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Mystery man’s estate gives more than $1 million for low-income housing

Details of why the late Jimmy Chow donated the money remain unclear

When 40 tenants move into the city’s first modular housing complex at Main and Terminal in the next couple of weeks, they will enter through the main door and walk by a simple wooden plaque in the entrance way dedicated to a man named Jimmy Chow.

It reads: “In tribute to the memory of Jimmy Chow. Through Jimmy’s generous donation, the development of this affordable housing was made possible.”

Who is Jimmy Chow?

To start, his estate made a donation of more than $1 million to the $3 million project, which opened its doors Thursday to politicians, media and the public. The three-storey structure, which will be rented to low-income tenants at the $375 shelter rate, has 40 small suites, complete with a kitchen, bathroom and sleeping area.

Mayor Gregor Robertson, Jean-Yves Duclos, who is the federal minister responsible for housing, the builder Horizon North and staff from the city’s housing department were on hand to open the complex. Bracken Hanuse-Corlett, a member of the Wuikinuxy and Klahoose nations, was also on site to discuss the large murals he created for the front and back of the building.

But no one from Chow’s family was there.

This plaque is posted inside the entrance way of the city's new modular housing complex at Main and Terminal.

According to city staff, his family was unable to make it, which further deepens the mystery of who this man is and what motivated him to donate such a sum to a project that benefits low-income people. Through enquiries to the mayor’s office, the Courier learned Chow died in December 2012. His last will and testament, which contained “the gift provision to the city” – a property, which the city sold – was signed May 24, 2007. The city’s legal team “doesn’t have information as to why Mr. Chow left the majority of his estate to the city,” said Katie Robb, the mayor’s director of communications, in an email.

Vision Coun. Kerry Jang visited the complex Thursday and noticed the plaque on the wall. He said he knew little about Chow but was deeply grateful for the donation, noting it was almost as much as the federal government’s $1.5 million contribution.

“I don’t know the details, to be honest, I just know that [the property] was bequeathed to the city by his family, and what they wanted to see done was housing built,” said Jang, who recalled a similar act of philanthropy in 2010 when a couple approached him about donating $30 million for housing. Coincidentally, Jang was going to meet the same couple Friday to help select new tenants for Taylor Manor, a 56-unit complex at Boundary and Adanac for people with mental health issues. The couple has remained anonymous.

The story they told Jang was they had left the Queen Elizabeth Theatre one night in the winter of 2010 and were heartbroken to see the number of young homeless people downtown. That led to several meetings with Jang, visits with the couple to homeless shelters and a dinner at a White Spot with two young homeless people.

Jang also acknowledged the donations the Streetohome Foundation – many of them anonymous -- has made in its ongoing campaign to help pay for housing for low-income people with addiction and mental health issues.

“They’re angels – they’re total angels,” he said of private donors. “When I meet with them, I’m always blown away by their compassion and caring. And I’m also blown away by the amount of frustrations a lot of them have with the federal and provincial governments – and that’s why they’re stepping up.”

The modular housing complex is on city land. It was designed and built within six months. Tenants will move in from existing city housing facilities, including temporary housing such as former hotels and single-room-occupancy hotels in the Downtown Eastside.

“One of the brilliant things about this project is that it allows people to get homes today while we go through the long development process for permanent housing,” said Luke Harrison, the CEO of the Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency.

The complex is expected to remain on the property for at least three years until the site is redeveloped. The city’s housing agency said it is working to develop 2,500 new homes on city land by 2021, with about 1,000 currently in development.