A year after the Balmoral Hotel was shut down, the City of Vancouver has declared that its sister building, the Regent Hotel – just across the street from the Balmoral and owned by the same slumlord – is in unsafe condition for residents. The City issued a notice to vacate the building within 8 days, by Friday June 28, 2018. With this eviction, the City is closing 150 more units of low-income housing, after closing 188 in the Balmoral, which remain empty still. The City has dodged an election-year shaming by arranging the re-housing of tenants into existing rooms in other buildings. But fastracking Regent tenants into the Jubilee Rooms offloads the pain of losing a mass of low-income housing units onto the thousands of homeless people who, bumped down BC Housing wait lists, languish on the streets of the Downtown Eastside, outside and under the awning of these two hulking, empty, condemned buildings.
The ones who benefit from the City’s condemning and eviction of the Balmoral and Regent hotels are the slumlord owners, who profited off rents for decades without spending on maintenance, and the predatory real estate investor Steven Lippman, who bought the Jubilee Rooms a year ago and flipped it to the Province for $4.5million more than what he paid for it. Landlord and investor profiteers are easy targets for blame, but the responsibility should rest not with these bottomfeeders, who will always exist when given the opportunity, but with the profit-seeking rental system, and the City, Provincial, and Federal governments that administer and feed it.
A bylaw to protect tenants that does not protect tenants
As with the evacuation of the Balmoral last year, the City waited until the very last moment – when the building is literally on the verge of collapsing – to issue a notice to vacate the building. The safety hazards and disrepair of the building have been known to the City for years, if not decades. Only in the last few years has the City started paying some attention to the building. In September 2017, the City identified over 426 Standards of Maintenance violations and 67 Fire Bylaw violations for prosecution. Yet despite full knowledge of the unsafe living conditions, the City did not use their existing tool in their Standards of Maintenance by-law to fix dangerous and unlawful building conditions and fine the landlord.
And as with the evacuation of the Balmoral Hotel, the City denies responsibility for the deteriorating conditions of the Regent. At a press conference with the Government of British Columbia, City of Vancouver, and RainCity Housing on June 20, Mayor Gregor Robertson blamed the closure on the “many years of deplorable negligence by the owners of the Regent Hotel.”
Too little, too late: NDP and Vision strain to spin the Regent eviction
Both the Provincial NDP and the Vision Vancouver city government tried to spin the mass eviction of the Regent as evidence of their aggressive and progressive action in defence of tenants. “Today’s announcement is good news for people who are moving from extremely unsafe conditions at the Regent,” said Selina Robinson, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing. “The closure of the Regent follows years of health and safety violations that were not acted upon by the owners.” Vision Vancouver’s Mayor Gregor Robertson announced that he has directed staff to buy both Sahota-owned hotels, the Regent and Balmoral, and will expropriate if the Sahotas refuse to sell. But as Robinson and Robertson spoke, residents from the Regent who were barred from entering the press conference, stood outside shouting in anger.
Despite Minister Robinson’s claims, the closure of the Regent is not good news for the people moving out. Residents are upset that the government refuses to take responsibility for the role they have played in allowing the Regent as well as other single room occupancy (SRO) buildings in the DTES to deteriorate. After years of fighting for safer and better housing, residents feel the government is acting far too late.
Sahotas and the City of Vancouver: Public-Private Partnership of tenant abuse and eviction
“This has been going on with the Sahotas for years,” says Regent resident, Jack Gates. “The City knew all about it and did nothing to change or force the Sahotas to maintain the building. There have been so many options for the city to help tenants in the Regent and in other SRO buildings.”
Gates says that SRO residents in the DTES and supporters have been calling on the city to enforce the city’s standards of maintenance By-law section 23.8 for several years. Section 23.8 states that when a building does not comply with standards, City Council can order the landlord to remedy concerns, and if the landlord fails to do so within 60 days of the order, the City will carry out the work at the owner’s expense. “If the city enforced section 23.8 along time ago, they could have fixed the SROs and billed the Sahotas,” said Gates. “People would still have their homes.”
While activism, advocacy, and media coverage has forced the Province to promise all tenants of the Regent will be housed, the loss of the Regent impacts many others who are still waiting for housing. “My children are sleeping outside on the streets,” says Marcella Jacob, a DTES community member. “Atira told us that everything has been frozen until people at the Regent are housed. Every Monday and Friday [my children and I] go to BC Housing and Atira to look for housing but we get turned down.” The Atira-organized displacement of Regent tenants is happening within a common BC Housing technique of leaving social housing and residential hotel rooms empty for months in order to cut off public relations disasters like the Regent eviction.
Regent tenants are in the process of being moved to various SRO hotels and supportive housing buildings. Police told a CBC reporter that “the city has outreach workers inside who are working hard to convince those who don’t want to go to leave.” Many will be housed in the Jubilee Rooms, a 78-unit SRO hotel recently purchased by the Province through its Supportive Housing Fund.
A title search shows that the Province bought the Jubilee Rooms for $12.5 million on May 31st for close to twice its assessed value. The beneficiary of this windfall was 235 and 237 Main Street Holdings, a company owned by serial SRO hotel gentrifiers Steven Lippman and Danny Wong. According to mortgage assignment papers, Lippman and Wong bought Jubilee Rooms for $8 million in September 2017 from the long-term non-profit owner, Community Builders Benevolent Association. In May 2017, Community Builders evicted 26 tenants out of the Jubilee Rooms for renovations and by the fall, 235 and 237 Main Street Holdings had emptied the rest of the 52 rooms in the building. This means that the City and Province didn’t move people into an empty building; they moved people into a building that had been cleared 9 months ago. In other words, tenants of the Jubilee Rooms were illegally renovicted to facilitate the sale of the building to the Province, which needed a place to shuffle Regent residents into.
Steven Lippman is an investor who has a track-record of gentrifying SRO hotels. After selling off nearly the entire 100 block of West Hastings for massive profits with the opening of the Woodward’s project in 2010, Lippman invested his returns in buying such hotels as the Golden Crown, the Lotus, the York Rooms, and the American, evicting the low-income residents, and rebranding the buildings as “micro-lofts” in order to rent them for 2-3 times the rents that low-income people can afford. Rather than adjusting rent controls so that landlords cannot raise rents between tenancies, the Province’s purchase of the Jubilee Rooms has paid-off a predatory investor, padding Lippman’s investment portfolio with an additional $4.5 million in capital. British Columbia’s Residential Tenancy system works for landlords and investors while the poor are evicted to the streets.
Institutional housing or the street: The future of low-income community existence in the DTES
Under the Province’s ownership, the Jubilee Rooms will be managed by RainCity, with staff onsite 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Tenants and activists have criticized the supportive housing model as the legal redefinition of housing that strips tenants of their rights and introduces surveillance into the homes of the poor, wrapping them in 24 hour staffing outside of any legal framework of accountability or rights. If the City makes good on its threat of expropriating the Regent and Balmoral, we can expect to see the same prison-like supportive housing that has become the default mode of controlling and monitoring poor people.
Since Vision Vancouver was elected in 2008 on the promise to end homelessness, the city’s homeless population has increased from 1,600 to over 2,200. In 2017 alone, 500 SRO units affordable to low-income people were lost in the DTES, with 168 lost at the Balmoral. Once the Regent shuts down, another 150 rooms will be lost. Anyone with a basic knowledge of arithmetic can see through the Province’s sickening declaration of “good news”. The reality is that homelessness is growing without an end in sight. The rampant gentrification of low-income neighborhoods continues to displace poor, working class, and Indigenous people, and the government only offers false solutions: inclusionary zoning, racist foreign buyers taxes, partnerships with non-profit and for-profit corporations, and supportive housing complexes. These measures function to obscure the root causes of the housing crisis, justify the stigmatization and criminalization of the poor, and insist that desperate people accept their own death and marginalization as inevitable.