Former residents of the Citadel Mews West seniors’ complex and their families are speaking out about substantial sums subtracted from their now-returned life leases, but the complex CEO says his company was only following contract terms.
While many who lost their homes in the devastating fire on May 6 a year ago were able to relocate to other facilities managed by Christenson Communities — the company that operated Citadel West — others found new homes elsewhere. These residents waited until December to get a payout they could put towards a new suite, and when they received their payment, found a substantial release fee had been subtracted.
The Gazette spoke to seven of these families, three of whom are currently pursuing legal action.
A life lease is an agreement where the resident advances a mortgage-sized sum of money to the landlord — in this case Christenson — to bring down monthly rental costs.
Several of the families that formerly held life leases with Christenson said they chose to enter into their life lease agreements because they could get access to a high-quality suite while simultaneously bringing monthly costs within their budgets.
“My mom was happy in that building,” Donna Wilson, the daughter of a former Citadel Mews West resident, said. “In comparison, some of the other residences for seniors in St. Albert just don’t have that same luxury feel.”
According to Christenson’s website, life lease loans can bring net rent and monthly operating costs down to under $1,000 per month. Operating costs cover everything from heat, water, sewer, gas, and power, to building maintenance and insurance.
Release fee in contracts
According to the contracts Citadel Mews residents had with Christenson, should the life lease be terminated, the landlord is to return the life lease, minus a release fee. The contract outlines that either the landlord or the life leaser can terminate the contract.
Families said they understood reasons they could end their contract included the resident's death, the need to move into long-term care, or the choice to move elsewhere.
In the case that the building is completely destroyed by fire or another disaster, the contract outlines that the landlord can terminate the lease, triggering the repayment process.
Each resident's release fee varied from six to eight per cent depending on their respective contract.
Christenson’s website says this fee is used “to remarket the suite and to repair any regular wear and tear.”
However, with no suite to remarket or regular wear and tear to patch up, some residents impacted by the fire argue that Christenson should have paid their life leases back in full.
Cindy Arcand, whose mother Marion Jager moved into Citadel West in 2016, had around $23,000 deducted from her life lease sum.
“I certainly never expected in … a disaster like this — that they would have the audacity to actually make this deduction from the seniors,” Arcand said. “If my mom were to enter into another life lease with another company, she’s had to pay it twice.”
Those who moved to other Christenson facilities were not charged a release fee, Brian Farrell, the CEO of Christenson Communities, confirmed. Arcand said the release fee, in combination with the half-year wait time, made it feel like Christenson Communities punished residents who did not stay on with the company.
“They just left this group to fend for themselves completely,” Arcand said.
Doug Perry said he and his wife had eight per cent of their lease — around $32,000 — subtracted from their return payment.
“All our life, we watched our nickels and dimes and dollars, and looked after ourselves,” said Perry, who now lives in Calgary after purchasing his daughter's condo.
While Perry said he and his wife were upset when they saw the release fee subtracted, they knew they could still get by. He noted others may not be as fortunate, and might not have the support he and his wife did.
“There are a lot of people who didn’t have family nearby to take care of them,” Perry said.
Citadel Mews West had 109 units, 42 of which were assisted living. Five of the remaining units were rented, and 48 were life leased. Christenson worked in tandem with Alberta Health Services to relocate all assisted living residents, Farrell told city council when asking for property tax relief during a Dec. 6 meeting.
To relocate the remaining life leasers, Christenson offered residents suites in their other facilities, such as Westmount and Devonshire in Edmonton, though some were offered spots in Citadel East in St. Albert.
The families The Gazette spoke to were unable to relocate with Christenson, either because the suites offered didn’t meet their needs, were too costly, or because they wanted to remain close to family in St. Albert.
Arcand's mother — a long-time resident of St. Albert — wasn’t prepared to leave the city, which has been her home for years.
“You can imagine, if all of your family’s here, moving into Edmonton just isn’t a very good option for most seniors,” Arcand said.
An unregulated market
Alberta’s life lease market remains unregulated, unlike in Ontario and Manitoba, where legislation outlines the rights and responsibilities of a life lease holder. In Alberta, life leasers find themselves in an arrangement between renting and buying, and are afforded neither the legal protections of renters, or condo owners.
According to information compiled on life leases by the Centre for Public Legal Education, life lease terms and conditions within Alberta can vary widely.
Ruth Adria, an advocate with the Elder Advocates of Alberta Society, said any market that caters predominantly to a vulnerable population should have substantial safeguards.
“There should not only be regulations, but enforceable regulations,” Adria said. “These are people that, for the most part, can’t defend themselves, they can’t appeal. They’re just trying to survive.”
Josephine Pon, Alberta's Minister of Seniors and Housing, did not respond to The Gazette's request for comment on the lack of regulations for the life lease market in Alberta.
In December of 2021, St. Albert resident Donna Wilson received a strange message from a Facebook friend.
The friend told Wilson that someone on a new moms Facebook group was looking for her, claiming Wilson’s mail had been delivered to their house. Wilson would soon find out it was her mother’s life lease cheque, returned from Christenson.
While the cheque had arrived both misaddressed and late, Wilson said her mother was fortunate to have investments she could live off in the meantime.
“Not everybody is in that position,” Wilson said. “These are elderly people — for many of them, their life investments went into getting into a residence that was more affordable.”
Wilson was shocked, however, when she opened the cheque and found about $40,000 had been subtracted. Wilson — who is now pursuing legal action — said the money will be crucial down the road as her mother’s care needs grow.
“I don’t know what care my mom is going to need as her dementia progresses,” Wilson said. “We want her to have the best of everything that we can provide, and I certainly don’t want to be lining Christenson’s pockets.”
Wilson said she believes Christenson Communities is “counting on people just giving up and walking away.”
“These are senior citizens,” Wilson said, adding that she feels that the former residents have been taken advantage of.
Christenson CEO responds
Farrell said in an interview that it would have been unfair to charge residents who moved to another Christenson facility a release fee, as they will be charged after their life lease ends in the future.
Around 65 per cent of former Citadel West residents remained with Christenson, Farrell said.
When asked how he would respond to residents who argue that they were penalized for moving on to other facilities, and shouldn't have been charged the release fee after losing their homes in the fire, Farrell said the residents "could have moved in to one of our projects."
"It was their choice not to," Farrell said.
When asked what the release fee was used for in this case — without a suite to remarket and regular wear and tear to patch up — Farrell said Christenson "will be remarketing those units" once they build a new facility on the Citadel Mews West grounds.
Christenson Communities is currently in the process of building a new facility on the former Citadel West grounds, appraised at $40 million. Farrell said the new building has been designed, and has just gone out to tender. The building will be around the same size as the former Citadel complex, but will not include assisted living, Farrell said. He hopes construction will move forward by the end of May.
As for the months seniors waited for the life leases to be returned, Farrell said the delay resulted from difficulties Christenson faced in settling with their insurance company.
In response to a question asking where the life leaser's money is held for the tenure of the life lease, Farrell said the cash goes directly to reimbursing costs of the development that Christenson front-ended. Under normal circumstances, should the resident die or decide to move out, a life lease payout is funded through the re-leasing of the suite.
"To me, no one's trying to be unfair or trying to get extra money," Farrell said. "But they have a contract ... I think we were as fair as we could be ... their parents had a problem, but we had a $30-million loss."
Council denies Christenson tax relief
Farrell presented to St. Albert city council on Dec. 6 to ask for the Citadel West facility's property taxes from May 7, 2021, (the day after the fire) up to the end of the year, to be forgiven.
Taxes are evaluated annually, and accordingly, the Citadel Mews West assessment for 2021 factored in the full building even after the fire had burned it down.
When asked by Coun. Ken MacKay whether Christenson's insurance would reimburse property tax losses, Farrell said reimbursement had been a contentious issue with the insurance company. Farrell said Christenson could challenge the company's decision, but it would lead to a prolonged dispute and further delay life lease returns.
Farrell told council the last several months had been “frustrating” in dealing with the insurance company, and that Christenson's finances had been tight, largely due to the pandemic. Farrell said residents were moving out, moving to long-term care, and passing on at a normal rate, but the vacated suites could not be rented out as quickly due to lockdowns imposed by AHS.
Coun. Natalie Joly pointed out that council's current tax relief policy prohibits council from forgiving taxes in the case of fire.
"Are you proposing that we change our policy to accept fire as permissible under our tax relief policy for all homeowners?" Joly asked Farrell.
"We're a business," Farrell said. "We're not a homeowner. There's the difference."
Settling into new spaces
One former Citadel Mews West resident, who did not want to be named because her friends still live in Christenson facilities, has now moved to a condo in St. Albert.
"I am starting to call it home," she said. "It's so much smaller than what I had and not as convenient, but there's a lot of nice people here."
She said there are times, however, when the stress she experienced as a result of the fire comes back to her in waves.
"I don't know if a person ever gets over that trauma," she said. "We were across the street and watching our building burn."
She said the release fee — which she understood would apply in the case of her moving out or dying — feels wrong in the case of the fire.
"We were forced out by the fire," she said. "Not one of us wanted to leave."
Arcand's mother Marion has also found a new place to live in St. Albert.
Ultimately, Arcand says she would like to see a better outcome for her mother and others in her situation who don’t have someone to advocate for them.
“These are the people that supported Christenson,” Arcand said. “Their customers, some of them for many, many years … they’ve been through hell and back."