A few months ago a drug dealer burst inside Calvin Smoker's bachelor apartment in the Marie Gomez Place and smashed an escaping drug addict's face in with a metal pipe. It was punishment for not paying his debts. Blood splattered across the room. A surprised Smoker jumped from his bed, picked up a two-by-four and chased both of them out of his room, but the dealer still managed to beat the user up pretty badly.
"There's violence all over the Downtown Eastside," says the soft-spoken Smoker, who suffers from severe arthritis and has to use a scooter to get around. "There's people getting killed all the time, you just don't hear about it."
The 60-year-old native man was able to get the drug dealer out of his room on that occasion, but over the past three years that he has lived in the 76-unit Marie Gomez at the corner of Princess and Alexander in Vancouver, he hasn't always been so lucky. Drug dealers have often muscled their way into his room and kicked him out to use it as a base to deal drugs. Sometimes the staff at the Marie Gomez was able to help him reclaim his place. But since the building is drastically understaffed, Smoker often had to just sit and wait for them to leave.
Overrun by drug dealers, violence, crime and disease, and crumbling to the point that it has been considered condemned, the Marie Gomez will be torn down by the City of Vancouver by the end of the year. The decision comes at a time when Vancouver is in the midst of a major housing crisis and continues to see an increase in its homeless population. A September 4 report from the City's director of the Housing Centre outlines the unfortunate irony of recommending to demolish affordable housing at a time when there is a desperate need for more.
"It is with great regret that the demolition of 76 units of housing for low income singles is recommended," the report states. "With vacancy rates at less than 1% across the city and less than 2% in the downtown SROs, this is not a good time to lose 76 units of low income housing."
Best of intentions
Despite the obvious safety and health risks that the Marie Gomez poses, many Marie Gomez residents and Downtown Eastside activists remain angry that it was allowed to fall into such disrepair in the first place and earn the reputation as one of unhealthiest and most dangerous buildings in Vancouver.
"If these people were cats and dogs, the SPCA would be here and shut this place down," says Garvin Snider, a former maintenance worker in the building who volunteered his time by doing repairs, "but since they're 'crack heads,' it's okay."
Like most projects in the Downtown Eastside, the Marie Gomez started out with the best of intentions. Opened in 1983 by the BC Housing Foundation, the society wanted to expand its outreach into the city's poorest neighbourhood and tried to build a living space that, unlike so many of the surrounding SROs, would give the residents bigger rooms. But the building had construction problems from the start and has suffered from constant leaking. The society also quickly realized that it was in over its head in terms of dealing with the extreme social problems of its tenants, and in 1988 sold the building to the Downtown Eastside Residents Association (DERA) for just $1.
But the structural damage and financial problems caught up to the Marie Gomez in 2002 and DERA was forced to shut the building down. Although DERA owned the building, it was actually operated by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the federal government's housing authority. But when the building was shut down, the CMHC did not spend any money to make any repairs. Because most of the tenants were on the welfare, the rents could not generate enough income to pay of the repairs and CMHC decided to do nothing. Frustrated by the government's inactivity and seeing the growing amount of homeless in the city pile up on the streets, DERA reopened the building in 2003 and filled it back up with tenants who are considered "hard-to-house."
However, the building's problems only continued as drug dealers moved in and took over, causing a SWAT team to storm the building in 2003 in order to bring it under control. But the police work didn't make the drugs and violence disappear from the Marie Gomez. Last year, the Province newspaper ran a story about sex workers who live in the building being tortured and having their heads shaved for drug debts -- an allegation that DERA denies.
Fires, rats, TB and lockdown
Today, tenants say the violence and drug dealing have calmed down considerably thanks to a building manager named James Hardie, who chased many of the worst offenders away. But all of DERA's efforts still couldn't save the building.
Last April, two fires were deliberately set in the Marie Gomez. With the building already a virtual tinderbox, DERA was afraid it could have led to massive deaths. Around the same time, the federal government transferred operational authority of the building to BC Housing, the province's housing authority, and the Marie Gomez was put under lockdown. BC Housing brought in two security officers to monitor the building 20 hours a day and tenants were told they had 60 days before the building would be shut down. Just when it seemed things couldn't get any worse, the building suffered two tuberculosis scares. With the health and safety of the Marie Gomez continuing to deteriorate, nurses from the Vancouver Coastal Health won't even enter the building.
"There's no lights in the building, there's drug dealing in the halls, there's rats -- it's been condemned," says Vivianna Zanocco, a spokesperson with Vancouver Coastal Health. "It's unsafe from a number of standpoints. It depends on the clients, but we try to get them to come into clinics or community centres for treatment.... It's an unsafe situation for the nurses."
Dying breed of housing
The poor state of the Marie Gomez is especially troubling considering it is one of the few self-contained apartment buildings for low-income residents in the Downtown Eastside. Many of the Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels in the area are tiny rooms without bathrooms or kitchens. But in the Marie Gomez, the rooms are much more spacious and come with their own bathrooms, giving residents a sense of privacy and security. With SRO rents now commonly more than $400 a month in the neighbourhood, the Marie Gomez represents a dying breed of cheap housing, charging its tenants only $325 a month. With DERA pouring what little money it makes from rent back into continuous repairs, it has been unable to pay off the $2.2 million it owes in mortgage or the $47,500 it owes in property taxes.
But despite its numerous problems, Miguel Araiza says the Marie Gomez is the "best place he has ever lived." An extremely gentle and polite artist, Araiza is bi-polar and has lived in the building for the past three years. In a room covered in hanging speakers and art projects, Araiza creates intricate and beautiful drawings and still had hope that the building could be saved, but did not like the way it was being handled.
Araiza left Mexico 18 years ago because of human rights violations and when BC Housing brought in security guards that began to harass the tenants, he was frustrated to find the human rights violations he escaped from in Mexico going on in his own building in Vancouver. To make matters more complicated, between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m., the security guards are off duty, and the violent and predatory drug dealers return.
Cameron Gray, the director of the city's housing centre says the building is in difficult shape because of envelope failure and leaking from the copper piping. He says the city had been waiting to make a decision about the building until it had completed the Downtown Eastside Oppenheimer District Official Development Plan (DTES ODP) -- although the city strike has affected its timing.
'Where are these people going to go?'
Both BC Housing and DERA agree that the building should be torn down. Kim Kerr, DERA's executive director, admits the building is a "shithole" and says the problems keep him up at night. While the rest of DERA's buildings have a solid reputation, Vancouver Police Department spokesperson Const. Tim Fanning say the police answer roughly 100 calls a year to the Marie Gomez.
But while it would seem that tearing down a dilapidated building would be an easy decision, Kerr says he's conflicted because of the city's growing homeless problem. When the Marie Gomez goes down, there will be 54 more people looking for apartments in an already crowded Downtown Eastside. Although the province recently bought 10 SRO buildings in the area, it is currently renovating parts of them, making a scarce housing situation in the neighbourhood even worse.
With repairs to Marie Gomez costing roughly $2.5 million and DERA owing more than $2 million in debts, the association also doesn't have much choice. But Kerr insists it still could be saved if the province or federal government bothered to make the investment.
"Frankly, we live in a very rich province and rich country," says Kerr. "Could the province go up there tomorrow and do the repairs and save the building? Yes they could. And could they go in there and tear the building down and replace it immediately with a new building? Yes, they could do that too. The bottom line is the provincial and federal governments have the money to do that. The dilemma for us is that we have people living in a building that doesn't meet the standards that we would house people in. But with the homeless crisis in the city where are these people going to go?"
That's now the very real and frightening problem facing the tenants who remain in the building.
What will city do with land?
Many residents of the Marie Gomez do not want to leave, but accept it is inevitable. Considered "hard-to-house," many have health problems and can't be easily integrated into other buildings. Kerr says every tenant will be relocated before the building is shut down and feels confident that BC Housing will ensure that happens. B.C. will then demolish the building and write off the outstanding balance owned on the mortgage and give the site over to the city.
What happens to the land after the Marie Gomez is torn down is still up in the air. DERA loses its authority on what will replace it and with gentrification continuing to creep into the Downtown Eastside, the city could very well build condos. The city's report states that the location is a candidate for higher density and that the site could be redeveloped for low-income singles, market rents or a mix, but that a decision won't be made until the Oppenheimer review is completed.
When the Marie Gomez building goes it will leave behind a tragic legacy. While the city balances its options, the best way to change the memory of the Marie Gomez into something positive would be to rebuild a new social housing building that would finally give the people of the Marie Gomez the home that they deserve. Anything less would be an insult and travesty to the residents of Marie Gomez who have had to live through it.
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