Residents of evacuated Kelowna, B.C. subsidized housing consider their futures

James Hadgraft was proud to live in the subsidized housing building in Kelowna, B.C., that bears his name.

He’d greet people as they came and went, showcasing the “resilience and kindness” that helped define the community at Hadgraft Wilson Place, his friend Stan Biggs said.

On Tuesday, as James and other tenants followed through with the evacuation order issued by the City of Kelowna on Sunday, he was still mustering that community spirit for what some could be the last day at the place he called home.

“At first I was sad, but I am OK now,” James said while standing next to Biggs whose son, like James, has Down syndrome and has called the building home for the better part of a year.

While cracks in the foundation of the building are the issue many are talking about and working to rectify, Biggs explained for the residents there, it’s the less-tangible issues that are weighing on them.

Hadgraft Wilson Place provides safe rental options for people with limited incomes but was also built with mindfulness toward those with a vast spectrum of challenges, both cognitive and physical.  For example, eight of the one-bedroom units are completely wheelchair-accessible.

Above all else, however, it’s been a place of inclusion that many of its struggled struggled to find before its doors opened.

“So many of them right now are sitting in their own individual pods, in restaurants with nothing, not knowing (what’s next), not even having cab fare,” Biggs said.

It’s why Biggs hopes the community is coming together with that in mind, and why he’s heartened by a call he got from the Metro Church last week to gather people in the days ahead, so they can “communicate and connect.”

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“That response, I think, typifies what should be our response. It is one of care — not criticizing of UBC, the city, or the engineers, but rather joining arms and caring for people like James,” he said.

That would be a welcome change for Natasha Chance, who found little community in the years before she moved into the building.

She was the first person to move into the building when it opened on May 8, 2023, ending a five-year period of homelessness that began when she aged out of foster care. During that time, her greatest comfort was her cat.

Since moving in, she’s found the community she always wanted and Sunday’s news brought heartbreak.

“It was really devastating when the mayor came and gave us the news — I bawled,” Chance said.

Chance, who has FASD and is on the autism spectrum, said she thinks she will learn more information about what will come in the days ahead but doesn’t think it will be a quick fix.

She found at least 10 cracks in her walls, some of which are quite significant.

The structural damage is being blamed on the adjacent, construction of UBC-Okanagan’s downtown tower-which had already forced the evacuation of nearby office and service club buildings.

BC Housing said in a statement that recent geotechnical and structural engineering reports show a shoring wall is unstable at the construction site, and a slip could cause serious structural damage to the neighbouring apartment building.

“I do want to say just how sorry we are that we have gotten to this point that the residents were evacuated,” Lesley Cormack principal and deputy vice-chancellor of UBC Okanagan said.

Cormack said UBC Okanagan has decided to stop work on-site for now as it consults with geotechnical engineers before moving forward.

“We did not in any way expect the level of movement in the soil and the substrata that has happened,” she said.

The university says it’s been measuring ground movement regularly and changed the underground parkade from four storeys to only two to prevent having to dig any deeper.

And solutions are being sought in conjunction with others involved.

“We are definitely looking at what we can do,” she said. “We’ve been in active conversation with Pathways and BC Housing about this.

“Some of the problems are more cosmetic, and some are more structural, so that obviously needs to be ascertained, and we will look at how we can partner to fix the building.”

As for the residents, there are thoughts on addressing that as well.

“Depending on how long they are out, we’ve looked at options such as housing them in our residences, once term is finished,” she said.

She noted that UBC Okanagan is fairly confident that there shouldn’t be any more movement once the project gets to the above-ground phase.

“The problem is once construction does get going here again that is still eight  months away”

Pathways Abilities Society, which operates the building, is offering accommodation for tenants who need to temporarily relocate to a hotel.

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