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This Old House - Do-it-Yourself

B.C. Legion behind "Build it For Ourselves" Housing

Written by Posted On Tuesday, 08 June 1999 00:00

The Royal Canadian Legion is a leader in the battle for affordable retirement housing. In British Columbia - a retirement Mecca for Canadians - the Maple Ridge Branch 88 of the Royal Canadian Legion has become a successful housing developer.

In Canada, nonprofit organizations have historically received their funding from provincial and federal governments. The waves of cutbacks that rolled through the nineties put an end to most government funding. Now nonprofit groups like the Legion are taking development into their own hands. They are creating self-financing housing that measures profit in ways beyond financial to provide high-quality, comfortable residential units.

"We had some vacant land and we looked at the possibilities of developing the land to optimize its use. The first idea was to do rental but with construction costs, and even with owning the land, the rents would not be affordable," said Terry Alleyn, full-time Secretary Manager for the Maple Ridge Branch, located about 35 kilometers outside Vancouver.

The Branch members successfully built 120 rental units about 20 years ago when construction costs and development fees were lower. For this project, Alleyn recommended the life lease concept instead of rental. The Legion could then build below-market-value suites and sell the units for prices that fully repaid the costs of construction and left the building mortgage-free. Alleyn also arranged for the Legion to act as general contractor, using the expertise of its member volunteers to keep costs and, therefore prices, down.

The response from prospective residents was overwhelming. "We had over 400 people attend on three consecutive Sundays," he said. "We sold out and had over 100 on the waiting list. We had to go ahead as there was so much response."

Life lease is a very flexible housing concept. Every life lease arrangement is customized to the specific needs of a sponsoring group and its target residents. The laws of each province and territory lead to different interpretations of the concept.

The Branch 88 Life Lease arrangement allows residents to buy the right to occupy an apartment as long as they are able to look after themselves or until they die. When residents move or die, they or their estate, get the up-front fee back without interest or appreciation since they initially saved money by buying below market value. Even if property values are down at the time of sale, the initial investment is still returned in full. For the Maple Ridge project finished late in 1998, the initial buy-in fee was between $75,000 and $120,000 depending on the suite. Alleyn estimates that a comparable condominium unit would cost at least $15,000 to $20,000 more. Monthly maintenance fees which include operating costs, cable television and heating run between $95 and $130 per month and cover the ongoing costs of maintaining the facility.

The Branch buildings are administered by a housing committee of Legion member volunteers.

"Who can buy? Anyone 55 or over as the building is zoned for seniors," says Alleyn, whose construction spending came within $10,000 of the $9 million budget.

"Every last penny of the $9 million to build came from the members," said Alleyn explaining that raising the money took about six weeks with over 300 members investing from $500 to $300,000. "We paid them 5% for a one year investment. The people who lent money put an extreme amount of trust in us and looked at our past record. Our branch has been here for 72 years."

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