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Protesters Haunt SRO Auction

Advocates worried as Hastings hotel sold to North Van developer.

Andy Prest 2 Mar

Andy Prest is a Vancouver-based writer. He is also the author of The Tyee's wildest story of 2006.

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Residents of the Burns Block were evicted last year.

A Downtown Eastside hotel where 18 residents were given just an hour's notice before being evicted last year was sold at auction Thursday night, despite the efforts of housing advocates protesting outside.

Fire officials closed the Burns Block, a single resident occupancy (SRO) hotel at 18 W. Hastings St., on March 30, 2006. Tenants were told to find alternate shelter. But according to David Eby of the Pivot Legal Society, at least one of the residents is still looking. "One of my clients from that building is still homeless," Eby said. "He was homeless for a long time and then he was in jail and now he's homeless again."

Yesterday Eby said that the fire hazards that forced the closure of the building were relatively minor. "To bring that building back up to speed and deal with the hazards would have taken someone probably about four hours and less than $1,000. Instead they closed the building."

In an interview for an article published last year, the city's deputy fire protection chief told The Tyee that it was the building's owner who kept the problem from being solved. "The tenants could have stayed if the building's owner had dealt with the problems," Les Szikai said.

That owner, Nick Bahrami, instead put the now-vacant building up for sale. And after he failed to secure a buyer, Bahrami hired a broker and took it to auction. Reached by phone Thursday, Bahrami refused to comment to The Tyee.

'Do the honourable thing'

Outside the Broadway Holiday Inn where the auction took place Thursday, a handful of protesters wore signs and handed out fliers to potential investors. Among them was Wendy Pedersen from the Carnegie Community Action Project. Pederson said investors need to know that they will not have free rein to develop condos or apartments that do not address the area's affordable housing needs.

"Action against developers is increasing," she said. "We're going to start creatively pressuring the owners -- new owners and existing owners in this neighbourhood -- to fix up their hotels and do the honourable thing, which is not profit in the millions of dollars off of homeless people."

Pedersen also warned that the political climate is changing. Vancouver City Council recently tripled the conversion fee for owners to demolish or upgrade SRO rooms. It now costs $15,000 per room. Council member Peter Ladner also suggested that developers should have to build one SRO room for every one they take away.

"We just wanted to let people know, in case they don't know the politics of the situation before they buy," Pedersen said. "It might not be open season for speculation." Pedersen also brought up another "hidden cost." "The other cost is the social cost and the economic cost of homelessness. If the new owner wants to convert to condos, they're contributing to homelessness."

Several of the protesters tried to enter the auction room but were denied entrance. One of them was told they needed a $50,000 deposit cheque if they wanted to attend. Valeria Lockwood, Bahrami's real estate agent, said that the protesters' warnings were not needed.

"There's nothing new here," she said, looking at the protesters' flier. "[The investors] all went to city hall and got all [of the] information. This is not new. They all know about it."

Lockwood also said that it is up to the potential buyers to decide what they would do with the building. "Of course lots of buyers wanted to get out of SRO," she said. "They want to do something more desirable and nice. If the city allows it, it's good. If the city doesn't allow it, they're going to do their best to make it nice. The little rooms are destroyed and small. It's not a livable place. Even people with low income, I think, deserve better."

Price nearly tripled in four years

A North Vancouver based developer bought the building for $1.45 million, more than $1 million less than the seller's original asking price. Bahrami paid $550,000 for the building in 2003.

Ahmad Negahban, one of the developer's representatives, said they were not influenced by the protesters but they are sympathetic to their cause. "I understand. We all understand. But at the same time we have to look at the market and how it's moving," he said. Their plans are to completely renovate the inside of the building but to likely keep three floors -- 15 suites -- for SRO as mandated by the city, he said. He also said they don't want to get into any fights with housing advocates or with the city.

"We don't want to go to through any battles. We don't want to go anywhere like that. We're just doing building construction and renovation and we try to make things better."

Private sector fails on low-income housing

On Wednesday, 40 more SRO rooms were lost when tenants of the Piccadilly Hotel were evicted. Eby said that private real estate buyers and sellers like Bahrami are not really to blame for the lack of affordable housing. "I have a hard time blaming this guy for trying to make $2 million. There are a lot of people that would try to make $2 million if they could," he said. "What this whole story reflects is the failure of the private sector to provide quality housing to low-income housing individuals. Because there will always be speculation and there will always be someone trying to make a buck at the expense of our most marginalized residents."

For every SRO unit gained, it seems like at least one is lost, Eby said. "We're just keeping even and we've got an ever-increasing number of homeless people on the street. It's a little bit overwhelming with the government at the provincial and municipal and federal levels, I mean, they're all just so indifferent to what's happening down here and people ending up on the street when these buildings close or convert to student housing or when the rents go up."

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