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Vancouver Council Balks at SRO Grant Over Safety Concerns

The London Hotel needs repairs before tenants can return, but councillors have doubts about its past operations.

Jen St. Denis 25 Jul 2022TheTyee.ca

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

Vancouver councillors have voted to delay a request for a $720,000 grant to repair a single-room occupancy hotel because of concerns with how the building was being operated by a supportive housing provider.

Atira Women’s Resource Society had applied for the grant to upgrade the London Hotel at 208 E. Georgia St., an SRO that was emptied in the spring because of persistent plumbing problems and other repair work that needed to be done.

The building is owned by Porte Communities and is operated by Atira Property Management Inc., with operating funding from BC Housing. Atira Property Management Inc. is a for-profit subsidiary of Atira Women’s Resource Society.

Porte Communities CEO David Porte told The Tyee earlier the company has owned the London for the past 13 years and wanted to buy the property because of the opportunity to lease the retail spaces on the ground floor. The retail space at the London is currently rented to the London Pub.

The $720,000 would have been part of a total $3.5 million from the city, BC Housing and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. for the renovation project. The money would have come out of $6 million in the city budget for SRO repairs. The century-old buildings with small rooms and shared bathrooms provide housing to some of Vancouver’s poorest and most marginalized people.

But Green Coun. Pete Fry said he couldn’t vote for the grant because of serious concerns about how the building had been run in the past few years.

“I really struggle with business as usual and adding more money, when it’s the same owner, the same operator and no assurances that things are going to get better,” Fry said, citing reporting by The Tyee and the Globe and Mail.

The Tyee has previously reported that at least one tenant lived without a door on her room for weeks, a serious fire safety risk that the city’s chief building inspector said would require immediate repair if it had been reported to the city. (Highlighting the severe risk of fire in SROs, another hotel APMI operated — the Winters Hotel — burned down in April, killing two tenants.)

Fry said he knew that tenant, Patti Belliveau, and now feels “terribly guilty” about not acting on concerns he heard from her about the London. Belliveau died of a suspected overdose at the building in January.

The Tyee has also reported on concerns from Andrew Drury, an external support worker who heard from multiple clients that they had been bullied out of rooms they were continuing to pay for with their social assistance cheques and had ended up homeless again. In July 2021, one of Drury’s clients was murdered in the building.

Residents also complained the London was in poor shape, with just one shower and four toilets working in the building shortly before it closed. At the time, the London housed 53 tenants.

Atira Property Management Inc. is the largest operator of SROs in the region. It operates 20 SRO buildings; 11 of those buildings are owned by the B.C. government. PHS Community Services Society runs seven SRO buildings, while Lookout Housing and Health Society runs four and RainCity Housing and Support Society runs two.

The Tyee has previously reported Atira pays workers lower wages than other supportive housing providers that operate SROs. APMI has a mandate to hire around 80 per cent of its staff from the Downtown Eastside community and the front-desk jobs are unofficially considered “peer” positions for people from the community who have barriers to employment. Some workers have complained they aren’t properly trained to deal with the complex and sometimes dangerous situations they encounter. Atira’s CEO Janice Abbott told The Tyee last year that the organization has improved training for employees.

For decades, city staff and councillors have struggled with how to bring privately owned and operated SROs into compliance with building and safety regulations. The city’s long-running strategy has been to work with building owners, because closing buildings could leave tenants homeless.

Over the years, more SROs have moved into government ownership or have remained privately owned but have been operated by supportive housing providers with funding and operating agreements with BC Housing.

Councillors asked city staff if there were any conditions they could impose on the $720,000 grant to ensure that the same problems don’t repeat in the future.

But Celine Maboules, the city’s managing director of housing and homeless services, said that because the grant is for capital improvements, not operations, the city’s role would be limited to the normal building inspections and fire safety checks to ensure the building was safe.

Fry also asked city staff what the consequences would be if council voted against the grant, and was told it would likely delay the much-needed repair work.

Maboules said it was her understanding that APMI’s lease to continue operating the London won’t be extended without the $720,000 grant from the city first being approved.

Coun. Jean Swanson, part of the Coalition of Proressive Electors, said she shares Fry’s concerns, but would vote for the grant because the London is currently sitting empty while housing is desperately needed for low-income people.

“Presumably if it’s renovated it will be in pretty good shape, and I’m hoping the discussion we had here was heard by our staff and I’m sure it will be heard by Atira,” Swanson said.

Coun. Christine Boyle, with OneCity Vancouver, said she was concerned that repairs could be delayed by five months or more if the grant was denied.

Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung, with A Better City coalition, said council has a responsibility to “send a signal” that there are serious issues that need to be addressed by Atira.

“Anybody that’s reading the news is seeing an increasing number of issues and an increasing severity of issues related to this particular provider,” Kirby-Yung said.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart was not in attendance at the July 19 meeting. His wife, Jeanette Ashe, had been on the board of Atira Women’s Resource Society since Oct. 7, 2021, but resigned on July 11 because of lack of time to devote to volunteer work, according to Stewart’s staff.

Ultimately, councillors voted to refer the grant request back to staff and directed them to attempt to work on improving building management and ensuring the building is safe for tenants as a condition of getting a future capital grant.

Atira Women’s Resource Society did not respond to a request for comment for this story.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Housing

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