In 1926, a group of women from wealthy backgrounds – entrepreneurial types who wanted to do something purposeful – decided to start a women’s club whose mission was to help other women.
They started a Soroptimist club, which had begun five years earlier in Oakland, Calif., named for a mashup of Latin words that loosely means “best for women.” Their Vancouver club was only the second to launch in the British Empire. Realizing that the key to progress was establishing secure housing, the women made it their mission to house women who were in vulnerable situations.
At a time when it would have been nearly impossible for women to obtain a mortgage, the group started to build a small not-for-profit real estate portfolio of their own. They held fundraisers and invested in the stock market, and members would bequest money to the group in their wills, which was reinvested back into their good works. At first, they would rent buildings to house low-income women, and then they started buying properties and hiring people to manage them.
They were resourceful women. Because they couldn’t purchase property under their own names, they created a not-for-profit society, says Soroptimist International Vancouver member and club historian Carla Busnardo.
“They found a way to own land … and a way to house someone temporarily, until they were good to go,” she says. “Smart cookies! They raised money and they made money, plus they had a lot of women who were only children of wealth, who left money to the club at the end of their lives.
“If someone owned a house with no one living in it, a member would approach him and ask to rent it for maybe $50 a month and they’d use it to house women. This was in the 1930s, and they talked the guy into selling it to them because they couldn’t get a mortgage.”
Women were always at risk of homelessness because they were financially dependent, she says. The goal was to take care of the housing piece so they could get on with their lives.
“It could happen to anyone. If you don’t have control over your finances or your husband passes away, suddenly you haven nothing,” Ms. Busnardo says. “Without housing they were at the mercy of someone else. With housing, they could focus on going to school or something else. The group saw the need and found a way to do something about it. That’s kind of neat.
“And unfortunately, the housing situation is still here. It hasn’t gotten any better.”
Ms. Busnardo has been reading the archived minutes of the non-profit in preparation for this year’s 100th anniversary of the group’s international charter. She discovered that the women had grown weary of fundraising and taking care of the buildings, and over the years, they sold off most of their portfolio. They sold one property to the Lion’s Club for $1, on the condition that it was used for seniors housing, Ms. Busnardo says.
Today, all that’s left of their holdings is a 90-unit building they co-purchased with the Kiwanis Club in 1970, at Marine Drive and Yukon Street. And they also wholly own a two-storey building at 546 W. 13th Ave., near Cambie Street. The Soroptimist Apartments is home to 21 women, mostly seniors. Rents are no higher than $700, and many are far less than that.
But the Soroptimists want to maximize the development potential of the property so they can help more women. So, after several years of discussion and plans that fell by the wayside, they’ve finally brought a developer on board and applied to rezone the building for a new midrise rental building. If approved, they’ll build a 135-unit apartment building for women at various levels of affordability. It’s the third time they’ve tried to come up with a plan, but this time they’re committed to seeing it through, Ms. Busnardo says. They’re in the process of finding funding partners.
“We kept asking, ‘Do we redevelop, sell or keep it as it is?’ In my lifetime, I want to see the building go up. Yes, it’s serving a purpose – 21 women are warm at night – but the piece of property could be so much more.”
Preference will be given to female seniors, work force women and female-led families. Male partners can live there, but the lease will be held in the woman’s name, Ms. Busnardo says.
And because they’re walking the talk, all members of the planning and development team are women, including developer and architects. They’re going to try to hire as many female tradespeople as possible.
They’re calling it the first development in Canada to be built by women, for women. While the Soroptimists were used to operating under the radar, they have finally decided it’s time to raise their profile, not just for the sake of the development, but for keeping the club alive. Today, they have 11 members, with an average age of 50. They are welcoming new members and hope to encourage a younger membership.
“We were a little secret,” Ms. Busnardo says. “And I get it. When it all started, it was hush-hush. You didn’t advertise that you were giving money to somebody. Our older members are in their 90s now, so we missed the opportunity to start advertising what we do. For our membership side of it, we have to get better at it.”
The apartment building on West 13th Avenue sits on a 150- by 98-foot lot and was built in 1960, reflective of the simple, unadorned International Style, with consistently sized rows of windows that look onto tree-lined West 13th. It’s assessed at $8,489,200, a big jump from what the women would have paid for the empty lot that they developed in 1960.
During the redevelopment, all the women living there will be rehoused and invited back to the new building at their previous rental rates. And the Soroptimists will continue to own the property.
Carla Guerrera, founder and chief executive officer of Purpose Driven Developments and Planning, is development lead on the project. Her team submitted a rezoning application for 546 W. 13th Ave. to the City of Vancouver in the summer of 2020. Architects Amela Brudar and Barbara Ibba from GBL Architects have designed the 13-storey building, although the team had initially hoped for 20 storeys. Twenty storeys would have affected view cones, Ms. Guerrera says. As for the affordability piece, they will have three rent levels, including a deeply subsidized rent, a rent that is geared to income, and another level of rent that is 10 per cent to 20 per cent below market rate. There will be a mix of one, two and three bedrooms. The ground level units will have outdoor space.
They’ll still have to win over the neighbours when the project goes to a public open house on Feb. 22 and again in March, followed by a public hearing in the spring.
“We have chosen all the consultants on the team – from the architects to the landscape architect to the geotech engineer who’s drilling holes on the site, to the structural and civil engineer – we have chosen the entire team as women leaders in their organizations or ideally women-owned companies,” Ms. Guerrera says. “And the purpose of that is to demonstrate the leadership of women in design construction industries, because women are so under represented in the sector.
“There are some limitations,” she said of trying to hire women in all facets of the project. "
They’re working with organizations where women are well represented, and promote women in leadership positions.
“And when it comes down to contractors and construction companies, we have done a precall process on a contractor, and whether or not they can fit an all-women team together.”
Ms. Guerrera, an urban planner by trade, is one of a few women in Canada at the helm of a development company. Women are notably absent from the C-suite, holding few executive or board positions. They tend to be found more often in marketing and administrative positions.
“We want to showcase with this project that there is something broken. There is a broken rung in the ladder because we have really strong women in the sector, women leading with their expertise … but still there is such an underrepresentation.”
As for the reasons for the underrepresentation of women, she says she believes a lot of development companies are family run, and executive positions are passed from father to son. As well, there are few female mentors to bring other women into the fold.
“Unless you have women at the board level or at the senior executive level of these organizations, then all of the decisions about the organization are made without women’s perspectives, and they don’t get to give that input at the top level. That sets the culture and that sets the hiring practices.
“Because it’s missing at the top level, the women aren’t there to pull other women up.”
Ms. Busnardo says some of the neighbours are already skeptical about the project because it will change the neighbourhood. However, it’s part of the Broadway Plan and offers the affordable rental housing that the city is seeking. While they will still serve seniors, they plan to add more balance to the mix.
“I have visions of someone who just finished their nursing degree who’s living in Maple Ridge because they can’t afford to live downtown,” she says. “This would be for them. So, that’s the focus, on working people who can’t afford to live in Vancouver.”
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