with a static budget,” that was coming to its natural conclusion, says Andrea Blakeman, who has served as the chief executive officer of NAHS since 2019. “They’re not forever contracts … So as we understand from BC Housing, those are coming to various ends all over the province.”

Blakeman adds that NAHS was “never given an option” to renew the program “in whole as originally designed… We never even had that discussion.”When asked to clarify, Blakeman says the only part of the program BC Housing offered to renew was the meals portion, which NAHS agreed to, and only for those residents already on it who want to stay on. 

A spokesperson from BC Housing stated it was NAHS that chose to “wind-down the SSH program at its expiry” and clarified that “BC Housing is open to continuing SSH services at this site. However, ultimately it is the decision of the owner and operator of the property as to how they wish to proceed.”

As one of the key figures who brought in the SSH program and worked to make it a success, Barthel is incensed that the SSH services are being phased out, as she says low-income tenants are the ones who need it the most.

NAHS CEO Andrea Blakeman stands with MLA Sheila Malcomson for a photoshoot at 10 Buttertubs Drive during its construction.
NAHS CEO Andrea Blakeman stands with MLA Sheila Malcomson for a photoshoot at 10 Buttertubs Drive during its construction. Photo via Sheila Malcolmson/Facebook

Why did the complex change hands?

While tenants remember GGRP’s management of the building complex fondly, by 2013, their board of directors realized it had come to a kind of crossroads. Despite government-funded renovations to the complex just a few years prior, directors knew at some point the buildings would need to be more extensively re-developed, and felt this was beyond their level of expertise. 

After Barthel saw an article in the paper about NAHS and its aim to increase affordable seniors housing in the city, the board decided to approach NAHS to discuss ways the two societies might work together. Since the non-profit was founded in 1990, NAHS has played an increasingly large role in providing housing in Nanaimo. It now serves approximately 1,000 tenants, about 70 per cent of whom are seniors.

By 2014, the GGRP’s board had voted to dissolve and NAHS assumed the operation and ownership of the complex, the hall and the surrounding eight acres. It also received all the society’s assets, which included paid-off mortgages on all the buildings, a $24,000 Bobcat the board had fundraised to buy, and an excess revenue of about $109,000, according to GGRP’s 2013 financial documents.

“We were told we could work in partnership to develop Buttertubs, but it became clear at the [next] Nanaimo Affordable Housing AGM that there would be no partnership,” said Barthel, in her speech at the protest.

Together with then-NAHS executive director Jim Spinelli, Barthel oversaw all aspects of the property transition. Their nominating committee did not approach any of GGRP’s board members about joining the NAHS board of directors and for the first time, at that 2015 AGM, no nominations were taken from the floor, she adds.

“The wording changed several times — it changed from a ‘merger’ to an ‘amalgamation,’ then to ‘acquisition’ and lastly to a ‘donation,’ which it was not meant to be,” she says. “The ink wasn’t even dry on the transfer documents and NAHS proceeded with their own agenda.”

I asked for annual general meeting minutes and audited financial statements from this transition period multiple times. Blakeman said due to privacy concerns, the board will not release the AGM minutes and that the financial statements can be obtained from the Canada Revenue Agency. However, the financial records available online for NAHS only date back to 2017 and are not itemized by building. 

former GGRP board president Betty Barthel holds up signs at the seniors protest that reads "no coffee, no activities, not heard."
“The new building is not affordable to many of the residents even though the property was supposed to be forever available for low-income seniors and those with disabilities,” former GGRP board president Betty Barthel wrote in a letter to B.C. Housing on March 28. “This was not supposed to happen. If our board of directors had any idea that NAHS was going to do this to the complex, we would never have signed it over to them.” Photo by Julie Chadwick/The Discourse

After the hall was torn down, the temporary use trailers were installed with a kitchen and residents of 11 and 15 gathered there to get meals and socialize. However, when COVID-19 restrictions came into force, that space was shut down, the residents became frustrated with their isolation.

“We got shoved into trailers and they took away all our activities, they took away our exercise,” says Nickie Wilson, who is 65 years old and moved into the complex in 2015. “We had to wait for two or three months and then they finally opened [the trailer] up, and we had to wait and wait and nothing resumed. They said everything was going to resume. They said, ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to get a new pool table, new shuffleboard, new crafts. They gave away everything.”

Many residents continue to ask where items like their pool table, shuffleboard, bingo machine, stereo, books and games ended up, though no one seems to know. As of June 3, the trailers are empty save for some tables and chairs, and the kitchen is boarded up.

In February, residents from the older building received notice from NAHS and BC Housing that the new tenants would be moving into 10 Buttertubs by early spring, and as of March 1, they could start getting their meals at the new dining hall.

However, they would need to pick up the meals from across the street and “take them home immediately.” Meal substitutions and dietary restrictions would no longer be accommodated.

“We understand that change can be disruptive,” the letter signed off. “As tenants you are our priority, and we are here to support you.”

Though it may seem minor to some, no meal substitutions pose an issue for some residents who are on the SSH program — which clearly states that food menus must recognize the need for special diets — like that of Cori Lofstrom, 64, who has only one kidney.

“I’ve had to go off the food [program] because they’re killing me,” she says. “Right now my functioning kidney is 50 per cent. I don’t want it to go lower. There’s nothing but red meat, sauces, gravies, all that stuff. I got gout and now I’m on medication every day because of this gout, and that’s hard on my kidney.”

A sample menu sent to us shows the weekly menu plan has options other than red meat.

In response to concerns about menu substitutions, NAHS CEO Andrea Blakeman said anyone that doesn’t wish to be on the meal program can opt-out. “We’re not dieticians,” she adds, and for certain dietary restrictions, “there’s no way for us to accommodate [them] safely.”

Seniors stand at 10 Buttertubs Drive holding signs like "Don't Bully Seniors".
Residents Dave Ball (left), Roberta Campbell and former board member Joanne Berlinghof gather where their old community hall used to be. Photo by Julie Chadwick/The Discourse

After COVID-19 restrictions lifted, communal spaces at Buttertubs took longer to reopen than many other public spaces, which added to residents’ frustration. But tenants say it’s also part of a larger picture in which they feel like an afterthought.  

“We’re a private organization, and we chose not to [reopen] because we’ve got so many tenants that will not wear a mask, and we have another wave [of COVID-19 infections] going through tenants and staff again,” Blakeman told me on in an interview on May 25. “Most of our tenants are very vulnerable. And that’s our number one priority, is the health and safety of tenants and staff.”

Though all common spaces that could reopen did so on June 1, tenants from the old buildings still won’t eat their meals in the new building’s dining hall because of capacity limits, says Blakeman, though she adds they will be able to do activities.

“We have occupancy of 160 people in the common space in this building, and it’s posted as you come into the space. We will be having far more people living in the building than that. So we’re simply far beyond capacity,” she says. (The new building alone has 159 units.) 

NAHS recently partnered with the BC Seniors and Pensioners Organization to offer activities in the new building starting June 1, she adds, and “all the folks from 11 and 15 will be invited to participate, should they wish to.”

The capacity explanation doesn’t sit right with Lynda Gamble, who worked for both GGRP and NAHS as the activities director at Buttertubs for approximately 10 years, and who also attended the protest.

As changes began to take place post-transition, Gamble says residents were continually promised by representatives of NAHS that when the new complex’s dining hall and common area was complete, it would be theirs to use.

“It was always meant to be used by the people across the street, because that’s the same place where their original hall was, and their original dining room. And now, they don’t even let them in. They pick up their dinner at the door and have to go home,” says Gamble, who adds that ideally the space should have been built to accommodate residents from both complexes. “If they didn’t make the dining hall big enough and all the people in the new building are coming down, then according to the promise, they’re the ones who should be turned away. Not the people across the street.” [end]

Next week, The Discourse will go deeper into what other seniors say happened when NAHS took over their complex, and what the housing provider has to say in response. Sign up to be the first to read the next story, and tell your friends.

Editor’s Note June 10, 2022: This story was updated to clarify that varied menu options are available.

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