Why is this Nanaimo housing provider rolling back services for low-income seniors?

Tenants say that services have deteriorated since Nanaimo Affordable Housing Society took over. Julie Chadwick investigates for Part 2 in our series It Takes a Village.

This is Part 2 in our series It Takes a Village. Read Part 1. Sign up to be the first to read the next story.

Editor’s Note: Julie Chadwick has a family member living in the complex. Read about why we decided she’s the best person to report this series.

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On the afternoon of May 17, Dave Ball, 88, took out his walker and a pink homemade sign reading “Don’t Bully Seniors,” and made his way up the road to where other residents in his complex had gathered. Together, they walked to the corner of Buttertubs Drive and Bowen Road to wave at cars and draw attention to their cause.

They’re protesting what they’ve called a decline in quality of life since Nanaimo Affordable Housing Society (NAHS) took over management of their low-income seniors housing complex in 2014.

Residents claim changes in how the complex is managed have led to maintenance issues, disruptions and cuts to resident support services, a removal of staff positions like the on-site manager and activities director and confusion about rent and bills. Former employees I spoke with characterize these changes as a shift from a focus centred on tenants and their well-being to a more corporate, bottom-line approach.

For decades, the complex was run by the General George R Pearkes Senior Citizens’ Housing Society (GGRP), a small community-run organization started by the Branch 10 Legion. The transition to the larger housing society was welcomed, viewed as an overall improvement by many residents at the time. But in the years since, protesters say they’ve given up a lot and received very little in return.

This was the second protest organized by the tenants of the 82-unit low-income seniors complex at 11 and 15 Buttertubs Dr. in as many months. On April 8, they gathered on the site of their old community hall to wave signs and make speeches. Once described as “the heart of the community,” their hall was torn down in 2019 and a new 159-unit six-story building aimed at housing middle-income seniors now stands in its place.

Related: Nanaimo seniors protest the loss of ‘their community’.

Ball has lived in the older patio-style complex across the street for more than 20 years. A veteran, he was barely 18 years old when he was sent abroad to fight in the Korean War. He’s one of the complex’s original residents and moved in when the Branch 10 Legion sponsored its construction in the early 1970s. 

I chatted briefly with Ball back in April, but I sought him out again at the second protest to learn more about why he’s here. 

Veteran Dave Ball takes a rest on his walker before heading to the protest across the street from where he lives on Buttertubs Drive.
Veteran Dave Ball takes a rest on his walker before heading to the protest across the street from where he lives on Buttertubs Drive. Photo by Julie Chadwick/The Discourse

“It was good before. We had a pool table, we had a place where we could play bingo. We used to get free food from the bakery. And they shut it all down because they want the seniors to get out … They want us out so that they can bring another senior in and they can charge them another $300 a month,” he says. “We’re like cattle that they process.”

Longer-term residents I spoke to in the older low-income buildings pay between $400 and $600 in rent per month and these fees “have not increased,” says a spokesperson at BC Housing, the provincial agency that helps fund these units. 

However, newer residents in the same buildings I interviewed say they pay $835 per month with services included, and BC Housing confirms rates for new residents in those buildings are set between $750 and $830. This is still “well below market rates in the community,” the agency states, and the fees are subject to incremental annual rent increases as set by the Residential Tenancy Branch.

Meanwhile, rental rates at the brand new seniors complex across the street at 10 Buttertubs Dr., also run by NAHS, average about $940 per month for a one-bedroom unit.

Though he has not had any issues with his rent, Ball says another reason he joined the protest was because of his experience getting his 12-year-old hot water tank replaced.

“The water was coming out all red and the tank was ready to blow. And they weren’t going to fix it. But I’d had one before that had broke, and it just makes a heck of a mess, you know,” he says. “I had asked them several times about the water heater and said it’s ready to leak — it was starting to, a little bit. And they said, ‘It’s okay, it’s going to last.’” 

“They’re doing minimum maintenance, very minimum.” 

After seeking the help of an advocate, Ball says NAHS “backed down” and installed a new water heater.

Incidents like this should never happen, says former GGRP board member John Berlinghof, who I also met at the protest in April. He used to volunteer at the complex on a daily basis to help with maintenance.

“We used to have a program of hot water tank replacement every seven years. So if a tank became seven years old, it would be replaced. And that all stopped [after NAHS took over],” says Berlinghof. “We had a lot of really good programs for maintenance in place. We always had five hot water tanks in stock, we always made sure we had everything we needed. It was all about taking care of the tenants, and doing everything we could for the tenants.”

Maintenance is also an issue for Cori Lofstrom, 64, a grandmother of nine who moved into the complex in 2020. By that time, temporary trailers were installed to replace the community hall that was demolished. While walking to get her dinner last winter, Lofstrom fell on the ice that had built up on the walkways.

“I fell once and then I almost fell again,” she says, adding she made a complaint but was told staff couldn’t find any maintenance workers to clear the paths. Lofstrom says the concerns and needs of tenants are not being taken seriously, a sentiment that has been echoed by other seniors in the complex. 

The paved walkway near the Buttertubs Drive seniors complex is shown raised by tree roots, marked in yellow paint.
The paved walkway near the Buttertubs Drive seniors complex is shown raised by tree roots, marked in yellow paint. Photo by Julie Chadwick

“We’re really, really on top of snow removal,” says NAHS CEO Andrea Blakeman, who says she remembers one tenant telling her about falling in snow. “We’ve got a lot of staff dealing with snow and ice. Are there tripping hazards around? Sure. Anytime you have a property like that, of course. There’s tree roots. That’s not a building that has smooth floors, that’s a natural site.”

A notice that the back paths had buckled and to avoid them or use caution was issued to tenants on Dec. 3, 2020, with a repair timeline slated for that spring. At the time of publication, it had not been fixed.

Snow removal typically cost the GGRP between three and five thousand dollars a year, says Berlinghof, so the board saved up to buy a piece of Bobcat equipment designed for plowing sidewalks and driveways. It took GGRP about five years to complete the payments, which took place just before the organization handed the property over to NAHS, according to GGRP’s 2013 financial records.

However, Berlinghof says he isn’t sure what happened to the virtually-new Bobcat after the handoff.

“Nobody was able to drive it, [so] our previous CEO sold it,” says Blakeman, who took over as NAHS’s CEO in 2019. “The Bobcat was long before my time, I only heard about it through the grapevine. What truth there is to that, I don’t know.”

Out of curiosity, I called Berlinghof after speaking to him at the protest and asked who drove the Bobcat after they purchased it.

“It was either myself or a fellow named Chris [Cunning], who was a fireman,” said Berlinghof, adding Cunning was both a volunteer and was paid to do yard maintenance two or three times a week. “Super nice guy.”

Was this particular Bobcat difficult to drive? I asked.

“No, not difficult at all … Bobcats are very simple to operate,” he said with a chuckle. “Anybody sits in it for 30 seconds, they can run it.”

When it comes to maintenance issues with appliances like Ball’s hot water tank, Blakeman acknowledges there have been some delays.

“As far as the last couple of years, things most definitely have taken longer, because we simply cannot get parts. Or fridges. Supply chain issues have been everywhere, which tenants don’t know or really care, they just want it fixed … So there are certainly things that have changed in the last couple of years, most definitely, from that perspective.”

Blakeman says there used to be an on-site maintenance employee who solely serviced the low-income complex and its residents. As a result, he often repaired things for the seniors that weren’t necessarily NAHS’s responsibility to fix.  

“That has changed,” she says. “Things … that do not belong to NAHS, that are not NAHS property, we no longer fix, because we can’t. We simply don’t have the capacity to fix your table leg or fix your lamp.”

Despite this, she says the overall maintenance of the buildings themselves has been much better because NAHS now has a designated building maintenance team.

Residents outside the old Buttertubs seniors community hall hug.
Two residents embrace outside the old Buttertubs community hall in 2011. Photo courtesy of John Berlinghof

The Buttertubs spirit

Prior to the transition from GGRP to NAHS ownership, the complex functioned “almost like a big family,” says Lynda Gamble, who worked for both organizations as the activities director at Buttertubs for approximately 10 years. 

“A lot of [residents] looked out for each other, and the staff looked out for them,” she says, echoing a sentiment I heard from many other longtime residents. “It went from having someone in the office five days a week to … I don’t even know if they’re there half a day a week anymore.” 

The posted hours at the on-site office for 11 and 15 Buttertubs are Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to noon.

None of the 15 NAHS-owned complexes have on-site managers, Blakeman stated, via text. “It’s all independent living, just like any other apartment building.” 

However, this is exactly what former staff and board members have repeatedly sought to highlight in my interviews: The Buttertubs complex and its residents were never meant to be just like any other apartment building — that’s what set it apart. 

Since 2008, this low-income seniors complex has been part of BC Housing’s Seniors’ Supportive Housing (SSH) program, which is designed to help seniors and people with disabilities live independently and stay in their home communities by providing extra supports like light housekeeping, activities and meals.

Despite these clear contractual responsibilities to provide services at this complex, Blakeman characterizes NAHS as “an independent housing provider,” adding that “we really don’t provide services, per se.”

One of GGRP’s secrets to keeping costs down while providing a high level of care and safety for older residents was the regular presence of on-site staff and volunteers, says Berlinghof, who estimates volunteers made up about 70 per cent of their labour force. 

“Because of the age of the tenants, we used to do welfare checks. We had gardening staff, we had maintenance staff, and it was more of a community vibe. So everybody knew everybody, because they’d walk around and say good morning and everything,” he says, adding he personally helped with property maintenance like repairing gutters and fixing appliances.

“We always had volunteers come out and shovel snow — the paths from the sidewalk to the doorways. We would see upwards of 10 people there, snow shovelling,” he says. “It’s really sad that they broke that all down and took all that away.”

“Those kinds of volunteers are priceless. And now they don’t have any volunteers at all.”

Part time ground maintenance worker and volunteer Chris Cunning works on a damaged front patio walkway in 2011, holding a wheelbarrow and shovel.
Part-time ground maintenance worker and volunteer Chris Cunning works on a damaged front patio walkway in 2011. Photo submitted by John Berlinghof

When asked what place volunteers might have at Buttertubs today, NAHS CEO Andrea Blakeman concedes that they do have some volunteers, though not as many as before, which is partly because of liability issues. 

“For us to also manage, monitor … pay out honorariums … it’s a lot of extra work to manage volunteers on top of a larger staff,” she says. 

NAHS now operates about 15 complexes in Nanaimo, mostly serving seniors, and employs about 36 full-time staff members as well as part-time and casual staff, though Blakeman says these numbers vary due to staffing shortages.

Berlinghof says after the transition, he made it clear to NAHS staff he was happy to stay on as a volunteer.

“About two weeks after they took over, maybe a month, they just walked up and said, ‘Give us your keys, you won’t be needed here anymore,’” he says, and adds he handed them over without a fuss. “Once the paperwork was all signed, we didn’t have anything to say about it anymore.”

Seniors sit at tables drinking coffee and chatting in the community hall.
The Buttertubs Drive seniors community hall was a lively place before it was torn down to make way for a new seniors complex. Photo submitted by John Berlinghof

Volunteering and fundraising to support the residents at Buttertubs Drive is a tradition that goes back to the creation of the complex itself.

Money for the construction of the complex, initially named the Gen. George R Pearkes Garden Village, was raised in part through Branch 10 Legion fundraising, but the rest of the community played a huge part.

“Nanaimo Mayor Frank Ney, who is a member of Branch 10, made the land available for the project at a reduced price, and expressed his pleasure at seeing the homes built for the city’s seniors,” stated a 1974 article in the Nanaimo Daily Free Press, about the third phase of the project that added 40 more units.

“Public housing can be a very cold thing,” Sen. Nancy Heath told the Nanaimo Times at the opening ceremony for those units the following year, adding the Legion is “part of the community and [members] care about the people who are living here. That’s where this sort of money ought to be going.” 

Branch 10 Legion member and veteran George “Pop” Dorman carved the original sign for the complex, and all of the original stoves and refrigerators for the units were purchased by The Ladies Auxiliary to the Branch, with funds they raised themselves.

In 1988, a 15-passenger van was donated to the Village by the Legion so seniors could go shopping and out on trips.

“The Village residents always pull together in times of need,” said GGRP board president John Carmichael in a Daily Free Press article dated Aug. 24, 1988.

An image of a 1988 Daily Free Press article shows the entrance to The GGRP Garden Village.

Nurturing community engagement is crucial for our health, especially as we age. Loneliness and social isolation are associated with a reduced quality of life for older Canadians and can increase their risk of death on a level comparable to smoking, drinking and physical inactivity, states a 2020 Statistics Canada study. Inversely, research also shows that supportive social relationships can decrease that risk.

The isolation of seniors also negatively impacts the rest of society, states a report from the National Seniors Council. When older folks are isolated or excluded from the community, it breaks down social unity, depletes the volunteer sector and robs future generations of the abundant knowledge and skills older residents have to pass on. For these reasons, the City of Nanaimo recently included a commitment to intergenerational living in its draft official community plan.

“Seniors need more than brick and mortar,” says Deborah Hollins, who leads the Nanaimo Family Life Association, which helps local seniors find housing. “They need supportive programs that help them with issues around mental health and wellness, social isolation, those kinds of issues, that keep them engaged in community while they’re housed.”

Residents and guests build birdhouses in the old Buttertubs community hall in the years before it was torn down.
Residents and guests build birdhouses in the old Buttertubs community hall in the years before it was torn down. Photo submitted by John Berlinghof

Services not delivered

In addition to issues with maintenance, Lofstrom joins other residents I spoke to in her confusion around what services are supposed to be provided within the Seniors’ Supportive Housing (SSH) program currently included in their rent and why they’re not receiving them. 

Though the SSH program is different at each of the 16 sites in B.C., the services generally include a daily meal, weekly light housekeeping and laundering of towels and linens, an optional 24-hour emergency response system, and weekly social and recreational activities. 

In April, NAHS and BC Housing informed tenants in the older buildings that the program would be coming to a close and no new residents would be permitted to join. After 2024, only the meal portion of the program will be available to those already enrolled, and at an adjusted cost. 

For those on the program, NAHS does currently offer three meals per day, above the one meal that is contractually required. But it is also supposed to provide services such as housekeeping, which residents like Roberta Campbell — who moved in two years ago — say they’ve never received. Other tenants who require cleaning assistance, like Peggy Whyte, who has limited mobility, say they’ve just given up and started paying $30 a week out of pocket for private housekeeping services.

“Unfortunately housekeeping ended up winding down very quickly when COVID started … many tenants can’t keep their distance or refuse to or cannot wear a mask, so it was actually posing some significant risks and we shut that down for safety reasons,” says Blakeman, who adds NAHS also struggles with staffing shortages. “We do not have staff to be doing things like in-house unit cleanings and things like that.” 

With services dwindling and no new tenants allowed to join SSH, former GGRP board president Betty Barthel expressed concern in a May 11 letter to BC Housing that the closure of the program would mean low-income seniors  — many of whom “cannot afford to buy groceries and eat the proper meals” — would be left without options for affordable services.

Three older women stand at the corner of Buttertubs Drive holding protest signs that read "No coffee, no activities, not heard."
Buttertubs Drive residents Peggy Whyte, left, and Nickie Wilson are joined by former activities director Lynda Gamble at a Bowen Road protest on May 17. Photo by Julie Chadwick/The Discourse

Another service that has been contentious for residents is the lack of social activities. BC Housing has stated it does not currently give funding to NAHS for resident activities or for an on-site activity director, though the original SSH agreement NAHS renegotiated with BC Housing in 2014 says social and recreational opportunities “must be made available” to all tenants in the project.

Despite claims that activities stopped solely due to COVID, former activities director Lynda Gamble says that, under NAHS, activities were already dwindling prior to the pandemic. I surfaced complaints as far back as Dec. 9, 2019, when former GGRP vice president Roxy Noble emailed various NAHS staff members with a list of residents’ concerns, in which she stated, “the monthly calendar is void of any outings, shopping days and limited in tenant activities.”

Though NAHS does not plan to hire back a full-time activity director, it has now partnered with the BC Seniors and Pensioners Organization — which is completely separate from NAHS — to offer some activities in the new building at Buttertubs. Tenants from the complex across the street are welcome to join, says Blakeman. 

On June 1, Pensioners’ activity director Susan Jarvis hosted a tenants’ meeting in the new building to ask for input on what type of activities residents would like to participate in.

These activities will take place either in the activity space at 10 Buttertubs Dr., where the organization now has an office, or at its facility on 2465 Labieux Rd., about 10 minutes away by car. To take part, residents need to join the Pensioners for a yearly fee of $30, and most games and activities cost approximately $2 each. 

“It was a totally positive meeting, everyone should feel good about it,” says Vern O. Dirksen, who lives in the new complex. “She told [residents of 11 and 15 Buttertubs] it’s their place too, and not just the people who live here.” 

Bridging the divide

Unlike NAHS, most of the non-profits administering the 16 other SSH programs across the province have chosen to renew their contracts, says a spokesperson for B.C. Housing.

This aligns with the high demand for on-site services that Jill Atkey, CEO of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, has observed within other non-profits in B.C.

“We have heard from nonprofits who rent independent housing for seniors … being increasingly challenged as people age in place and prefer to stay at home, with needing some support, whether it’s assistance with meals or wellness checks,” says Atkey, whose association is actively searching for ways these independent housing providers can offer more supports for tenants. 

Locally, the Nanaimo Family Life Association has reached the same conclusion. “We can’t keep counting on, ‘If we just build enough [of] these apartment buildings,’ because that’s not going to fill the need for everybody,” says Hollins.

So if this is the case, then why would NAHS decide to wind down the SSH program at Buttertubs? After numerous interviews with Blakeman and emails and phone calls with BC Housing, it remains unclear exactly why. 

Former staff like Gamble wonder if it’s part of a broader ideological change in direction for the complex.

“At the time I left, I could really see that the organization was going in a direction that I really didn’t like. They were going away from compassion and caring for the seniors and were heading for a bottom line. You know, ‘how much money’ and ‘I don’t care if they get their services, I just want to get their rent,’” says Gamble. “I really felt that was wrong.”

To find out more about this change in priorities, I contacted a former employee who worked for many decades in human services and social housing, and whose relationship with NAHS was terminated without cause. For legal reasons, they asked me to not disclose their name.

One of the first red flags that suggested the Buttertubs complex was headed in a different direction post-GGRP involved staff conversations around how the SSH program in the old buildings would essentially be phased out and tenants in the new building would instead pay a “fee-for-service” — set at $500 a month for meals and $100 for a linen and towel laundry service.

Though possibly a deal for the middle-income tenants who live in the new building, this cost is likely unaffordable for seniors in the low-income units, where enrollment in the SSH program ensures rents and support services don’t exceed 50 per cent of their income.

“It was just a gut feeling that I was getting that some kind of shift was happening here, and that we were moving into a corporate model of housing provision, not a tenant-centred model,” the former employee says.

Another example that illustrated this shift in attitude toward tenants was the organization’s response to maintaining the weekly bingo games for tenants, according to the former employee.

After the community hall was demolished and temporary trailers were put in their place, the employee says they attempted to discuss the issue and were asked, “Well, do they really need to do bingo?” which was an attitude they found alarming.

“‘Why can’t the tenants operate the bingo on their own? Why do we need an activity worker there to do it?’” they said organization officials complained.

In the end, the former employee became frustrated with management-imposed limitations around what they could do for the tenants.

“I no longer felt like I was being successful in providing tenant services nor tenant support because every day I went to work I had to fight with management,” they say. “I was always kicking back in regards to changes that were being talked about that I didn’t believe were going to be beneficial to the tenants.”

This ex-employee also takes issue with the vaguely defined concept of “below market” rentals, which means the new complex at 10 Buttertubs can charge $1,665 a month for a one-bedroom plus den apartment and still be celebrated as “affordable” housing. 

The low-income Buttertubs seniors complexes, left, are positioned right across the street from the new complex at 10 Buttertubs Dr.
The low-income Buttertubs seniors complex, left, is positioned right across from the new complex at 10 Buttertubs Dr. Photo by Julie Chadwick/The Discourse

Though middle-income seniors living there could be eligible for Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters (S.A.F.E.R), a rent rebate for seniors administered by BC Housing, the program doesn’t subsidize rents at 30 per cent of a tenants income — a widely accepted measure for housing affordability, as the Office of the Seniors Advocate has pointed out.

These definitions matter to low-income seniors more than ever, the independent office of the B.C. provincial government says. Many women over the age of 65 have never worked outside the home, and as a result do not receive Canada Pension Plan, only Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement.

Both this former employee and Lynda Gamble agree that the division of services and the unaffordability of rentals for some tenants across the street might create an unfortunate “us and them” sentiment that needs addressing.

“It’s almost like they’ve created two classes of citizens there. The ones in the new building and the ‘riff-raff’ across the street,” says Gamble. “It’s very unfair. And it hurts them.” 

The day our first story about NAHS’ management of the Buttertubs complex was published, residents gathered in the temporary trailer for the first time in years to play cards and discuss the article, says former GGRP board member Roxy Noble, who continues to act as an advocate for the residents. 

When they reopened the space on June 1, there was no kitchen sink, coffee maker or cups, she says, so they have been slowly gathering resources and discussing how to push for items like their Wii machine, bingo machine, pool table and shuffleboard to be returned or replaced.

“They feel like they’ve been heard,” Noble says about reactions to The Discourse’s investigation. “That’s probably the worst thing that can happen to anybody — is to feel like they’re not being heard.”

A spokesperson for BC Housing stated the agency understands residents “have concerns about the future of this housing” and are committed to ensuring tenants are kept informed about plans for the site. “No seniors will lose their housing,” the spokesperson added, saying if any tenants have concerns or issues they are welcome to confidentially contact BC Housing at [email protected].

​​Seniors in Nanaimo who face housing challenges can also contact Nanaimo Family Life Association’s Seniors Housing Information and Navigation Ease Program (S.H.I.N.E.) program. Though the program does not provide housing, it can help local seniors find solutions. The housing navigator can be reached at ​​(250) 754-3331. [end]

This story is part of our ongoing series, It Takes a Village. Sign up to be the first to read the next story.

Editor’s Note June 27, 2022: This article has been updated to clarify in a second reference that the $1,665 a month rate in the new Buttertubs complex is for a one-bedroom apartment plus den.

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