Residents of Totem Housing Co-op in South Surrey (including president Judy Patka, second from left) say their close-knit community is threatened by rising land values. (Alex Browne photo)

Leased land a headache for South Surrey co-op

Residents fear property will be sold

It should be a time of celebration for residents of the Totem Housing Co-op.

Only last month the close-knit community held a party to mark the burning of the mortgage for their townhouse and bungalow homes, tucked away in a surprisingly quiet, tree-ringed enclave just off busy King George Boulevard.

“But the mortgage we just paid off was only for the buildings – the improvements on the land, not the land itself,” co-op president Judy Patka explained to Peace Arch News.

And she said there won’t be much else to celebrate unless the 35-year-old co-op, which provides 58 units of affordable housing in South Surrey, can get a secured mortgage to buy the land on which the co-op sits.

Given the way land values are going up, Patka fears the property – last assessed at $10 million and owned by a union pension fund – could be sold out from under residents for redevelopment in five years.

A representative of the fund that owns the 154 Street property – who asked that it not be named – declined to comment on plans for the land.

Patka said it had recently offered the co-op first refusal to purchase the property, but that option expired because the co-op was unable to get financing on a mortgage in time.

“I told them we’d have to go public with this and they said they understood,” Patka said.

The buildings have been maintained in good condition (including new roofing) for a development of that age, she noted, adding that many of the residents take great pride in their homes and gardens and the family feeling of the co-op.

“We’re desperate,” she said.

It’s a situation largely inherited by current residents, including Patka herself, who has lived at the co-op for nine years and has been on the board the last three.

“We’re seniors here and families,” she said. “We have some disabled people. We’ve got couples and singles. One woman is expecting another baby. We love our little community and we all look after each other.”

Not much documentation survives of the decision-making process of original co-op members, she added, noting that volunteer members of past finance committees apparently misunderstood the ramifications of living on leased property.

“They had a 40-year lease on the land when it was built, and the lease is up in five years – I guess nobody thought for the future,” she said.

“The clock is ticking.”

The irony is, she said, that putting money aside could have been built into monthly co-op charges at the time it was established – even years afterwards – accumulating a fund that could have helped secure a mortgage now.

“But there always seemed to be this feeling that the co-op should never be on a profit-making basis. For years they were functioning under the assumption that it couldn’t make money, that it had to break even on the net operating revenue.

“There’s really nowhere for us to go. Our housing charges are low – they’re about 12 per cent less than other co-ops. We can’t increase them by 50 to 60 per cent to pay for a mortgage. We’re looking for someone to help us accumulate a little more money so we can afford a mortgage.”

Patka said it’s a situation that impacts her personally.

“If we stay here another five years, I’ll be 80 and I have two dogs. Trying to find a place to live will be almost impossible.”

Other residents encountered in a recent visit to the co-op echoed Patka’s statements.

“It’s been a great place to live,” said Christa Eenkooren. “I’ve lived here 21 years and raised four children here.”

“The people are good people and the rent is reasonable,” said Lionel Lamoureux. “It would be a real shame if we couldn’t stay here any more.”

“I’ve lived in a lot of places, but this is a community,” said Shirley Hiebert.

“Anytime we’re outside gardening, neighbours stop and chat. There’s an amazing togetherness.”

For retiree Lynn Pritchette and her husband, who is on a medical disability pension, moving into the co-op last November offered a chance to live in a ‘dream’ neighbourhood reminiscent of cities and suburbs decades ago.

They have invested in new flooring, a new bathroom and kitchen cabinets in their townhouse, Pritchette said.

“If the land is sold, they’ll want to bulldoze the whole thing,” she said.

Patka said she has written letters to provincial housing minister Selina Robinson, Premier John Horgan, former South Surrey-White Rock MP Dianne Watts, Surrey South MLA Stephanie Cadieux and Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner to explain the co-op’s plight.

Contacted by PAN Tuesday, Cadieux said she had not seen the file but that she would look into the issue to see what recourse the co-op might have.

Patka said she has also written to the Co-operative Housing Federation of B.C. (“but they’re really only there to get (people) housing, they don’t have money to give us”).

“We’ll try anything – we just don’t know what we can do.”

Patka wonders whether a solution could be closer at hand, however. She noted that the provincial government recently said it wants to create 114,000 units to meet the demand for affordable housing.

“Wouldn’t it make some sense to buy our land and keep the buildings?” she said. “If the province or the city could buy the property and lease it back to us, we’d be quite happy.”

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