Abbeyfield House is being gifted to The John Howard Society of North Island. Photo by Scott Strasser.

John Howard Society of North Island gifted Courtenay’s Abbeyfield House

Calling it “a completely perfect fit,” the John Howard Society of North Island (JHSNI) was gifted Courtenay’s Abbeyfield House, following a board decision earlier this month.

“It’s as if someone had read our needs assessment,” said JHSNI executive director Wendy Richardson. “I was quite shocked at the match.”

In July, the board of the 10-bedroom non-profit retirement home announced it was closing its doors as the facility was not compliant with the Residential Tenancy Act.

Located at Eighth Street and Pidcock Avenue in Courtenay since opening in 1997, the facility operated under an independent supportive living model, which meant tenants had their own suites with their own TVs, bathrooms and patios, and furnished with residents’ own belongings.

There was some personal care provided to tenants, with a kitchen, dining room and common seating area, but registered nurses were not available 24 hours a day.

The ‘home within a home’ concept was designed for seniors who were relatively fit, but no longer willing or able to live alone. It was not designated as low-cost housing.

When the board attempted to raise its $1,820/month rental rates last year, an ensuing arbitration over the increase highlighted further issues with the model.

Originating in London, England, the first Abbeyfield House in Canada opened in 1987 in Sidney, B.C. While the Church of St. John the Divine fundraised to construct the Abbeyfield House in Courtenay, each house is independent and operates through its own bylaws.

The non-denominational society has community members sitting on its board.

By the end of September, all tenants were able to find alternative housing, noted board member Joan Carson.

“The priority was the tenants,” she said, and it wasn’t until October that the board sat down to review the various proposals for the facility, which included the Dawn to Dawn Action on Homelessness Society, the Glacier View Lodge Society, Comox Valley Transition Society, the Comox Valley Hospice Society and the “Save Abbeyfield” group.

In late September, the local group tried to prevent Abbeyfield from shutting its doors. The five-person group circulated an online petition and organized a rally in early October on the lawn of the Courtenay Courthouse.

Carson explained the board had a responsibility to “carefully review every proposal openly and honestly.” The proposals had to meet certain criteria including financials, experience operating free-standing buildings, and the overall neighbourhood fit was also considered.

Board member Elizabeth Day said the entire board was completely committed to stay on and see the winding down of the society and the transition of the community asset.

“We knew it was going to be a difficult process. We did look at other options – what would a sale look like? But we decided that it should remain as a community benefit in that neighbourhood. We have a fiduciary responsibility to be a community benefit.”

Carson described the decision as “gut-wrenching,” and said this was not the first board to run up against similar problems. She added there were long-standing issues which culminated and closing the private facility “was not a rash decision.”

Day said the decision to gift the building – which comes with a $172,000 mortgage – to JHSNI is “a great fit for them and for us.”

Richardson said in 2012, the society did a needs assessment which identified a critical need for transitional housing for youth in the Valley.

She explained for five years the society has been searching for a building that includes communal spaces, privacy, a clean and healthy facility, and close to transportation and amenities.

“What a complete, perfect fit in this one facility,” she noted.

Currently, the society operates Barnett House in Campbell River, which provides five units of supported, transitional housing for youth who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Youth living in the building participate in developing a service plan and gather skills they need in order to live independently.

“We’ve been running it for years and it’s been very successful,” said Richardson. “We proved we’re capable of solid management; it’s kind of a dream come true. We’ve already experienced how it changes (youths’) lives.”

Richardson added there will be significant community consultation prior to the facility opening, with “careful and thorough planning,” along with some renovations and furnishing required, and noted the new facility would most likely not see residents prior to spring.

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