On March 30, Vancouver Fire Department inspectors visited the Burns Block, a SRO hotel at 18 W. Hastings. By mid afternoon, the department's inspectors had ordered all tenants to leave the building and find alternate shelter. (SRO means single room occupancy, the bottom end of market housing and, often enough, the only shelter available to low income tenants.)
During the same week, residents of the nearby Pender Hotel finally secured a settlement of their Residential Tenancy Act complaint. The complaint was based on a fire and police department raid at their hotel last fall which had left residents living behind doors that had been kicked in and never repaired. Now, with the complaint settled, local critics tell The Tyee the way is clear for the owners of the Pender to develop it as a high-end boutique hotel.
Meanwhile, the city has announced a hearing April 12 that may close the Lucky Lodge, another troubled hotel in the Downtown East Side, and a similar hearing scheduled for May to consider closing the Astoria Hotel on East Hastings.
These incidents have led neighborhood activists and advocates to charge that, contrary to government commitments, the run-up to the Olympics and gentrification in the Downtown East Side are creating downward pressure on low income housing stocks in the neighborhood and forcing more people into homelessness.
Housing count disputed
The losses mount up. Closures already in place at the Burns Block and the Pender, plus threatened closures at the Lucky Lodge and Astoria could result in the neighborhood losing 192 low-income rental spaces.
Some observers charge that city research into housing stock issues is flawed in ways that minimize the damage that is being done to low cost housing supplies, while a city hall insider told The Tyee that the Burns Block evictions did not follow usual city procedure and were unnecessary.
City of Vancouver research (City of Vancouver Administrative Report A11, 2005 Survey of Low-Income Housing in the Downtown Core) suggests that low-income housing has increased by 3 percent in the Downtown Core from 2003 through 2005, with 99 more units available. However, David Eby of Pivot Legal Society is critical of this research, charging that it is based on two flaws in its analysis, flaws that mask a grim reality of reduced housing and increased homelessness in Vancouver's poorest neighborhoods.
Eby told The Tyee that the city report improperly includes spaces set aside for student housing in its count of low income housing available, and fails to take into account the effects of rent increases on the availability of housing for low income tenants. For a full sense of the Pivot critique, go here.
A city of Vancouver insider spoke to The Tyee on this matter, but was only willing to comment anonymously. Familiar with enforcement issues in the Downtown Eastside and with the details of the events at the Burns Block, this source told The Tyee that the inspection and evictions did not follow usual procedure.
"Usually," our source told us, "if the Neighborhood Integrated Services inspection team identifies safety problems, orders are issued for them to be corrected and then follow up inspections happen, all of which keeps people in their homes."
The March 30 "action wasn't a NIS procedure, and it almost looks like a fireman and a policeman with an agenda at work. There should have been time to correct the faults they found," the source said.
The Tyee contacted Barbara Windsor, Director of Licenses and Permits for the City of Vancouver, who referred all questions about proper procedure to fire department officials.
The reason for the Burns Block evictions, Deputy Chief, Fire Protection Les Szikai told The Tyee in a phone interview, was a series of fire safety regulation breaches discovered at the Burns by his inspectors and a clear statement from the hotel's owner that he did not intend to make necessary repairs.
"I talked to the owner," Szikai said, "and he told me he had no intention of putting any more money into repairing the hotel. He said he means to sell it off. If the owner had been cooperative, the hotel could have stayed open."
Burns Block owner Nick Bahrami has a different memory than deputy chief Szikai of their conversation.
"The fire chief wanted me to spend a lot of money on the hotel. We were fixing things every time they told us to," Bahrami told the Tyee. "I would have been ready to make repairs. The manager nailed shut the exits while I was away and we were getting them opened up. The sprinkler was working just fine. I think the city wants to clean up that area and they're using this fire safety stuff as an excuse."
Vancouver Fire Department Education and Public Information officer Rob Jones-Cook denied that the decision to remove Burns Block tenants was premature.
"We saw occupants of this building in imminent danger. The alarm system didn't work, the fire escape exits were blocked, the emergency lights weren't working and the sprinkler system was suspect. On top of that, the owner told us he had no intention of making any repairs. With the safety equipment not working, we would have been liable if we'd left them in the hotel and something happened to them."
Jones-Cook rejected suggestions that the fire department was somehow acting as an eviction agent for gentrifying landlords or the 2010 Olympics.
"We're just doing our job," he told The Tyee. "Your building is either safe or not safe, and it not, we can't let people stay in danger."
Sister Elizabeth Kelliher, who helps run the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement soup kitchen in the Downtown Eastside, is skeptical.
"The mechanisms are in place to correct problems," she said. "We're seeing many places shut down for problems that have existed for years. Now, all of a sudden, with no warning, boom, people are being thrown out. People were promised a lot of social housing when the Olympics were being discussed. When are we going to see the social housing? We're feeding more and more hungry people, and we're seeing more and more people sleeping right outside the church."
Vancouver journalist Tom Sandborn is a regular contributor to The Tyee.