The new 56-unit Catherine Gardens life lease project will offer seniors another housing option near the Schubert Centre and Vernon’s downtown area.

The new 56-unit Catherine Gardens life lease project will offer seniors another housing option near the Schubert Centre and Vernon’s downtown area.

Catherine Gardens project taking root

Catherine Gardens life lease project offers seniors a housing alternative.

Kate Mancer became an instant fan of life lease housing for seniors when she first learned about the model 15 years ago.

A seniors housing researcher, Mancer has since become a nationwide advocate for the practice, and she is thrilled to see another project – Catherine Gardens – gaining momentum in Vernon.

Mancer read a 1999 report on alternate tenure arrangements for the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Association (CMHC), which looked at options other than renting or owning a home. They included equity co-ops, shared ownership, leasehold, co-housing and, of course, life lease.

The CMHC report included 13 case studies of life lease projects across Canada, and Mancer visited each one to talk to the managers, sponsors, residents and the non-profit societies that ran them.

“That’s what gave me the life lease bug because I could see how well they worked and how happy the people were who lived in them,” said Mancer, a consultant with Vancouver-based Lumina Services.

“All of the research that’s been done on them shows that the degree of satisfaction is off the charts. People love living in them, partly because it’s people like them. In this case, it’s people who know the Schubert Centre and who like the idea of all the activities here.”

Mancer said the life lease approach has become increasingly prominent as shortfalls in government funding have resulted in a decrease in subsidized housing for all but the lowest income seniors.

The model requires would-be residents to provide an up-front payment. In the case of Catherine Gardens, which will include 56 units in a six-storey, 61,000 square-foot building behind the Schubert Centre, the buy-in will range from $170,000-350,000.

The unit sizes will range from about 650 square feet for a one-bedroom, up to 1,005 for a two-bedroom corner unit.

“The people moving in provide the money to build the building, and when they move out they get most of their money back,” said Mancer. “In a lot of life leases, they get back 95 per cent of what they paid, and over time those life leases become more and more affordable.

“It’s a way of creating really good quality seniors housing without government support, which is so important these days because there isn’t any government money anymore. It’s getting scarcer and scarcer every year.”

In addition to the lump sum, residents will also be required to pay a monthly management fee to cover building maintenance, utilities, insurance and other operational costs.

The Schubert Centre acquired a 0.74-acre land parcel adjacent to its property from the City of Vernon for the project, which is named after Catherine Schubert, the first European woman to enter B.C. overland from eastern Canada. The centre, whose eastern exterior wall features a mural depicting Schubert’s courageous voyage, will form a non-profit society to oversee operations for the condominium-style structure.

Catherine Gardens will be built by Port Moody’s Yellowridge Construction, the same firm that handled the new Vernon Secondary School. The building’s bottom two floors will be parking, with four levels of residential above.

In just three months of marketing, more than 25 per cent of the units have been sold, and another 10-15 per cent are on hold. Based on the current pace of sales, construction could begin as early as this spring, which would mean that Catherine Gardens could be complete by summer 2015.

Three of the 56 units are being held as rental units for low-income seniors.

Each unit comes with appliances, as well as an in-suite washer and dryer, all of which will be maintained by the society.

Jack Gareb, manager of the Schubert Centre, said Catherine Gardens is more than just another housing option for the seniors community. Not only will it a be a source of revenue for the centre (and the programs it offers for its 1,300 members), it will fit in nicely with existing seniors housing units in the area.

“The whole area is made up of seniors and we’re right downtown so were in walking distance to everything,” said Gareb, noting Catherine Gardens residents will also receive lifetime memberships to the centre.

“We’re non-profit, and we rely on some grants to help keep the building in good shape. We just tied the two together. They compliment each other.”

Depending on the Catherine Gardens society’s approach, Mancer said there are plenty of options when it comes to using revenues created by a life lease project.

Some, like the two owned by the Maple Ridge Legion, simply keep the up-front fees to a minimum to make it affordable for new residents. Others, like Surrey’s Elim Village, have reinvested surplus capital into other infrastructure so that the complex now includes an assisted living building, residential care facility and community centre.

Cottonwood Manor in Kamloops has used its extra money to buy units back and turn them into rental suites for low-income seniors.

“There’s all kinds of ways that life leases use the money they generate through the operations of the projects to meet the community needs,” said Manser.

There are many reasons why seniors would consider moving into a life lease, an obvious one being a need to downsize. Others are no longer physically able to maintain a house and property, or they are lonely and crave an increased sense of security and community.

“Many people want to stay exactly where they are, which is fine for some people, but others need to downsize,” said Manser. “Often we run into couples where one of them really wants to move and the other doesn’t.”

She added some seniors are reluctant to buy something that hasn’t been built yet. To address that, a presentation centre as been set up near the roundabout on 30th Avenue. It offers a glimpse of what the units will look like and includes examples of flooring and kitchen and bathroom trims that will be used in a typical unit.

Mancer noted upgrades to appliances or building materials, such as granite countertops, are also available.

“It’s all built to a really high quality because it’s the Schubert Centre that is the owner of the building and will be maintaining it throughout its lifespan. It’s in their interest to build a quality building right from the outset.”