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The History of Sunset Homes Society

Excerpt from Powell River Living, March 2009

The Sunset Homes Society: Housing for seniors

By John Smail

Fifty years ago a parcel of four building lots on Westview Avenue at Kamloops and Kemano (then Bezo) Streets was given to the community by the late Olive and Alphonse Devaud to build housing for needy seniors.

Since that time, seniors' non-profit accommodations have continued to grow there, and all of it, from conception, negotiations, to finding the cash, providing governance, right down to the changing of light bulbs, has been done by local volunteers.

The first sod for the first seniors home built in Powell River, the 12-unit Centennial Homes, which fronts on Westview at Kemano, was turned by Mrs. Devaud and Reeve Ray Weaver, June 15, 1957. Units rented for $30 a month. It was a BC Centennial (1958) project and the down payment came from a donation of $6,000 from the municipality, doubled by the provincial government, which left a $3,000 shortfall to meet the 10% down payment needed for the mortgage. The shortfall was raised by public subscription: a donation from Moose Lodge, bingo games, the Legion, and a membership drive at the Powell River Exhibition.

Centennial Homes opened September l958, and was fully occupied by November 1 that year.

Ten years later, the finishing touches were being added to a new 40-bedroom seniors home, The Olive Devaud Residence, directly behind the Centennial Homes. Total cost, excluding furnishings, was $260,000. This was raised through a municipal grant of $25,000, a provincial grant of $85,500 and $20,200 from the Senior Citizens Society. Rent for each bedroom was $100 a month and the new Powell River Sunset Homes Society governed the building. Neither project would have been possible without the full support of the community and community fundraising efforts, as more funds were needed for furnishing and kitchen and laundry equipment. A favourable long-term, low interest mortgage, made the home self-supporting.

In 1967 there were an estimated 1,000 senior citizens in Powell River. (2006 Census shows 3,605 age 65 and over, with 85% of them living alone.)

At the time, Miss Amanda Gerhardt of the local seniors citizens society said, "So many of our senior citizens want to continue to have their own separate units which they can look after as they did their former homes."

Another decade later the headline in the Powell River Town Crier read: Olive Devaud Home expansion may top $1 million. Society chairman Terry Herrewig thought the cost might grow to $2 million. In the end the home would grow by almost two-thirds. In the first phase, once the provincial government approved the architect's plans, accommodation would be expanded by 47 beds.

Financing was the domain of the government and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Repayment would be made from the operating budget, and then subsidized by about $10 per day per bed.

Health ministry assistance residence manager Jacquie Campbell was quoted as saying: "Considering the state of confusion of other similar projects in the province, we should be ahead of the game." Other organizations proposing intermediate care facilities had experienced turmoil when dealing with government subsidies, she added. "We're looking forward to this with confidence, not trepidation."

Treasurer Dick Bull added, "None of us knew the first thing about operating a home. And we are now regarded by provincial authorities as being one of the best operated homes in the province." The expanded residence was opened Friday June 19, 1981.

There were 77 people in residence, just three under maximum occupancy. Residents had use of a solar greenhouse built by Arthur Van Der Est, a gardening project, exercise, swimming, lunches and tours in the Rotary wheelchair van.

Provincial Government replaces hospital boards

Just over 10 years ago as the result of the NDP provincial government's new legislation, the PR Hospital Board ceased to exist, and the PR Sunset Homes Society lost its governance status over the Olive Devaud Residence. The duties of both were taken over by a government-appointed Community Health Council (CHC). This happened just as The MacGregor Memorial Housing Society, an independent society within Branch 164 Royal Canadian Legion, had voted to team up with the Sunset Homes Society to fill their similar mandates of providing non-profit housing for seniors. Despite the government's new legislation, Sunset Homes maintained that it still owned the residence, and the land left to the community by the late Olive and Alphonse Devaud. But in practical terms the legislation had left the Society property rich and cash poor. An examination of accounts showed there was about $3,000 in the bank, and a small mortgage on Centennial Homes, now its sole responsibility.

The reverse was true of the MacGregor Society, which had saved $164,000 over the years from bingo games, an annual boat raffle, and the sale of three rented trailers, but owned no land beyond that on which stood its clubhouse.

Through its newly appointed CHC, the provincial government became the virtual owner of all provincial hospitals and continuing care homes and the lands on which they stood. The official line was that the change was necessary in the name of efficiency. Other agendas were mooted by the press and public. The fact is, the move had increased the government's property holdings, and its ability to borrow money.

A few boards across the province saw that, and the deeper danger of the government's change, and different political agendas take precedence. So they fought back. One board on Vancouver Island took its case to court. The government lawyer argued that having paid mortgages for the upkeep and improvement of the hospital, the government therefore owned a stake in it. The judge was reported to have asked the lawyer if she had driven to court in her own car, and if the government had paid her a mileage allowance for wear, tear and fuel. When the lawyer said "Yes!" The judge rejoined with, "And do you think the government now owns part of your car?"

The atmosphere of friendly cooperation between the provincial health authority and PR Sunset Homes had changed. When the Society opposed the province's claim of ownership it was threatened by the new Vancouver Coastal Health board that if it re-possessed the OD Residence, those patients who opted to remain would be denied the financial assistance and supplements they enjoyed. While that same tax-financed aid would travel with clients who agreed to move to one or other of the Ministry's choice of locations, such as the Glacier Apartments. The Society would also inherit the balance ($1.6 million) of the mortgage the government acquired for the Olive Devaud expansion.

Land ownership negotiations were held and the Sunset Homes Society prevailed. Sunset Homes Society lawyer, Milda Karen Byng prepared a contract of the negotiated agreement which leaves ownership of the OD Residence and the four-lot parcel of land in the hands of the PR Sunset Homes Society. We later learned that had ownership remained with the new provincial Liberal government through its CHC, the Olive Devaud Residence could have been sold and become Powell River's first private hospital.

In the background was a legion of local supporters of the PR Sunset Homes and its fight for the Devaud property ownership, and their names go unsung.

With land ownership decided the MacGregor Society voted to transfer its assets to the Sunset Homes Society.

After the contract had been signed, the late David Gillespie, a Legion member on the Sunset Homes board, did most of the financial negotiations with the Community Health Council. As a result the Sunset Homes was able to add another $80,000 to the $164,000 contribution by the MacGregor Society.

Some time later, the Sunset Society's new chairperson, Myrna Leishman, working with treasurer Donald Swaitlowski, acquired another $100,000 in the form of a charitable donation from the Real Estate Board of British Columbia.

With our down payment plus cash in hand, The Sunset Homes board called for local builders to tender plans and costs. Two were received. The board chose a design by John Spick, who would work with builder Jim Agius as contractors. Spick produced plans for the first two buildings to be named MacGregor Lodge, and was additionally contracted to build a scale model that is now in Jim Agius Construction offices. Phase 1 has six one-bedroom units, and four two-bedroom units. Phase 2 has seven one-bedroom units and four two-bedroom units.

The Sunset Homes Society is now paying for a feasibility study to build on the last vacant lot, on the sloping section of treed land directly behind the Olive Devaud Residence.

When the Olive Devaud Residence is returned to the Sunset Homes Society, it will probably revert to its original purpose of providing a residence for needy seniors.

"Through [the]CHCs, the provincial government became the virtual owner of all provincial hospitals and continuing care homes and the lands on which they stood."

PPS. Vancouver Coastal Health authority returned the land and building in 2015 with the opening of the Willingdon Creek Village residence. Powell River Sunset Homes Society sold the property in October 2016.

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