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Mel Lehan stands in the backyard of an empty heritage house at 2850 West 3rd. Ave. that was bequeathed to the city by his late friend and former homeowner, Eric Pierce, in Vancouver, B.C., on Feb. 27, 2021.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Eric Pierce was a Second World War veteran who, along with his wife Florence, provided low-income housing to Kitsilano residents for more than 50 years. After Florence died in 2002, Mr. Pierce continued to rent out units in the houses he owned, as well as an apartment block, for rents that were far below market rate. Tenants were paying around $300 or $400 a month for units that are steps to Point Grey Road, the street where billionaire Chip Wilson owns a house.

Mr. Pierce wanted to continue that legacy, particularly to honour Florence, so he bequeathed the heritage house where he lived, at 2850 W. 3rd Ave., to the City of Vancouver for the purpose of benefitting the community. Mr. Pierce died in February, 2011. He and his wife had no children, and they were passionate about social justice and heritage preservation. Mr. Pierce had the two-storey craftsman house, built around 1909, put on the city’s heritage register in the “C” category. It’s zoned for cultural, recreational and dwelling uses, and is currently assessed at $2.526-million. Family members inherited Mr. Pierce’s other properties.

Mr. Pierce’s friends came up with a plan for the house on W. 3rd that they knew would please Mr. Pierce. But it’s been a long, frustrating process in the decade since their friend died. What should have been a small, straightforward affordable housing project has become an example of the bureaucratic red tape that is slowing the delivery process over all. Today, to the irritation of Mr. Pierce’s friends, not only have they lost control of the project, but worse still, the house remains empty.

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Those friends, including long-time community activist Mel Lehan, and retired lawyer, former member of Parliament and former provincial cabinet minister Ian Waddell, formed a non-profit society in the Pierce name to help carry out his wishes for the house. They consulted with Heritage Vancouver and held regular meetings. And they came up with a plan: In collaboration with another non-profit, the Verna J. Kirkness Education Foundation, they would use the Pierce residence to house six female Indigenous students. The foundation is named after Cree educator Verna Kirkness, and its aim is to increase the number of First Nations, Métis and Inuit students who attain postsecondary education in the sciences.

Mr. Pierce, a Second World War veteran, was an affordable housing advocate and wanted the house to be used as a benefit to the community in honour of his wife Florence.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The idea was that Kirkness scholars attending the University of British Columbia would live at the house. There would also be a live-in caretaker and a bottom floor would be used as a small community meeting space.

When the City took over the house in 2016, it had been rented to a family, so it was quite livable, Mr. Lehan says. But it’s been vacant for the past couple of years.

The City put out a request for proposals for “mission-based, not-for-profit organizations to operate the house for the purpose of community benefit” in 2018. The group of friends submitted their proposal, which included a funding scheme.

After a lengthy wait, it came back to the group that the winning bid had gone to, Atira, a well-known local organization that has a non-profit arm for vulnerable women, as well as a for-profit management company that manages residential, office, industrial and retail properties. In its 15 years of operation, the management arm has paid for around 100 units of affordable housing, says Atira’s executive director, Janice Abbott.

The Pierce house will be run by the not-for-profit Atira Women’s Resource Society, and be used as housing for vulnerable women over the age of 55. However, they need operating funding from BC Housing for the program, which meant they had to transfer the lease to BC Housing. That took a lot more red tape and considerably more time, Ms. Abbott says.

By the time it’s ready for occupancy, scheduled for September or October, the Pierce property will house up to 10 women. That’s good news for all involved, including Mr. Pierce’s friends.

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But Mr. Waddell says their proposal wasn’t contingent on outside operating costs, and his group was never given a chance. “We are a grassroots community group and we thought we had made a good proposal to honour Florence Pierce,” Mr. Waddell says. “We felt we didn’t get a fair hearing.”

The Pierce house will be run by Atira Women’s Resource Society as housing for vulnerable women over the age of 55.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

“They ended up going in another direction, which is their right,” Mr. Lehan says. But the biggest concern is the fact that it’s taken so long to put the house to use in the midst of a housing crisis. “It seems that nothing is happening.”

“We accepted the fact that the city council had chosen to do it with Atira,” Mr. Waddell says. “We were prepared to work with the City in any way we could. But it’s sad to see the house just sitting there not doing anything when there is need. People had been living in the house. The house was in good shape. This is just bureaucracy, is what it is.”

Jeanette Leitch, an accountant and scientist and former long-term tenant in a Pierce property who befriended Florence and Mr. Pierce, says it’s ironic that a city-owned property would sit empty when there’s an empty homes tax on empty houses. Also, a house that’s empty can slide into neglect.

Ms. Leitch says the Pierces’ uncommon view on rental properties enabled her to live for 30 years in the otherwise pricey neighbourhood. The house she lived in was sold after Mr. Pierce died, and today she lives in Coquitlam. “I remember trying to explain to the estate lawyer that below-market housing at a reasonable rent for people who needed it for a particular time, is not the same as social housing,” she says.

“The Pierces were unique landlords in that respect, because they were not in there to get as much money as they could.”

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City councillor Melissa De Genova says that she’s been paying close attention to Pierce house, which is a small housing project but one that raises questions about bringing much-needed housing online efficiently. She called the Pierce house “a unique situation” because the City inherits few properties.

“I know that council has been reached out to by a number of different organizations that wanted to know why the [Pierce] home was still empty. I have asked the staff and I haven’t received a response on that, but ... sometimes there are renovations that need to be done to facilities to make sure they offer the supports that are needed for community living.

“There is too much red tape around the process … and we have to look at how that is ultimately affecting people in the city of Vancouver,” Ms. De Genova says.

“I have heard from members of the public before who find it very ironic that the City of Vancouver would charge an empty homes tax … [but] the City of Vancouver will purchase homes for different purposes, or have homes like, Pierce house, and let them sit empty and not charge themselves the same empty homes tax.

“I think it’s really important that … we hold ourselves to the same standards we expect others to hold themselves to.”

Mr. Lehan says the house was quite livable when the City took it over in 2016 and rented it to a family.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Ms. Abbott says the house needs upgrades to make it more accessible for those with mobility issues, which will be completed by the fall. As leaseholder, BC Housing is in charge of the renovations. Atira also plans to name the house after Florence Pierce.

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Ms. Abbott says the process of acquiring the house was a complicated one, involving two separate transactions, the first being the proposal to the City and then a request for funding from BC Housing. “That took four or five or six months, those two processes. And then because the province of B.C.’s [program] funding is under some kind of envelope that requires the province to own the asset, we had to negotiate instead of City leasing to Atira, they had to lease to BC Housing in order for us to get operating funding. So that negotiation took a bit of time, and BC Housing had to issue the tenders to get the renovations done. I’m going to guess [that took] two years.”

The Pierce friends were disappointed that their proposal was rejected, but anxious that the property is used again rather than continuing to sit empty.

“Eric was a kind man who used his life to make things better for people,” Mr. Lehan says. “We were quite upset that [the empty house] was happening. In a time of crisis, if people could live there it would make sense.”

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