Innovative housing project faces security concerns

Two years after opening, petition called for more screening of residents and a new board.

Ex-residents Phillip Whelan and Patrick Charlesworth

Ex-residents Phillip Whelan and Patrick Charlesworth

The flash of police lights has become too common at an affordable housing project for seniors, according to a group of past and present residents of Lynnhaven Society’s two apartment buildings.

But while the tenants say internal and external security concerns have driven them to seek different housing, the society’s executive director, Leona Watts, said the non-profit organization has done its best to make its two Braun Avenue buildings as safe as possible.

The society’s twin four-storey buildings were opened to fanfare in early 2014, with residents in tiny-but-efficient 300-square-foot units. A dearth of affordable housing in Abbotsford meant the building’s 64 apartments were in high demand by seniors like Philip Whelan, who wanted to retire but was still employed in the construction industry.

“I just felt that it was going to be the place for me to be,” said Whelan. “Unfortunately, within a few months, everything started to surface.

“The noise and the chaos and the gunshots and the screaming. I was getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning and sometimes I was kept up most of the night.”

For more than 60 years, the Lynnhaven Society had previously operated a housing project on Lynn Avenue, where residents lived in 40 ranch-style units. In 2011, the society was given approval to sell that facility, which was increasingly costly to maintain, and construct two new buildings on Braun Avenue, closer to the city’s downtown core. Today, eight of the 64 Lynnhaven units are reserved for people over the age of 55 with disabilities, who pay $375 monthly, while the rest are seniors aged 60 and older who pay $650 and whose housing is subsidized through BC Housing’s Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters (SAFER).

Although around 20 Lynn Avenue residents moved into the new building, only a handful remain. Many have moved to assisted living facilities or family homes, Watts said, with the lack of greenspace an issue for some.

“There was a difference between what they had there and what they have here,” Watts said.

This fall, a petition circulated among residents and ex-residents that drew 19 signatures and called for the dissolution of the Lynnhaven board. In addition to a range of complaints about management, the petition called for increased security and screening of tenants.

Elaine Ireland, one of the few holdovers from Lynn Avenue, said she has applied to move to another location.

Ireland cited thefts from first-floor units and a variety of other issues that she attributes, in part, to a lack of on-site staff.

“There would be homeless people coming in, sleeping in the hallways,” she said.

Some of the issues relate to the neighbourhood, which is just a block from Jubilee Park.

“There were drug dealers in front of my apartment.”

Ireland said she was asked to testify at the trial of a man she saw dispose of a gun in a dumpster as police converged on the area.

“There’s constant crime there. Constant.”

Whelan said that while he wanted to live out his days in his unit, a variety of concerns forced him to find housing elsewhere.

“It was fear. I continued working all the time that I was there, but at night, you were locked down.”

He said he also had issues with the building’s air system.

Resident Catherine Skelly said she has also applied to move, after becoming unhappy both with security issues and the management of the building. She was also concerned that fourth-storey residents would be incapable of leaving in case of emergency. And Patrick Charlesworth, who was recently evicted for smoking on his balcony after he said it was tolerated for more than a year prior, said residents didn’t know how to contact the society when something went wrong.

The residents also learned during their tenancy that some of their neighbours had recently spent time in the criminal justice system. The presence of one of the men triggered a limited public notification during the spring, after Ireland and another resident complained of what they said was harassment.

Donald Phillip Jarvis was on probation after pleading guilty to an assault in the spring of 2014, but he has a criminal record involving far more serious offences. In 1993, Jarvis was handed what was then the longest child sex abuse sentence in Alberta history, after being convicted of sexually assaulting his three daughters over the course of five years between 1977 and 1982. The case was called “beyond belief” by the Crown prosecutor, who said Jarvis conducted an “evil pursuit” of his three daughters and “robbed” them of their childhood.

Jarvis was handed a 16-year sentence, to be served consecutively with a five-year sentence in another sexual assault case.

Now he is living in one of Lynnhaven Society’s buildings.

Move brought benefits and challenges

Police were called to the two buildings 54 times last year, according to the Abbotsford Police Department. Most, but not all, of those calls were for non-criminal incidents, including assisting with medical emergencies, false and aborted 911 calls, noise complaints and mental health issues. The calls included one report of a break-and-enter, a report of a threat being uttered, and several domestic disputes.

In Leona Watts’ first-floor office in the society’s McCargar building, a monitor broadcasts images from a half-dozen security cameras – surveillance that was neither possible at the larger Lynn Avenue property, nor needed.

Watts – who has worked for the society for more than a decade – acknowledged the area has its challenges. But she said it has improved dramatically since the Warm Zone, which provided services to homeless and addicted women, left the area shortly prior to the buildings’ construction.

Watts also said the move to an apartment building model has fostered a tighter-knit community than at Lynn Avenue. That, though, has its benefits and drawbacks, including more inter-personal conflicts.

She said her position has expanded at Braun Avenue, allowing her to help residents more, but some of the complaints seem to be driven by a sense that the Lynnhaven Society has more obligations to the residents than a private company that owns a similar apartment building. But she said the society, which does not take in donations, operates on a break-even model and could not afford any sort of 24-hour security. Fire evacuation protocols are posted by doorways, as is the law and typical at ordinary apartment buildings. More than that is neither required nor, she suggested, beneficial for elderly residents who require the assistance of firefighters in the case of a real emergency.

Other issues, she said, arose while she was off work on medical leave, and she said contact info for both herself and another society member is posted.

Some of the issues have already been addressed, Watts said. Although the society declined to dissolve itself in response to the petition, board members met with residents last week and Watts said the society is also installing a new key fob system hoped to increase security. The society is also looking at increasing lighting for the building’s smoking areas, although those efforts are balanced by past issues with drug users using lit areas to consume their narcotics.

Watts said she screens all residents as best she can under the law, adding that the criminal offenders who live in the buildings have been “model tenants,” with last year’s harassment complaints being the result of a misunderstanding.

There are three such people living at Lynnhaven, each of whom has a conviction for a sexual offence.

When she comes upon an applicant with a criminal history, Watts said she asks: “Do I have to worry about this resident posing a risk to any of my residents?”

But if no safety concerns are raised, she said “Everybody has the right to live and be given a second chance.”

As for the neighbourhood outside the Lynnhaven Society’s doors, Watts said it reflects Abbotsford’s ongoing struggle with homelessness and drug addiction issues. On that point, she is in agreement with Skelly.

Watts said the building is flooded by applicants for its eight units for disabled people. To underscore the point, she displays a manila envelope stuffed with dozens of applications.

“If I had my choice, I’d build another housing that is all [persons with disabilities].”

Some progress has been made, but much work has to be done, she said – especially on the health care front.

“I think in general, I’ve noticed a decline in health,” she said. Most people who leave go into care, she said. And in the space of one month ending in mid-December, three different residents, all in their 60s, died.

Watts said that while a handful of residents lack some life skills, many are able to adapt to life in homes, with the bulk of evictions regarding smoking.

Resident Skelly said the lack of shelter for those living on the street means that some of those who find housing at Lynnhaven find it hard to adapt.

“They get into these places and they’re not capable of conducting themselves the way other people do, so they invariably get evicted.”