State of Grace: A reverend and his real estate, and how he fills gaps in seniors’ care – Vancouver Sun

Some point out that by running culturally appropriate housing for Chinese seniors, Stephen Lee has been filling gaps left by governments.

Author of the article:

Joanne Lee-Young, Dan Fumano

Vancouver Grace Seniors Home at 333 E Pender St. in Vancouver.
Vancouver Grace Seniors Home at 333 E Pender St. in Vancouver. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

Years before the sale of Grace Seniors Home drew criticism over the feared displacement of seniors, the pastor behind the Chinatown facility was buying and selling properties while running charities, corporate entities and homes for Chinese-speaking seniors.

Stephen Sai Fung Lee’s previous real estate dealings have been the subject of heated fights behind closed doors. He sparred with the Mennonite church and members of his own congregation, used his charitable organizations and companies while buying and selling properties, and has opened and closed other seniors homes.

The 78-year-old pastor is the director of companies and societies that have bought and sold tens of millions of dollars of Metro Vancouver real estate over the years and he has a portfolio of properties assessed at more than $23 million.

This month, he is expecting to close the sale of Grace to the B.C. government’s housing agency for $13.7 million and is applying to the federal government for a loan to finance his next seniors home.

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Lee and his organizations have found themselves under fire recently from several corners, including the provincial government and people in Chinatown.

But the reverend says he feels unfairly vilified and questioned by recent media attention, and says the work of his charitable organizations over the years has been “entirely beneficial to society.”

Stephen Lee, then pastor of the Vancouver Chinese Mennonite Church, in a 1995 photo.
Stephen Lee, then pastor of the Vancouver Chinese Mennonite Church, in a 1995 photo. Photo by Les Bazso /PNG

Some people point out that by running culturally appropriate housing for Chinese seniors, Lee has been filling gaps left by governments.

Lee was the founding pastor of the Vancouver Chinese Mennonite Church in Chinatown, which he led for decades starting in the late 1970s.

Correspondence between the Vancouver Chinese Mennonite Church leadership council and the provincial Mennonite organization shows Lee’s 2013 departure from the Chinatown church was shrouded in internal acrimony.

Garry Janzen, the Mennonite Church of B.C.’s executive minister, recalled he mediated an “unusual” dispute in 2012, after Lee, unbeknownst to the provincial Mennonite leadership, moved residents out of a church-owned seniors home and tried to convert the building to another use, although he did not own the property.

Although Lee has a history of disputes over real estate, there is no evidence he has broken any rules.

Several people interviewed for this story said there should be scrutiny of Lee’s dealings because they involve government funds.

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Beyond the $13.7 million his company, ParkCo Enterprises, is expected to receive from B.C. Housing this month for the sale of Grace, Lee said he is applying for a $40 million loan from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation to finance the development of his next seniors home.

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In dozens of interviews, many people described Lee as a savvy businessman with an entrepreneurial history unusual for a religious leader.

Vancouver Grace Seniors Home at 333 E Pender St. in Vancouver.
Vancouver Grace Seniors Home at 333 E Pender St. in Vancouver. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

Seniors almost ‘slipped through the cracks’

In April, when Postmedia revealed the pending sale of Grace Seniors Home at 333 Pender St. to a non-profit housing organization, the Lu’ma Native Housing Society, the reaction was swift. Seniors feared sudden eviction and their families were outraged.

The provincial government stepped in, and its social housing agency, B.C. Housing, announced a $17.3-million deal to buy Grace from Lee’s ParkCo Enterprises, halting the displacement of 70 seniors and ensuring the building would continue to be used to care for Chinese-speaking seniors.

But there is more to the sale than originally reported.

Postmedia News has learned that before news broke about Lu’ma looking to purchase the Grace property, ParkCo Enterprises, a B.C. company of which Lee and his wife are the sole directors, had accepted an offer from a private sector company.

When Postmedia approached Lee in April to ask about the looming eviction of the seniors at Grace, he declined to discuss details, telling a reporter he operates “a privately owned business.”

But after learning Lee had inked the previously unreported deal to sell Grace to a private-sector real estate company, Postmedia approached Lee and B.C. Housing again.

Lee said he was initially talking to Lu’ma about selling the Pender property, but when that fell through, he struck a deal with a company called 129 Gainful Venture Ltd.

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Corporate records show 129 Gainful Venture’s sole director is Steven Marc Lippman.

Lippman is well known in the Downtown Eastside. His company Living Balance Investment Group’s website says it specializes in “revitalizing” neglected properties and has completed more than 50 projects over the past decade.

For years, some housing activists have complained Living Balance’s renovating of Downtown Eastside rooming houses was decreasing the affordable housing stock and pushing low-income residents into homelessness.

Lippman did not reply to a request for comment, but he has previously defended his company’s record and denied such criticisms.

B.C. Housing spokeswoman Laura Mathews said after the agency learned of Lippman’s company’s plan to purchase Grace, it got involved, “given the public interest in maintaining Grace as affordable housing.”

Because Gainful Venture already had a contract to buy 333 East Pender, Lippman’s company will receive a cut of the deal between B.C. Housing and Lee’s ParkCo Enterprises.

Of the $17.3 million B.C. Housing is spending this month to buy Grace, $13.7 million will go to ParkCo Enterprises and $3.6 million will go to Gainful Venture to buy out its purchase contract, said Mathews.

Lee’s accepted offer with Gainful Venture meant “a real possibility that this project could have been redeveloped” had B.C. Housing not stepped in, Mathews said.

The contract between Lu’ma and ParkCo was for a vacant building, Mathews said, and Lu’ma had “received clear assurances from ParkCo” it would relocate all the seniors to “culturally appropriate, affordable housing and could do so in a legal fashion.”

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“It was only when news reports started looking into how tenants were being treated did Lu’ma and B.C. Housing become aware that the seller’s relocation of tenants was not consistent with the assurances they had received,” did not comply with city policies, and did not include consultation with residents and families, she said.

At that point, the purchase was transferred to B.C. Housing.

Vancouver Coun. Pete Fry, a longtime resident of the area around Chinatown, said he was concerned about the prospect of Gainful Venture acquiring Grace.

“I appreciate that B.C. Housing did what they had to do to seal the deal and keep this space from falling into a profiteering model,” Fry said, after learning from Postmedia that Lippman’s company would receive a chunk of taxpayer money to buy out its purchase rights.

Fry called the situation an “illustration of how people are making a quick buck at the expense of others in our hyper-commodified real estate market.” “I think there’s probably a lot more of this kind of thing that goes on than we really have a sense of,” Fry said.

Jordan Eng, a Vancouver Chinatown real estate agent, became concerned when the 96-year-old father of a friend of his wife was at risk of being evicted from Grace.

“What happened was an OMG, WTF, moment,” Eng said of the realization an entire building of seniors almost “slipped through the cracks.”

The sale of 333 East Pender was not his first time Lee had shut down and sold a seniors facility.

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‘Doing something entirely beneficial to society’

Lee has been buying and selling properties in Metro Vancouver for decades, while running charities, corporate entities and homes for Chinese-speaking seniors.

“He’s a pretty sharp businessman, he wears many hats. He’s a counsellor, he’s a priest, he’s a businessman,” said Leonardo Di Francesco, a realtor who specializes in religious properties in Metro Vancouver. “I know him very, very well. I’ve done business with him for 25 years. … There’s not too many guys like that around.”

“I deal with pastors, I deal with evangelists, Pentecostal, United Churches. I deal with Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims. And, he’s the most colourful,” Di Francesco said.

“He’s a mover and a shaker; buying, selling. He would always be involved in real estate deals. But on a Sunday morning, he was a pastor.”

Di Francesco’s website churchforsale.ca features a church property owned by Lee’s charity, Grace Christian Chapel. Records show Grace purchased the North Burnaby property in 2013 for $2.4 million. It’s now listed for sale at $6.95 million.

A Grace Christian Chapel property on Ingleton Avenue in Burnaby.
A Grace Christian Chapel property on Ingleton Avenue in Burnaby. Photo by Francis Georgian /PNG

“He makes decisions himself. Usually a pastor has some board members, committee members, congregations, and then it’s going to go to the head office, so you have to go through three or four different levels to get approval. With Stephen Lee, you’ve just got to go through one or two levels to get approval. … You can get it pretty quick,” Di Francesco said. “What he says goes.”

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Lee initially declined to be interviewed. But he answered several questions by email and, later, by phone.

When asked to suggest any of his past or present associates who could speak with Postmedia about his work over the years, he declined.

Lee said his charities are overseen by boards of directors. Canada Revenue Agency filings show both Lee’s charities, Grace Christian and Faith & Action Mission Society, have the same five-member boards: Lee, his wife, Sally, and three other people.

Lee declined to provide contact information for the other directors, saying they felt previous news reports had been “negative, inaccurate, incorrect and untrue, and only serve to damage our image and reputation.”

“These are board decisions. … I’m the head person, but I don’t control everything.”

Lee emphasized that while ParkCo is the registered owner of 333 East Pender, 100 per cent of the funds from this month’s property sale will go to Faith & Action Mission Society, his non-profit organization that runs Grace Seniors Home “under a bare trust with ParkCo.”

Lee has said he plans to put the proceeds from the sale of Grace towards the development of a new seniors home at 1742-1762 Renfrew St. in East Vancouver. The Renfrew site is listed for sale at $9.9 million. The listing agent declined to comment.

In a recent email, Lee said his society hopes to get the Renfrew site rezoned to develop an eight-storey, 92-unit seniors home with a community centre, which “will be of tremendous contribution and benefit to the community.”

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“The proceeds from the sale of 333 East Pender St. will go into purchasing the (Renfrew property) which costs about $10 million,” Lee wrote. “Another $40 million will be from CMHC and we are in the process of application for that. If this potential project is impacted by all this negative reporting and fails, we shall have to hold you and your newspaper legally responsible.

“Our housing society has always been serving the community and doing something entirely beneficial to society and nothing negative at all,” Lee wrote. “Why should I be attacked by the press and made to appear evil and have to defend myself to the public?”

Chinese seniors ‘invisible’

For more than a century, Chinese seniors in Vancouver’s Chinatown have largely relied on a patchwork of support systems operated by religious organizations and community associations.

In some respects, Stephen Lee’s past efforts and future plans reveal how public institutions have not adequately addressed housing and care of Chinese seniors.

Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program, advised against focusing on any perceived shortcomings of one housing operator, and thus letting the system off the hook.

Lee is “a brief glimpse at a larger picture that is highly problematic,” Yan said, adding B.C.’s housing system “doesn’t see the need for services that meet the very specific linguistic and cultural needs of those it espouses to serve, so that it falls upon someone like Stephen Lee.”

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Former city planner Jessica Chen
Former city planner Jessica Chen Photo by Allen McInnis /Montreal Gazette

Former Vancouver city planner Jessica Chen contributed to a 2015 provincial government feasibility study on Chinatown senior housing. She was shocked to learn that, had B.C. not stepped in to buy 333 East Pender, about 20 per cent of culturally appropriate housing units near Chinatown would have been lost.

“It might be that (Chinese seniors) ‘being invisible part’ that causes a lack of full understanding,” Chen said.

Christina Lam was one of half a dozen relatives who contacted Postmedia in April fearing Grace residents would need to be relocated. Her mother-in-law has lived at Grace since 2010. Her father, who had worked for nearly 20 years as a labourer for B.C. Ferries, moved there in 2017.

Christina Lam.
Christina Lam. Photo by Francis Georgian /PNG

For 11 years, Lam said, she had been happy with the care her loved ones received at Grace, believing “they’re taking care of our parents the best they can.”

“It was really the eviction” and learning about past times when Chinese seniors had to relocate, that pushed her to speak up against the permanent loss of more housing units for Chinese seniors in the area, Lam said.

Officially, Grace Seniors Home offered independent and supportive housing at market rates. A single room at the Pender home was listed last year for $2,310 a month, which includes meals and other services, while shared double-occupancy rooms were $1,920. In reality, Grace housed many lower-income residents who relied on B.C. Housing’s Shelter Aid for Elderly Residents subsidy.

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Also, because Grace Seniors falls officially into the category of providing supportive housing, Vancouver Coastal Health workers make “home care” visits every week. But the recent threat of eviction revealed that some of its older residents, such as those in their late 90s, are frail enough to qualify for “daily living” care, such as being fed, or medical services that can only be provided in a long-term care home.

Villa Cathay Care Home, also near Chinatown, provides long-term care with 24-hour professional nursing care and services on site. The only other operator of a long-term care home with culturally appropriate services for Chinese seniors in the area is the non-profit SUCCESS and, in total, there are only about 200 such spaces, with another 97 coming at Villa this winter.

“There is always a wait-list,” said Szuchi Lee, Villa Cathay’s executive director.

It means when elders need to move to long-term care for health reasons, if there isn’t a space at Villa or SUCCESS, they might opt to just continue in supportive housing at a place like Grace, she said, because they appreciate the meals, programming and community.

When B.C. Housing announced its purchase of Grace, it appointed SUCCESS to operate it.

SUCCESS board chair Terry Yung said he was glad his non-profit organization will operate 333 East Pender and preserve it as affordable, culturally appropriate housing for Chinese seniors.

Terry Yung of SUCCESS in front of Chinatown Gates in Vancouver.
Terry Yung of SUCCESS in front of Chinatown Gates in Vancouver. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

Donations, developments, and sales

For decades, Lee led the Vancouver Chinese Mennonite Church, or VCMC, a working-class congregation largely made up of Chinese-speaking refugees from Vietnam who settled in Vancouver starting in the late 1970s.

He was featured in a 1995 Province story on his work setting up B.C.’s first refugee resettlement centre in 1979, and his organization’s website says he has given hope to thousands of refugees.

In the 1990s, the VCMC developed a Chinese seniors housing building adjacent to the church, at Pender and Dunlevy.

“As an employee of the VCMC, Rev. Lee collected donations to build the senior home” at 485 Dunlevy, according to a 2013 document by its nine-member council, detailing the property’s history. “All donations were addressed to the VCMC and tax receipts were issued.”

The VCMC church building and neighbouring Dunlevy seniors home were owned by the Mennonite Church of B.C. In the 2013 document, the VCMC council detailed how a society was created to run the seniors home, but the society “was never officially approved by the VCMC as Rev. Lee appointed the board members himself and did not seek approval from the VCMC.”

In the years after the development of the church-owned Dunlevy property, Lee and his charity Grace Christian Chapel developed, ran and, in some cases, closed or sold some other seniors’ homes.

In 1998, Vancouver council rezoned 333 East Pender to allow the development of the Grace Seniors Home facility.

In 2002, a year after Lee retired as VCMC’s lead pastor but while he still served as a minister there, his charity Grace Christian Chapel got city approval to develop a property on Hastings, around the corner from the church, into a four-storey, 89-unit seniors home.

The land for that project, at 596 East Hastings, was donated to Grace Christian by a local property management company, a 2002 city report says, and property records show the property was transferred that year to Grace for $1.

The Hastings project was built, but city records show that less than four years later, Grace Christian sold the property for $11 million to the Salvation Army, an acquisition funded mostly by the province.

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596 E. Hastings St., which the landlord has sold to non-profit groups, on April 14, 2021.
596 E. Hastings St., which the landlord has sold to non-profit groups, on April 14, 2021. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /PNG

Asked about proceeds from the 2007 sale, Lee said the $11 million went to paying off the outstanding mortgage and covering operating losses, and towards charitable works overseas.

“This is done in accordance with our constitution,” Lee wrote. “We have to make sure no money ends up in the pockets of any individuals or private organizations.”

Meanwhile, Lee remained active elsewhere in the real estate market. In 2002, Lee, his charity Grace Christian, and a company he ran called Kimberley Enterprises, bought four adjacent properties in Burnaby for a combined $2.22 million. Plans to develop the site in partnership with another company became mired in competing lawsuits, and Lee’s organizations sold the properties nine years later for a combined $5.8 million.

In the 2002 report recommending approval of the Hastings project, city staff supported the “innovative social housing project involving a public-private partnership,” and described the Grace Christian Chapel charity as being “affiliated to the Mennonite Church of B.C.”

But Janzen, of the Mennonite Church of B.C., said recently: “Our understanding of Grace Christian Chapel is that this was a chapel in a seniors home. We did not have the understanding that Grace Christian Chapel was a society that owned and operated properties.”

By 2012, a few years after Lee’s entities had sold both the Hastings and Burnaby properties, his decades-long relationship with the Mennonite Church of B.C. — and his status as an ordained reverend — came to an end, amid questions about his dealings involving church-owned real estate.

With files from Carolyn Soltau

jlee-young@postmedia.com

dfumano@postmedia.com

Part 2, Monday: Property dispute preceded pastor’s departure from church 


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