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OBWH In the News

Oak Bay home ready to house refugees, immigrants

Sept. 26, 2020

When David Lau first entered the six-bedroom house on the corner of Monterey Avenue and Theatre Lane he cut out the water damaged plaster hanging from one of the bedroom ceilings himself.

The executive director of the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society has experience and passion for renovating old houses and has helped turn two of them in Oak Bay into housing for new Canadians. This week the District of Oak Bay signed a three-year lease on the house at 1538 Monterey Ave. and the house directly behind it at 1531 Hampshire Rd.

“We desperately need housing for refugees in [Greater] Victoria, as we know it’s a competitive market,” Lau said.

The houses are in great shape thanks to a major effort by more than 160 volunteers who donated time, parts and labour from neighbours, electricians, plumbers, contractors, and other businesses across the region.

READ ALSO: Victoria immigrant centre’s refugee housing lands in Oak Bay

VIRCS took over the Hampshire house three years ago and brought it from a tear-down state to a fully renovated home.

“To name the list of sponsors who’ve donated parts, products, labour and more … is difficult,” Lau said. “I’d have to start on one arm to list them all and it would go up and down my legs.”

Oak Bay bought the Hampshire property in 1990. It was considered as a parking lot in 2007 and again in 2012.


A family of five new Canadians has been living there since VIRCS, and company, fixed it in 2018.

“We spent seven months working intensely on Hampshire, as it had been vacant and unheated for many years,” Lau said. “There were holes in the roof and the plaster was in bad shape. The plumbing was shot. The wiring couldn’t pass inspection and water was pooling in the basement.”

Repairs included the installation of a perimeter drain (by Royal Rooter’s Jeff Richmond) to end the condensation in the lower floor.

The family that is in Hampshire will stay awhile longer, Lau said, as they become better integrated into the community.

Monterey was in better shape than Hampshire when VIRCS’ supporters started fixing it this year but neither near livable, Lau said. Monterey now has a hip look to it thanks to bold paint choices, eccentric lighting fixtures and mid-century modern furniture donated by Article furniture out of Vancouver.

Oak Bay bought 1538 Monterey in 2016 for $1.7 million. The site is a double lot.

Lau was able to double the Monterey house kitchen. It was completely gutted and now has stainless steel counters and sinks, two ranges and two fridges, thanks to Harbour Kitchens, Crest Sheet Metal, West Coast Appliances, True Home Plumbing and more.

“I have a retired electrician, still ticketed, replacing all kinds of wiring from different decades,” Lau said.


Ideally, Monterey home will house refugees and immigrants for six to nine months while they get settled and build a community. One or two staff from VIRCS will live in one of the six bedrooms, starting with a couple.

“It just happens the first to put their hands up to live there are a couple,” Lau said. “One was in the hotel industry, the other in architecture who knows old houses.”

The Monterey house will need a rezoning application to permit more than two non-family members. Oak Bay council committed to providing the rezoning for single persons or couples, with a maximum occupancy of eight residents, plus accommodation of a caretaker or an employee.

The entirety of the work on both houses is a testament to the power of community, Lau said. Oak Bay wasn’t looking to build a new house in either location, nor was it an option for VIRCS. But by having more than 160 volunteers come together in different ways on the project, the houses were rebuilt.

Refugee society celebrates near-completion of two ‘Welcome Houses’ in Oak Bay

Mar. 13, 2019

The Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society (VIRCS) celebrated its Oak Bay Refugee Welcome Houses with a thanks to donors Tuesday.

“Every single contributor to the Welcome Houses has proven that they believe in a future that ensures that vulnerable newcomers who flee to the shores of Vancouver Island are properly welcomed, taken in and given a warm, safe space while they rest, rebuild and then relaunch with new hopes and dreams, ” said David Lau, VIRCS executive director.

RELATED: Victoria immigrant centre’s refugee housing lands in Oak Bay (video)

The District of Oak Bay, which purchased the homes as a strategic asset, agreed in early 2018 to lease them to VIRCS for transitional housing for vulnerable newcomer refugees with the provision that VIRCS undertake the required renovations. Dozens of businesses and over 100 community volunteers and trades provided donated materials and free labour to get the single-family home completed in July 2018. It now houses a refugee family, while work is underway on the larger home to be shared by different family groups.

A live-in staff member with VIRCS will coordinate the two homes. The Welcome Houses are the first of their kind in Greater Victoria.

B.C. Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin delivered the keynote speech during an event to honour businesses and volunteers that worked to renovate two homes in Oak Bay. The event at the Delta Ocean Pointe Hotel included music by Neil Osborne of 54.40.

District of Oak Bay and the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society Partner on Welcome House Project for Refugee Families


Renovations championed by a generous and dedicated group of volunteers and businesses are underway at 1531 Hampshire Road as the District of Oak Bay and the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society (VIRCS) prepare to welcome a refugee family to the community.

The District of Oak Bay purchased 1531 Hampshire Road as a strategic asset anticipating future uses in the village. While this property will in the future support the growth in the village, the District has agreed to work with the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society (VIRCS) to enable an interim affordable housing opportunity for a family who are refugees.

Mayor Nils Jensen, District of Oak Bay

“Working with the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society and the incredible number of volunteers who are providing free labour and materials to create homes for families seeking a safe and loving community is a humbling opportunity and the right thing to do. While we cannot alter the past for these individuals, we can play a significant role in helping them establish a new home and a kind, bright future. We look forward to welcoming these families into our community, into our schools, our businesses and into our hearts. It is the right to do.”

Mr. David Lau, Executive Director, VIRCS

“Victoria has only recently been designated as a Resettlement Area Program (RAP) location, however there has been no investment in providing housing resources.

We are absolutely delighted that Oak Bay is partnering with VIRCS to create a housing resource, and we are incredibly grateful to our amazingly generous corporate partners who are volunteering their time and resources to upgrade homes for our refugee families.

Quote from one of the volunteers: Ms. Julia Schenck, Creative Director, ARYZE  (250.884.4382) ARYZE is providing project management, site labour, organized materials, coordinated resources and extended the opportunity to our network of sub-trades.

“Refugee initiatives like Hampshire House and Monterey House help shape our

neighbourhoods for the better.”

Who are Refugees?

  • Refugees may come from camps, war-torn countries or countries where they live in limbo without formal status or security.

  • Refugees may also be fleeing targeted persecution due to their political opinions or affiliations, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation

  • Refugees may have become separated from family members whose whereabouts is unknown or may be grieving the deaths of family, friends, and in general, the destruction wrought upon their lives and homeland

  • Most arrive alone and isolated without the support networks we all take for granted

  • Many arrive speaking only their own language or with rudimentary skills with which to communicate in their new host country

  • All have lost their livelihoods and must begin again in their new host country

What is a Welcome House?

A Welcome House is not: subsidized housing; permanent housing, a medical facility, a business, a hotel/motel, or an apartment building.

A Welcome House is a socially-proposed home that facilitates the resettlement of refugees who may have barriers to adjusting and integrating to life in Canada.

The Welcome House on Monterey is hosted by a mix of staff and community volunteers who are experienced with resettling refugees, trauma, language acquisition and other situations commonly faced by refugees.  

The purpose of a Welcome House is to create a gentle transition into the community at a pace that enables incremental independence for the refugee family as they build personal capacities and create lasting community connections and a new life.

Victoria immigrant centre’s refugee housing lands in Oak Bay

June 20, 2018

Oak Bay partnered with the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society and a plethora of volunteers to provide housing at municipally-owned homes at 1531 Hampshire Rd. and 1538 Monterey Ave.

“Partnership with the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society has taken some time but it really is exciting that it’s come to fruition,” said Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen. “It has been a community coming together to do an act of charity, generosity and love.”

RELATED: Municipal home on Hampshire eyed for Syrian housing

RELATED: Syrian housing idea takes root

“We are absolutely delighted that Oak Bay is partnering with VIRCS to create a housing resource, and we are incredibly grateful to our amazingly generous corporate partners who are volunteering their time and resources to upgrade homes for our refugee families,” said David Lau, executive director, VIRCS.

In early 2016 residents led a charge to clean up the unused home on Hampshire and provide potential refugee housing, arranging in-kind donations to start the process. Council supported the effort “in principle” but required commitment of a suitable community group to officially lead the project.

“It started as a community grassroots initiative,” Jensen said. “Since that time council has been working to identify the right partner.”

RELATED: Critical link missing in Syrian housing bid

Renovations are expected complete soon with a family moving in this summer.

“It’s been quite humbling to see the number of people volunteering to provide safe and supportive housing,” Jensen said. “It really speaks to the generosity of our community and the kindness of Canadians.”

Julia Schenck, Aryze creative director, volunteered providing project management, site labour, organized materials, coordinated resources and extended the opportunity to our network of sub-trades. More than 100 volunteers have put in beyond 600 hours.

“Refugee initiatives like Hampshire House and Monterey House help shape our neighbourhoods for the better,” said Schenck.

RELATED: Hampshire lot use a hot topic

In the coming weeks, renovations are expected to begin at 1538 Monterey Ave. which is slated to serve as the Welcome House co-ordination point where a VIRCS staff member will live and manage day-to-day operations of both properties. The Welcome House is to be hosted by a mix of staff and community volunteers who are experienced with resettling refugees, trauma, language acquisition and other situations commonly faced by refugees.

“It will still take us several more months, significant effort and partnership to get both houses up and running, but we are heartfully pleased that the municipality and especially the council has enabled us to solve a problem in a way that will be a source of local pride,” said Lau.

The district will receive $900 a month rent on the smaller house, Jensen said, noting it has received “tens of thousands of dollars in upgrades.” The home has been unoccupied for years, but upgrades to the roof, electrical and things such as stairs make it habitable again.

Oak Bay bought the Hampshire property in 1990, acting as a landlord for the single family residence since. It was considered by council for a parking lot in 2007 and discussed again in 2012.

“The community made it clear they had a different vision of what should be there,” Jensen said.

Oak Bay bought the land at 1538 Monterey Ave in 2016. They paid $1.7 million for the site that includes two residential lots with a single-family home. Both municipally-owned houses will be part of the community conversation when Oak Bay envisions its future for that corridor, Jensen said.

He called this a “short-term” partnership with VIRCS, knowing “we will have a community conversation” about a vision for the village. While that isn’t currently on the council strategic plan, it is on the mind of some local business owners.

“We reluctantly accept that this decision has been made, but we want (council) to commit to keeping this use short-term, no longer than 24 months, and agree to honour the commitment made to Oak Bay businesses to use these properties to enhance parking in the Village when the time is up,” wrote the owners of Penny Farthing, Pharmasave, Engel & Voelkers and Chef on the Run.

The Penny Farthing, and other businesses in the village, paid into a parking fund and say they were told the lot behind the pub was intended for future parking.

The businesses say they need the parking in order to support the businesses and maintain a thriving village.

“There is almost $1 million in the parking fund and our fear is that it will be used for other uses under the Transportation Act,” said Matt MacNeil, owner of the Penny Farthing. “We want that dialogue front and centre and out there publicly.”

The refugee family as they build personal capacities and create lasting community connections and a new life.

Syrian housing idea takes root

Feb. 24, 2016

Jan Mears plans to mobilize the community and renovate a municipally owned home to welcome Syrian refugee families.

Spurred by a presentation to Oak Bay council by Cairine Green, Mears took the task to the next level, creating a framework to take to council in March.

Armed with a report – the proposed project’s first donation, offered gratis by Pillar to Post Home Inspection – she’ll have a better idea of what would be required to bring the home up to snuff.

“A community group is coming together to raise the funds and source the donated services and materials necessary,” Mears said. “We wanted to see if we can make it safe, liveable and affordable.”

With no dream kitchen or magazine landscaping in mind, she envisions simple and clean and able to get Syrian refugee families integrated into Oak Bay.

“This idea simply needed community momentum and I am grateful for the support of others,” said Green. “We will take it one step at a time and hope that something comes of it all. The potential is exciting and positive and is such an opportunity for community-building.”

Mears already touched base with Habitat for Humanity and HeroWork (which recently renovated a Threshold Housing Society property adjacent to Oak Bay).

“There is a lot of community support to find ways to support Syrian refugee housing. Whether this is the option is yet to be determined,” said Coun. Tara Ney.

“There is remarkable compassion nestled in this community, this would be an opportunity for that compassion to come out.”

During his inaugural speech after the November 2014 election, Mayor Nils Jensen said the land at 1531 Hampshire Rd. would see a resolution in this four-year term.

The lot was originally purchased to create parking.

“Times have changed, we see more people out bicycling and walking. There’s a raised awareness that  getting out of your car is a good thing,” said Mears. “And I think it’s good for Oak Bay to be part of the larger world. There are 400 people coming to Victoria, why not Oak Bay?”

Mears’ proposed project team includes members of each constituency group – or Syrian refugee sponsorship group – in the area, including churches and private citizens.

The Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria will make a presentation on “Welcoming Syrian Refugees to our Community – Support and Services Needed for Success” during a public Community

Association of Oak Bay-sponsored meeting on Feb. 29 at Emmanuel Baptist Church, 2121 Cedar Hill X Rd. from 7 to 9 p.m.

To learn more about the cause and how to donate time or services email

Municipal home on Hampshire eyed for Syrian housing

Feb. 11, 2016

In a bid to open community dialogue, former Oak Bay councillor Cairine Green asked council to explore options to provide temporary and/or transitional housing to Syrian refugee families seeking to settle in the municipality.

During last week’s committee of the whole meeting, Green called for a mayor’s task force or leadership team and a municipal staff report to outline what housing options, if any, are available, such as vacant legal in-law accommodation, vacant rental housing and the municipally owned house at 1531 Hampshire Rd.

“If we don’t ask the question of the community we won’t know what the answer is,” Green said. “It could be used as transitional housing.”

The suggestion quickly became about more than hosting Syrian refugee families.

“It’s on everyone’s mind and we’d all like to do our part, we just don’t know how,”  said Coun. Michelle Kirby, adding there are concerns in the community, reflected in the official community plan, about a need for affordable housing in general.

“This is a bigger issue and I would not like to see this set aside as a special project.”

Housing should be at the forefront in 2016, she said, not only for refugee families “but the vulnerable people that exist already in our community.”

Coun. Tara Ney agreed Green’s suggestion was innovative.

“The amount of support and willingness to host Syrian families in their community and Greater Victoria is enormous. One of the biggest barriers is housing,” Ney said.

“This could be a wonderful opportunity for our community to do good works,” agreed Coun. Eric Zhelka, adding he’s in favour of moving forward in some capacity with the Hampshire Road home as it’s been “derelict so long.”

During his inaugural speech after the November 2014 election, Mayor Nils Jensen mentioned 1531 Hampshire, suggesting it would see a resolution in the four-year term.

Key is to decide what they should do with the land, as ideas bandied about previously ranged from parking lot to park. The lot was originally purchased for parking. “There’s a myriad of ideas out there,” Jensen said. “Until we have something concrete we’re talking lofty ideas.”

Coun. Kevin Murdoch agreed with Kirby’s assertion infill housing and other affordable alternatives are on the agenda for this year.

“I think we’re all in support of finding ways of helping,” he said. “(However) we have to decide if we’re going to turn it into a parking lot or a park … we need to determine the fate of that property.”

Murdoch said it was a challenge to support renovations to the home to bring it up to liveable standards without a clear idea of what’s needed in the way of housing for Syrian refugee families.

“We do have to make a solid decision on that (property),” said Coun. Hazel Braithwaite.

Braithwaite is a member of the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria that helps individuals and organizations connect across cultures. They currently have 45 people representing all aspects of the community and levels of government working on both private and government-sponsored Syrian refugee files. Braithwaite later confirmed money to top up rents would be most helpful at this point to help house any refugees.