Victoria builder and homeless advocate Herman Rebneris dies

Victoria – Darron Kloster – – October 29, 2010 – Herman Rebneris, a builder and advocate who tirelessly fought to end homelessness and championed affordable housing for families and seniors in Greater Victoria for more than four decades, lost a five-year battle with kidney cancer this week. [Herman was also a tireless volunteer for Victoria Cool Aid Society.]

Rebneris died on Tuesday at Royal Jubilee Hospital with Vicki, his wife of 46 years, and three children at his side. He was 68.

Active Image

Herman Rebneris, seen here in 2006, with a model of Cool Aid’s FairWay Woods apartments in Langford, built more than 1,000 affordable housing units in the capital region, including this building.

Photo courtesy of Bruce Stotesbury, Times Colonist

“Herman was a man of action. He was an organizer. And he worked hard to make the community as a whole a better place for young people, seniors, for those less fortunate and those on hard times,” said Casey Edge, executive director of Victoria’s Canadian Homebuilders Association, a group that honoured Rebneris with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003 for his breadth of work across the region.

“It’s a big loss for so many people and we will all miss him.”

Vicki Rebernis said her husband fought a brave battle against his cancer, keeping the disease a secret for three years before his health started to fail. He was also a “rock” for Vicki, who had breast cancer diagnosed in October 2008.

Herman insisted on attending the CHBA Care Awards ceremony this month. The week before he died, he attended a three-hour meeting of the Capital Regional District’s Housing Action Team, a regional group advocating affordable housing units. “That’s what kept Herman going — homeless people, families and youth were some of the most important things to him,” Vicki Rebneris said in an interview. “Herman always said ‘There’s never a problem that doesn’t have a solution.’ He lived by that.”

Rebneris built more than 1,000 affordable housing units in the capital with the company he co-founded, Cottage Grove Contracting Ltd., and was most proud of the projects he completed for the Victoria Cool Aid Society.

He was an active member of the Oak Bay Kiwanis Club and developed the Kiwnis Pavilion, a 120-bed extended care facility built on his parent’s property on Cedar Hill Road.

He also built dozens of commercial projects, was a lead advocate of fixing the leaky condos across the province and was an early adapter of industry dismantle and recycling programs. He was active with Habitat for Humanity, helped to establish the Professional Builders’ Institute, which raises the bar for workmanship in the residential building industry and protects consumers, and was a key player in promoting the building trades with youth.

As part of a youth employment project fundraiser and to bring awareness to people living without shelter, Rebneris — then president of the Canadian Homebuilders Association — spent a night on the streets of the city’s downtown in November 1999. “They are just people trying to get by, find a way of life” and sometimes they just need a place to start, he said afterwards.

Rebneris’s harsh beginnings had a lot to do with his compassion for the homeless.

He was born in Schlawe, in German-occupied Poland on March 14, 1942 in a displaced persons camp, shortly after his family fled Lithuania. The first seven years of his life were spent in various camps before immigrating to Saltspring Island through the federal government’s Displaced Persons sponsorship program, where he and his family worked as farmhands. The family left Saltspring for Victoria after fulfilling a two-year obligation and settled on a one-acre parcel on Cedar Hill Road.

Rebneris, known for his strong work ethic, was proud of the fact he was never unemployed. His first paying job was delivering newspapers for the Daily Colonist. He worked several jobs simultaneously while at school including, farming, delivering pies for Paul’s Restaurant, gas stations and later the B.C. Forest Products plywood mill.

His big break into building was as an apprentice draughtsman with John DiCastri Architects, where Rebneris worked on several projects including the Crystal Pool. In 1973 he started his own business, contracting to architects in Victoria to provide inspection and construction management work.

That got Rebneris into the building and development sector, where his passion leaned to supportive and social housing projects.

He sat on several municipal committees that focused on affordable housing and homelessness.

“The thing about Herman was, he was always there. He always had the time,” said veteran Victoria builder Ron Egli, current president of the Canadian Homebuilders Association. “It’s hard to go to meetings when you have 13 municipalities, but he did.

“He was a great human being, and he changed things. Herman always had good humour and he had the respect of everyone. It’s a big loss for us because he always worked to make things better.”

Edge noted that Rebneris “probably had the biggest email list in the world.” He was the ultimate communicator, said Edge, “and that’s how he got things done.”

His generosity was well known and widespread, said Vicki Rebneris. “During the blizzard of 1996, he spent three days on the bulldozer plowing out everyone’s road and driveways. That’s the kind of guy he was. If he could help, he would.”

Rebneris is survived by his wife Vicki, and children; Richard (Shelley), Dean (Chika) and Krista (Marco) Rossato; six grandchildren aged 10 months to 10 years; and his brother, John Birthe.

A memorial will be held at the Union Club, 805 Gordon St. on Monday at 1 p.m. with a reception to follow. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the CRD Housing Action Team, care of the CRD Housing Secretariat, 625 Fisgard Street, Victoria.

© Copyright (c) The Victoria Times Colonist


Herman Rebneris was also a great friend of Victoria Cool Aid Society. In addition to building FairWay Woods and Johnson Manor , Herman was a hard-working volunteer who helped at many events and took photographs and videos for Cool Aid and many other organizations. He will be sadly missed by everyone at Cool Aid.