A group of tenants in the common room of the Wellspring Building enjoying the monthly buffet brunch. (Randy Nakata photo)

May 2006 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of The 127 Society for Housing. For you and me, warm and dry in our homes, the miracle of this anniversary could pass unnoticed. But for a group of 300 who now have affordable housing due to the society’s efforts, a celebration without equal will occur.

And the champion behind this twenty-five year story is Christ Church Cathedral’s own Hilda Gregory.

The pathway to establishing and growing the Society was not easy. It started at a Cathedral retreat in the early 1980s where both spiritual growth (the inner journey) and mission (the outer journey) were emphasized.

“At the retreat something inside had told me, ‘You must respond.’ It was a moment of decision when I was open to the spirit within. And once I get onto something I’m called to do, I’m tenacious,” said Hilda.

“It was quite the journey, those first five years.We worked diligently starting in February and by May of 1981 we had formed a registered Society.”

“At the time there was little affordable rental housing in our city. We thought at first we would find an old house in Kits and renovate it. We were as naive as children.”

“Eventually we found a site. We had to convince the city to purchase the land and prevail on the federal government to give the Society money for the housing units.”

“Five years on we had a three million dollar project on our hands. Along the way we hired consultants. We had put out a call for proposals. We built Jubilee House, which opened in 1986, just before Expo ’86,” she said.

Hilda Gregory of Christ Church Cathedral, president of the 127 Society for Housing.

At one point the wife of the Cathedral’s associate priest reported that he wasn’t sure whether the group really knew what they were doing, Hilda recalled. “Now for me, this was the red flag to the bull!” Hilda has devoted herself to the need for affordable housing, working tirelessly, and with devotion, as a volunteer. For twenty-five years, she has remained president of the 127 Society for Housing.

Currently the 127 Society operates three buildings: Jubilee House,

Brookland Court
and The Wellspring. The value of the land and buildings that the Society manages now is nearly $15,000,000.

An innovative Community Worker program provides a workers to help tenants create their own programs. Some examples: learning skills for organizing clubs, all-community dinners and events; internet training and access; woodworking and craft classes; help with income tax; shots in flu season.

The Society has established two low cost food stores. Tenants are trained by the community worker to run these well-used stores.

In 1987 the initial Community Worker program was funded by a two-year grant from the Anglican Foundation. Since then, the Cathedral parish and the diocese have contributed to the program on an annual basis.

But that leaves almost one-third of the program’s $110,000 annual budget to be raised. “It is hard work every year to find the money,” says Hilda.

A bold decision by the directors of the Society was to allow residents to bring pets into the buildings. Owning and caring for a pet provides physical and psychological health benefits–particularly for those who live alone. Not one pet owner has ever been evicted.

The majority of tenants love living in their warm, bright and well maintained apartments. But the buildings that the society manages have their fair share of problem tenants. The day of my tour of the Wellspring building, we came across a basement hallway with all the ceiling light bulbs missing. According to Don, maintenance supervisor for the three 127 Society buildings, theft of light bulbs happens a few times a year. Visitors commit these thefts, he said.

Hilda has a dream of a housing project that goes beyond independent living. She envisions a residence with home care, meals and assistance with medications as needed.

To this end the 127 Society has formed a partnership with the downtown east side St James Community Service Society. A new, third, society will be called the St James 127 Society for Housing. (The two societies will also continue their separate missions.)

Hilda Gregory’s devotion to the cause of affordable housing and her astonishing twenty-five year leadership were recognized in 1998, when she was awarded the Order of British Columbia for the excellence of her work.

Before retirement, she was principal of the Vancouver Oral Centre for Deaf Children, and her lifetime of service in this area of special education was recognized in 1999 with investiture in the Order of Canada.

What is largely unknown is Hilda’s quiet and determined battle with kidney disease. In 1997 she suffered kidney failure and remained on dialysis until 2001. That year she was given a kidney transplant.

Through it all, Hilda has battled for those without the means or ability to help themselves, like a guide on some bedazzling mountaineering climb. In her work in meeting needs for affordable housing, Hilda has mastered a climb equal to conquering Mount Everest. Well done, Hilda, and congratulations to all the directors of the 127 Society for Housing on your twenty-fifth anniversary.