A notorious SRO hotel in Vancouver will have to be torn down because it has continued to rot and deteriorate since it was vacated over four years ago.
City of Vancouver building inspectors have issued a demolition order for the Balmoral Hotel after finding that water damage continued to weaken the 114-year-old building.
The second and ninth floors are so damaged that security guards can’t safely enter those areas, according to the demolition permit, and there is a high risk of a fire starting that could spread to other buildings on the same block of East Hastings Street.
The electrical system is damaged, and because the building hasn’t been heated through the winter, the sprinkler system is not protected from freezing.
The Balmoral and the Regent across the street were both owned by the Sahota family for many years. Following a slew of city bylaw violations and tenant complaints, the city had condemned the Balmoral in 2017 and the Regent in 2018.
In 2018, the city announced it would take the unprecedented step of expropriating the two buildings. After starting the expropriation process in court, in 2020 the city came to an agreement with the Sahotas to buy the two buildings for $11.5 million, according to a source with knowledge of the transaction.
The buildings remained vacant as the city negotiated with senior levels of government for funding to redevelop the properties in order to provide safe housing in the neighbourhood, where many residents live in poverty and struggle with mental illness and substance use.
Wendy Pedersen, an advocate for the former tenants of the Balmoral and Regent, said she’s not surprised to hear that the building needs to be torn down. Neighbourhood residents have noticed the graffiti painted on the insides of the windows changes from time to time, showing that people have been getting inside the vacant building. Pedersen suspects that people may still be living in the building.
“The people who used to live there, I know there’s no way to keep them out. They’re so attached to that building,” Pedersen said.
It’s now been over a year since the city took ownership of the two buildings, but Downtown Eastside residents have still not been consulted about the plans for the properties.
Kennedy Stewart, Vancouver’s mayor, said that’s because the city is still working with the provincial and federal governments to secure funding to redevelop the buildings.
“We’ve been trying to get agreement on what level of funding we would have from senior levels of government to help us move forward with construction, those are macro-level discussions,” Stewart said.
Pedersen said she’s very surprised the city has not started the consultation process with the Downtown Eastside community yet.
“That’s such an important block for the community. The Balmoral Hotel has touched everybody’s lives in the neighbourhood,” Pedersen said.
She also questioned how the city is able to ask for funding from senior levels of government before that community consultation work has been done. That consultation needs to include former residents of the Balmoral and Regent.
“To their peril do they not consult with the community,” she said. “They don’t know what to fund, until they talk to the community.”
Pedersen said that what she’s hearing is a desire for a building where units are rented at the welfare shelter rate of $375, but not for supportive housing, a model where residents often have to live under rules that can include restrictions on visitors and having to be buzzed in instead of accessing their building with a key. Supportive housing is common in the Downtown Eastside, where many residents have experienced homelessness.
Although the demolition order states that the Balmoral must be torn down immediately after a demolition permit is obtained, Downtown Eastside residents and local First Nations will be consulted before the building is destroyed, Stewart promised.
The Balmoral was inextricably linked to British Columbia’s dark history of colonialism, providing a home for Indigenous people from across the province who were dealing with the trauma of residential school, the '60s Scoop, or losing connections with their culture and home communities.
Many Downtown Eastside residents have family members who died in the Balmoral, and it’s common to hear people say they believe there are bodies buried in the walls of the hotel.
“I’ve heard the same rumours, and I think that’s why we have to be so careful,” Stewart said. “If there’s any truth to those, we’ll find out as we deconstruct it. But we also have to make sure it’s treated as respectfully as possible.”
Pedersen urged the city to collect the full stories of the people who lived at the hotel and find a way to commemorate that history.
Stewart said the city will be consulting with the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish Nations, as well as other urban Indigenous groups, as the city moves forward to tear down the Balmoral. He said he doesn’t yet know the timeline for consulting with the community or for demolishing the building.