The story of socially conscious landlord Eric Pierce was a rare good news story in a housing market too often rife with tales of greed.
Mr. Pierce, who died at 91 in February, 2011, stated in his will that he wanted his arts and crafts heritage home at 2850 W. 3rd Ave., in Kitsilano, to be left to the City of Vancouver to benefit the community.
The city has put out a request for proposals to groups that have ideas on what to do with the heritage house, which Eric and Florence Pierce lived in for more than 50 years. Various non-profit groups have come forward with ideas to use the house as a community space and to provide low-cost housing.
The Pierces, who didn’t have kids, were fiercely devoted to providing below-market affordable housing. They owned at least five properties, including another house on the street at 2832 W. 3rd Ave. and an apartment block at 2415 W. 4th Ave. Mr. Pierce had inherited a couple of the properties, according to a family member.
However, some tenants who’d lived at Mr. Pierce’s properties have come forward to say that they are the forgotten tenants who’ve been evicted. They say Mr. Pierce would never have approved of what happened to them after he died, although they understand that the relatives who inherited the properties likely had their legal reasons for selling them off.
Steven Maglica grew up in a two-bedroom apartment in the 4th Avenue building. His parents had raised him and his sister there, and when he was the only one who remained, Mr. Pierce told him he should stay on. He paid $1,022 a month for the apartment and he helped out around the building.
“My whole life I lived there – 51-and-a-half years,” Mr. Maglica said. “I was part of a renoviction. I got kicked out. As far as I know, everybody left.” The new owners, he said, gave the tenants the option of moving back once the renovations were complete. Mr. Maglica didn’t know what the new rent would be. Instead, with his sister’s help, he found a condo for purchase down the street, which means he has mortgage payments much larger than he was paying in rent. It means that money is a lot tighter.
“I like the old place better,” he said.
Before he died, Mr. Pierce likely didn’t imagine his own house would one day be assessed at $2.89-million – or that the need for affordable housing would become the city’s greatest priority.
Well-known community activist Mel Lehan agrees that “it was a different ball game then.” He theorizes Mr. Pierce might have thought his rentals would just continue on as they were; that he didn’t need to draw up any legal protection for them. Mr. Lehan was a neighbour and good friends with the Pierces for 30 years.
“He said, 'Look, I had a good life. I don’t need the money. I want to help people.’ And he said, ‘When I die, I would very much like to see [the properties] kept affordable in some way.’ Now, he might not have meant all the properties,” Mr. Lehan added. “But Eric would have been very upset [at the evictions]. It’s not an accident that those rents were so cheap – that was his philosophy.
“Eric and Florence were just salt-of-the-earth types. They wanted to do the right thing.”
Ian Waddell, a retired lawyer, former member of Parliament and former provincial cabinet minister, was a neighbour who got to know Mr. Pierce in his later years. Mr. Pierce, he says, told him how he was the lone survivor of an air attack during the Second World War.
“It’s 1942 in North Africa, just before battle of El Alamein. A young, 22-year-old Canadian, Eric Pierce from Vancouver is with the Canadian air force, stationed at a North Africa airfield, refuelling American planes. Two planes ready to go on the runway, German bombers blow them all to smithereens. Everybody dies except Eric … He got behind a truck and survived."
Mr. Pierce, grateful he came through the war alive, wanted to give back, Mr. Waddell says.
“When he passed away, it kind of got into an estate fight over property,” Mr. Waddell said. “Finally, the house sold a couple of years ago and it went to the City of Vancouver with stipulations in the will to honour Florence and help the community. It’s a remarkable story.
“I’m very pleased that the city property people have really tried to implement their wishes and they should get some credit for that, because they could just rent the house out and make a pile of money.”
Mr. Waddell, with Mr. Lehan’s help, has submitted a proposal to the city to use the Pierce house for below-market housing for a First Nations student and a young family who would do maintenance on the house.
The evictions, he says, reflect the harsh reality of Vancouver these days, as well as the reality of inheritance.
“It’s like the real word compared to the world that Mr. Pierce tried to create,” Mr. Waddell said. “I guess it is a bit ironic. But the Pierce family, they are nice people. They just wanted to wind up the estate and some [relatives] came in with protracted litigation.”
Joanna Nagel, who is 86, lived at Mr. Pierce’s property at 2832 W. 3rd Ave. for about 25 years. She was paying $440 a month for her apartment, which had a large shared bathroom. Mr. Pierce’s relatives sold the house in 2016, at which point Ms. Nagel says she panicked. She knew the rent she’d been paying was more in line with rents in the Downtown Eastside, an area famous for its social problems.
“I couldn’t think. I practically couldn’t function when [the property manager] told me the house was going to be sold. I was like a zombie,” she said.
“There were a lot of elderly people in a terrible predicament when the housing market went up and people were selling houses. A lot of them lived in the area for 30 or 40 years.”
Mr. Lehan advised her to go to David Eby’s constituency office for help. Mr. Eby, the current B.C. Attorney-General, is MLA for Vancouver-Point Grey. She says his office helped her find a one-bedroom unit at a low-income seniors housing project nearby.
“I think the profiteering in housing should never have been allowed,” Ms. Nagel said. “It’s like we worship making money, like it’s a virtue. It’s very sad. There ought to be enough for everybody to go around.
“Eric did want to protect us so that we wouldn’t be put out. But it hasn’t been what he intended.”
Ulduz Maschaykh moved to Vancouver from Germany to complete her PhD at UBC and write her book, which is, ironically, on a subject she’s lived all too well. It is titled The Changing Image of Affordable Housing. Ms. Maschaykh had lived in the house with Ms. Nagel and basement tenant Brandon Gowing. Ms. Maschaykh is angry that their house has been sitting empty the past eight months and she feels it should have been saved for affordable housing, too. Seated on the front steps, she looks around at the messy garden and questions the fairness of leaving a house empty amid an affordability crisis.
“It’s completely falling apart and nobody is paying attention. … I believe that this house is also just as much [Mr. Pierce’s] legacy and it could have been a living legacy if people could have stayed here. We are part of that legacy and we pass the story on to people like you, who can spread it to the public,” she said.
Ms. Maschaykh says her $595 monthly rent enabled her to get started in a new country. She has since obtained her permanent-resident status and works as a researcher, which means she can afford an apartment nearby that is a higher rent. She is grateful to Mr. Pierce for giving her that head start, even though she never met him.
“For me, it was a huge help coming here, not having a job yet and not having money, to be able to move in here first, in order to establish that life that I wanted to have. And I think that is what the Pierce family intended for their properties to be, for those who are able to be successful at some point, but just needed a little bit of help.”
Her friend Mr. Gowing, who stands nearby, is on his way to look at another apartment in the area. He has only temporary accommodation in New Westminster, B.C. He’s been to 17 showings in Kitsilano within a month.
He says his low rent of $650 a month enabled him to get started again while embarking on a career transition.
But after the house sold, the landlord-tenant relationship changed completely. The electricity was cut off because the owners didn’t seem to even know that people were living there, he says.
He never knew who the new owners were and could only find a numbered company on title. Mr. Gowing was the last tenant to leave, in January.
Amy van den Hooven, who studied urban planning and design, had lived at the house for five years. At the time it was sold, she had been living on Vancouver Island and staying with family, due to an illness. But she had continued to pay her rent, with plans to return to the house - until she received an eviction notice.
“Instead of having a housing market that builds people up, it just breaks them,” she said. “It’s incredibly sad. And a lot of people want to do good in the community, but we are just forced out.” She’s certain Mr. Pierce would be “devastated” if he were alive today and saw the evictions.
“He probably didn’t see this coming. … If he’d known what this market would do, I’m sure he would have made [his wishes] more clear.”
A family member who was reached for comment said that settling the estate has been “very, very complicated,” which is why it had taken years to donate Mr. and Ms. Pierce’s residence to the city.
“We had no options – there was no way to preserve what they wanted, legally,” said the relative, who asked not to be named because the long, drawn-out case has not yet been settled.
She said she and her husband had negotiated with the city to save the Pierce residence for community use, with Mr. Waddell’s help.
“We had to negotiate to get it turned over to the city – that was our role. It’s a legacy and we were really glad we were able to negotiate to make that happen.”
She didn’t know what motivated the Pierces to provide affordable housing, but they lived simple lives, she says.
“They didn’t live lavishly at all. They were great people.”
Mr. Lehan says that the situation illustrates the pitfalls of charitable bequests.
“You know, you can’t give enough kudos to Eric and Florence for their kindness, during their lives, and what they hoped for after their lives ended.
“There’s a lesson here, that if you have these dreams and hopes – get it in writing.”