For the past five years, Brian Robinson has called the Dominion Hotel home. Although he pays $650 a month for a small room in the Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotel in the Downtown Eastside, the 60-year-old construction worker says it’s important for him to have a steady place to live. But now Robinson is in the middle of being evicted as the Dominion’s new owners prepare to renovate the building and turn it into a boutique hotel. None of this sits well with Robinson.
“I’m a construction worker and I can’t understand how they got permits so fast,” he said, as he stood outside the hotel last month during a protest against the evictions. “With the city strike costing so much time, it’s really hard to get permits. Something smells really fishy here.”
On October 31, Robinson and the remaining 15 tenants that live in the 67-unit Dominion hotel became the latest Downtown Eastside residents to be issued eviction notices. Over the past two years, the neighbourhood has been hit by waves of hotel evictions and closures as building owners look to cash in on the gentrification and turn their buildings into condominiums or boutique hotels. However, while the motives of slimy landlords should hardly be a surprise, it’s the city government’s refusal to do anything about the evictions that is causing community activists to start feeling desperate.
“The best case scenario is we’ll really screw the [Dominion Hotel] landlord here by getting a legal decision to allow the residents to stay during renovations,” says Wendy Pederson, an organizer with the Carnegie Action Project. “If they can stay during renovations, then he can’t raise the rent… But this hotel is probably just a start of what’s to come. The city is trying to convert this neighbourhood before the Olympics and make it ready for upscale development.”
Because the city has done little to stop conversions, affordable housing in the Downtown Eastside continues to disappear. The Dominion is part of the 180 low-income units that have been lost to development in the neighbourhood in the past two months alone. The new owners of the hotel, Water Street Projects, which bought the hotel in August, have defended the eviction notices.
“The building is almost 100 hundred years old,” Eric Cohen, a representative of Water Street Projects, told The Thunderbird, on online UBC journalism magazine. “I promise you that these renovations are not cosmetic, the building is a hazard right now and the evictions are absolutely necessary.”
But Robinson says the building has already gone through extensive renovations in the past year and that it didn’t require any evictions. Community activists expect that the owners are simply using the renovations as an excuse to increase rents and market the building to a new clientÃ¨le. Last week the Dominion’s website advertised itself as a “budget and art hotel”, and had pictures of the inside of rooms that had been fashionably redesigned by artists. In it’s ‘About’ section, it read: “At the Dominion, artists show exhibitions in LOBBY gallery, some of Vancouver finest South Asian fusion cuisine is served in Sapphire restaurant, and the party goes on until the wee hours in the Lamplighter bar [below the hotel].” Now the website simply says that it is not accepting reservations and that it is closed.
Activists did gain a victory last week when the province’s Residential Tenancy Bureau overturned one of the evictions because the owner had not proved that the eviction was necessary for all the renovations. The city’s licensing department finally went into the building last week and found that their permits didn’t cover some of the work the owners were doing. However, the victories appear to be too little too late — at least 13 of the 15 tenants have already signed an agreement to move out (paid off with one month’s rent) or have already left.
In order to save the Dominion (and the affordable housing in the Downtown Eastside) community activists say the city needs to be more aggressive in enforcing bylaws that prevent “soft” conversions. Along with letting the Dominion slip through, Kim Kerr, the executive director of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association (DERA), says the Columbia Hotel has stopped taking new renters and is 80 percent empty. He says it will only accepting nightly and weekly residents (starting at $250 a week). This would be a direct flouting of the city’s Single Room Accommodation (SRA) bylaw, which requires that 90 percent of a SRO’s rooms to be monthly rentals.
But instead of enforcing or beefing up the SRA bylaw, the city is actually moving to weaken it. Emboldened by the province’s recent purchase of 10 SROs and the promise" last month to help the city build 1,200 units of social housing on 12 city-owned properties, the city is arguing that the SRA bylaw is no longer necessary to protect social housing. But Kerr warns that even if the province’s social housing is built, it won’t be ready for another three to five years. This will mean that more evictions and closures without any social housing ready to catch the tenants from ending up homeless.
“We see the city as simply opening up the Downtown Eastside to gentrification,” says Kerr.
Barb Windsor, the city’s deputy chief licence inspector, insists the city has very little power to stop many of these conversions and closures. In some ways, she is correct. The city does not have an anti-vacancy bylaw that would fine landlords for keeping rooms empty and it can’t stop landlords from increasing the monthly rent of a room to whatever rate after the tenant moves out.
But poverty activists have correctly noted that although the city does have the power to go into hotels and force repairs, in many crucial cases it has gone into a building and just condemned it. In fact, the city has become so insistent that it doesn’t want to keep hotels in check that it went to the BC Supreme Court to overturn the law. But while toothless or detached city bureaucrats can also be pretty predictable, it’s this current NPA city council that should take the most blame for doing nothing to stop conversions.
Last year the NPA was presented with an opportunity to approve a moratorium on conversions, but voted it down. Mayor Sam Sullivan and his crew could pass an anti-vacancy bylaw, they could instruct staff to be more aggressive on enforcing bylaws or send a clear verbal message to landlords and developers that the Downtown Eastside won’t be gentrified until they build more social housing first. But again, they have done none of this.
Allowing the SRO hotels to shut down and be developed is a short-term solution for a NPA government that is rushing to cleanse the neighbourhood before the 2010 Olympics and make its developer friends a shitload of money. Ignoring some of the ethical debates of the Downtown Eastside’s gentrification for a moment, if the social housing isn’t in place when the hotels close, then Vancouver’s already growing and problematic homeless problem is only getting to get worse, which will only create a bigger problem for everyone down the road.
The NPA and Sullivan’s handling of the situation isn’t impressing anyone and is really pissing off everyone in Vancouver with a moral conscious, let alone the mayors of neighbouring cities who are absorbing the homeless migration from the Downtown Eastside. Like Dominion Hotel resident Brian Robinson, the sinking Sullivan is looking for some security of his own – he desperately wants to be Vancouver’s Mayor during the 2010 Olympics. But if Sullivan truly wants to keep his seat, he’d better start finding ways to keep people like Robinson from losing their beds.