A group of concerned Albertans claim they are each owed hundreds of thousands of dollars after signing so-called “life leases” with Christenson Communities retirement homes.
To keep the pressure on the company while they wait for payouts, the group held a rally outside the Devonshire Village retirement home Saturday.
“If somebody told me I was going to be picketing when I was 95 years old, I would have told them they were crazy,” said one demonstrator.
Life leases are essentially the loaning of a large sum of money to the retirement community in exchange for a unit at a reduced cost.
When the resident moves out or dies, the company keeps some money to refurbish and re-list the unit and the rest is returned to the resident or their family.
“These seniors loaned the money to Christenson. In the case of my family, 328,000 dollars,” said Jim Carey, a spokesperson for the group.
“These are seniors who have poured their entire life savings into these facilities,” Carey said. “How can all this money disappear? Was it not in trust? Was it not readily in plan to be repaid?
“They knew they were dealing with seniors who are going to age out of these facilities, this is not a mystery.”
The group said many of them have been waiting from months to years for their payouts.
At Devonshire Village, 44 loans were in a queue to be repaid as of September, according to a letter from Christenson Communities. Those loans totalled $15 million dollars.
“We all feel very duped, we wonder where the money has gone,” said demonstrator Karin Dowling, who created a Facebook group for people awaiting life lease repayment from Christenson.
“I realized that there was too many people that were silently suffering about the funds they were missing,” Dowling said. “We have grown to over 300 people already that are in the same situation.”
Life lease contracts contain a clause that protects the company in this situation – if too many people come to collect at the same time, they have to wait until the company has the money freed up to pay them out.
Greg Christenson, president of Christenson Developments, said the long queues are partly due to the rapid rise in vacancy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The insinuation that this was like a scam set up to defraud people, of course that’s not the case,” Christenson said.
The company is no longer offering life leases, but Christenson said he believes refinancing the units into rentals could help the company pay seniors and their families around two-thirds of what they’re owed relatively soon, with the rest released over time.
“It’s not a question of us going out there and saying, ‘Don’t life lease.’ We’d love to help people life lease,” Christenson said. “But we’re now in a position where the queue is big enough and the life-leasing interest is low enough – perfect storm both ways – that you could be waiting many years to get your life lease funds.
“At that point, nobody’s interested in life leasing until we pay off those queues.”
Christenson said the company is focused on getting money back to families, as well as working with government and other agencies on ways to prevent the same situation from happening again.
Life leases, unlike condominiums or rental properties, don’t currently have consumer protections in Alberta.
Demonstrators Saturday said they want to see the leases on the agenda for the legislature’s fall sitting, which begins Monday.
“I’m just a little disappointed in our government,” said David Elliot, a resident of Devonshire Village. “They’ve totally dropped the ball as far as life leases is concerned. I think they bear some of the responsibility for our plight.”
“It’s time to stand up for the seniors,” said Carey. “You’ve been standing up for for-profit business and not asking the hard questions. It’s time the government asked the hard questions.
“Step up, pay out the seniors, and Alberta government, you take over the debt.”
Service Alberta Minister Dale Nally has previously told CTV News Edmonton that he is “actively engaging in discussions” with life leaseholders in the province.
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