B.C. government buys up hotels, buildings for homeless

Canadian Press
VANCOUVER — The B.C. government has quietly bought up more than a dozen fleabag hotels and other properties as part of a plan to curb rising homelessness in Canada’s most expensive real estate market.
Community activists have led a rising clamour that owners of so-called single-room-occupancy hotels want to cash in on the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics by converting their buildings to house tourists.
The expected wave of evictions will exacerbate Vancouver’s already serious homelessness problem, critics say.
The Pivot Legal Society estimates hotel conversions have already led to some 700 evictions.

But neither Premier Gordon Campbell nor Housing Minister Rich Coleman say the province’s $80-million announcement Tuesday was intended to quiet the alarm.
“The short answer is no,” Mr. Campbell said in an interview after announcing the funding at the Salvation Army’s headquarters on the edge of Vancouver’s bleak Downtown Eastside.
They said it’s part of the Liberal government’s provincial housing strategy announced last fall to protect existing affordable housing and couple it to support programs to help people such as drug addicts and the mentally ill to overcome their problems.
“We made a major commitment to municipalities and to communities across the province in October last year,” Mr. Campbell said.
Mr. Coleman said he came up with the buy-up plan in January as a way of expediting the government’s strategy.
“I said to my guys, what if we became the purchaser and the modernizer here and we went and protected some of the stock for transition and supportive housing,” he said in an interview.
Mr. Coleman said the plan flew below the radar. The ministry set up a numbered company and worked through a real estate group to avoid a scramble of property owners hoping to sell their buildings at inflated prices.
“We wanted to pay market price like anybody else,” he said. “I thought if we could get five, we would do well. We didn’t have any expectation we would get 10 in Vancouver.”
The funding covers the purchase of 15 buildings, including 10 single-room occupancy hotels in the Downtown Eastside and one in Victoria.
In addition, four buildings in Burnaby and Victoria will be converted into housing units for those with mental health and addiction issues, along with three sites owned by the City of Vancouver for a total of 996 new units.
Mr. Campbell says the government has an obligation to give people the opportunity to live in “safe, clean and affordable housing.”
The housing initiative was first announced last fall, with additional funding committed in the February budget.
Mr. Campbell said his government has tripled the amount of money spent on social housing since 2001, including increased shelter allowances and assistance for elderly renters.
The announcement will bring to 2,200 the number of supportive housing units the government has funded, he said.
“This is the largest single acquisition of this critical housing stock in the history of the province,” Mr. Campbell said.
Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan effusively endorsed the government’s housing strategy, calling it the largest commitment ever to social housing.
“I think today is the day that we begin to turn the tide on homelessness,” Mr. Sullivan said. “This is a wonderful day.”
The mayor said he’ll recommend to city council that $5 million it allocated to buy and upgrade single-room-occupancy buildings be put towards the provincial program.
The announcement even drew praise from Pivot.
“This response is a direct response to the advocacy of Downtown Eastside organizations and the work that we’ve done on the housing issue,” said lawyer David Eby, a Pivot volunteer.
“We’re very pleased to see that the government is finally reacting to the problems down here.”
But Mr. Eby said the plan protects only about 20 per cent of low-income units in the Downtown Eastside, leaving many residents still vulnerable to eviction.
The program fulfils a recommendation by a committee that looked at the Olympics’ impact on housing, which called for government to buy up and improve 800 downtown units.
But it also recommended 3,000 new units be built leading up to the Games, he said.
“What we’d like to see happen is the provincial and federal governments begin to build replacement social housing,” he said.
The buildings the government purchased are run down and will need a lot of renovation, Mr. Eby added.
“B.C. Housing has essentially become Vancouver’s biggest slum lord now with the purchase of these buildings,” he said.
Mr. Coleman said his officials will sit down with non-profit groups to discuss who will manage the buildings.
“Some of it needs to be upgraded, frankly,” he said. “We’ll go in and fumigate the things for bedbugs, cockroaches or whatever’s in them.”