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Developer eyes Downtown Eastside SRO, worries low-income tenants

After a developer toured their property, tenants of the Chelsea Hotel on 33 W. Hastings are fearful of a possible future on the streets.

Their story is one that has been told many times, as single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) are upgraded, making rents unaffordable for current low-income tenants.

Developer Stephen Lippman is the founder of Living Balance and currently owns at least nine SRO hotels in the DTES. He has a reputation for evicting renters, renovating, and later renting the same rooms for a much higher rate -- a process advocates call renoviction.

"Steven Lippman is in control of 400 [SRO] rooms and we are afraid that he is going to buy the Chelsea next. If that happens, we are petrified of what is going to happen to the people living here," said Wendy Pedersen, a community organizer and DTES resident.

Fred Lincoln, a resident of the Chelsea Hotel, was one of the first people to be alerted about the possibility of the purchase.

"Someone told me that some buyers wanted to come by and look at the building. I volunteered to show them around. I didn't realize who [Lippman] was until later on. At the time I wasn’t sure what was happening," he said.

As a displaced First Nations man, Lincoln says he doesn’t have many options. "I am going to stand up and fight. This is all I have. This is my home. I have to do everything I can to protect it."

Dean Mattatall has already been evicted by a Lippman acquisition. Mattatall used to live at Thornton Park, another SRO hotel in the DTES that was bought by Lippman.

"I had to leave things behind: photographs, personal belongings. We are not gerbils in a cage that you can toss out. But that's how they've been treating us," Mattatall said.

The renovations themselves are not the problem. Tenants agree SRO rooms need to be updated, but not if that means their rents will go up pushing them out to worse SROs, shelters or even to the streets. Chelsea tenants pay $475, already above the $375 housing allowance given to welfare recipients.

"One of the biggest causes of homelessness is the loss of these SRO rooms, like the Chelsea. Systemic racism brought a lot of people to this community and systemic racism is pushing them out," said Pedersen.

Finding a one-size-fits all solution is hard and contentious. For now, Pedersen said she's focused on the "three Rs": "Renovated, rate stabilized and replaced one-by-one with affordable apartments. That's what I think should be done."

Emi Sasagawa is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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