Serving Greater Vancouver & the Fraser Valley

Aspen Green grand opening

by Zoë Ducklow

 

The day of the ribbon cutting was overcast and chilly. People were holding cups of coffee, milling about the entryway. Architects, donors and residents were here to celebrate something remarkable.

In a town where rents and home prices have immobilized retiring homeowners and pushed out fixed income renters, Aspen Green Living offers an alternative: lifetime leases where you get your money back when you leave. 

“When I saw that sign, ‘From $299,000’, in Vancouver, I thought you missed a zero,” said Jenny Kwan, MP for Vancouver East, to the crowd. That low number is possible because of the investment a small group of people made in 1947. 

“It was an embryonic group,” says Beulah Board President Bud Phillips of the early founders. Seventy-one years ago a group of Christians were concerned about housing prices for seniors. So they held a Mother’s Day carnation sale, raised $500 and bought a whole city block. “They had vision, but they didn’t know what to do with it yet.”

That was the start of Beulah Garden Homes Society’s campus of care in East Vancouver. Now they have five seniors’ residences with a mixture of independent and assisted living. All of them are below market pricing, but Aspen Green is the first to offer a life lease. The threshold to be defined as below-market housing is to be 20 per cent below; Aspen Green is 35 per cent below.

Life leases are relatively rare in Canada. Here’s how it works at Aspen Green: Residents pay 29 years-worth of a lease in a lump sum. But when they pass away or move out, Beulah “buys” their suite back from them, minus a slight refurbishing fee. It’s kind of like a long term savings account: the investment doesn’t grow, but it’s guaranteed safe. And more importantly, residents don’t pay rent, just a management fee similar to a strata fee. If they want to stay longer than 29 years, they can.

No one really makes a profit in the life lease model, which is probably why it’s so rare and why it takes such a remarkable organization to do it. With no profit expected, and because residents get their lump sum returned to them, this kind of business plan doesn’t qualify for loans. Because Beulah already had four other seniors’ residences right across the street, they was able to subsidize the life lease building as part of their whole campus of care. Residents also benefit from being surrounded by a supportive community right away. 

“There is lots of other non-market housing, but they don’t offer the support we can,” Phillips says. 

The City of Vancouver, while not a financial partner, and while they still put Aspen Green through all the regular development hoops, is thrilled with the outcome.

“Thank you for being the kind of partnership we can say ‘yes’ to,” Councillor Heather Deal said to the crowd of celebrators. “When we introduced Vancouver’s housing policy, we knew we’d need great partners like you. The quality, community and care in this project made it easy to raise our hands and say ‘yes’ to.”

Aspen Green is the result of a deliberate effort to make affordable, safe, connecting housing for seniors. It’s also a direct outcome of faith. 

“We believe in compassion because Jesus taught us compassion,” said the new Aspen Green CEO, Jamey McDonald. “We owe a great deal of our identity to our background as Baptists. There are many expressions of faith, and for us it’s a rich and important part of who we are.” 

Beulah Garden Homes Society is a not-for-profit organization, affiliated with the Canadian Baptists of Western Canada. The other residences are The Cedars, Beechwood, Charles Bentall, and Rupert Residences. Aspen Green has four floors, a rooftop garden with beautiful views and 54 suites located at 4th Avenue and Rupert St. in East Vancouver.

“We’re not done yet,” McDonald told those assembled, reverberating the future-focused mindset of the Beulah founders, 71 years ago.

Zoë Ducklow is a freelance writer in Vancouver

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