It's not often that a non-profit society finds itself in this dilemna: owning a number of real estate assets, in Vancouver BC no less, in the tight real estate market of the 2000's, with an opportunity to turn these underutilized and aging properties into more productive assets, but whose stewards - the board of directors - may be risk averse.
This was the dilemna facing a group of progressive-minded members of the Soroptimists International of Vancouver (SIV), including two Canadian Filipina leaders.
'Soroptimist' means Best for Women. The Soroptimists are a worldwide organization with the purpose of improving the lives of women and girls through programs leading to social and economic empowerment. Education and training are the Soroptimists’ core emphasis for helping women and girls. Philanthropy plays a key role in fundraising to support global aid problems, such as victims of natural calamities, and programs for local communities.
In Vancouver, the SIV operates low income housing for women seniors and manages a 91-unit low income seniors housing development in joint partnership with the Kiwanis of Vancouver.
Cora Salvador is a Canadian Filipina who has been a Soroptimist since 1997. She has performed various leadership roles along the way, such as Chair of the Soroptimist Foundation of Canada, Treasurer of the SIV, and resident historian of the Society. She is a Soroptimist who wants to better utilize the land and building assets of the Society. According to Cora, many battles have been fought in the board room over the fate of these assets and many a board member has resigned after futile fights.
"The pioneering leaders of the SIV were visionaries. They were professional, wealthy, and smart,” says Cora with pride. In 1926, these women formed the First Soroptimist Club in Canada which was the second in the British Empire. In an age when women were encouraged to stay home and tend to their knitting, they were accomplished and compassionate leaders determined to improve a lot of other women. They bought and sold properties in Vancouver, and built housing for disadvantaged women.
“Now the buildings they constructed are aging. The properties are underutilized. If redeveloped, these same properties could house many more women at affordable rents,” explains Cora, who is an accountant and has worked for development companies and various multinational companies with offices in Dubai, Arizona, Islamabad, Port Vila and Vancouver.
Jennifer Hermkens is another Canadian Filipina Soroptimist stalwart. She is a former President and Treasurer of SIV. She is currently a Commercial Account Manager for non-profit and for-profit organizations at VanCity Credit Union.
“Affordable housing for single, senior and low income women is much needed in Vancouver, indeed now more than ever. The complexity of undertaking redevelopment of the Soroptimist lands, and the cost of redevelopment are barriers facing non-profit Boards. That is why VanCity participated in a grant program to assist non-profit societies owning real estate to explore the feasibility of redeveloping their assets," Jennifer explains.
It was Jennifer who spearheaded the Vancouver Soroptimists’ application for the Urban Land Institute Grant.
"They (the Board) didn't want us to apply. But we finally convinced enough Board members to let us try," says Cora who led the presentation to the panel at the BC Affordable Housing Conference in November 2015.
As a result, the Urban Land Institute is undertaking, free of charge to the Soroptimists, a professional feasibility study of the redevelopment of the Soroptimist Apartment House located at 546 W. 13th in Vancouver. The .3 acre property currently contains 21 rental units in a 3-storey wood frame walk-up apartment building. The study will make recommendations on the physical scenarios, number of units, financing and marketing options. It is expected that the study will complete in February 2017.
As to the next worry of Board members - where will we get the money to develop even if they say it is feasible? - Cora and Jenny patiently explain possible financing options. That is what these champions do best: they educate, they persist. That is how they have survived this far in the battle for a more progressive and enlightened philanthropy.
With the Board on board now, and subject to the feasibility study, we may yet see more affordable housing for women in Vancouver.
Soroptimists are located in 132 countries throughout the world. In the Philippines, there are 82 clubs with over 1900 members. Soroptimists of the Americas has more than 38,000 members in approximately 1,400 clubs. Canada forms part of the Soroptimists of the Americas.