British Columbia

Balmoral Hotel tenants stage block party 1 day ahead of eviction deadline

With one day to go until the City of Vancouver's deadline for residents of the Balmoral Hotel to move out, residents and their supporters threw a block party and spoke out about the living conditions at the condemned building.

City says all of the tenants have been relocated to other social housing

A man holds up a sign denouncing the Sahota family, which own the Balmoral Hotel on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. (CBC)

With one day to go until the City of Vancouver's deadline for residents of the Balmoral Hotel to move out, residents and their supporters threw a block party and spoke out about the living conditions at the condemned building.

The celebration included a barbecue and live music. Many of the building's residents were still packing up their possessions ahead of the June 12 relocation deadline, by which time the landlords are supposed to begin repairs. 

Marcia Thomas, one of the residents, said she has been living at the Balmoral for two years. 

"I had the ceiling fall on me last Christmas. I was locked out all night and they didn't even give me another room," Thomas said. 

"I got stuck in this hotel because I almost died in hospital."

Thomas said her room is full of mould, but she was lucky because she had a private bathroom. 

She is moving to temporary social housing. Otherwise, she said, the limited income she gets from her disability payments means she probably wouldn't be able to afford to live anywhere else.

"I can't — $375 doesn't get you much for anything," she said, referring to what she receives from the province's housing allowance for people living on disability.

"You can't find anything. It's just awful."

Marcia Thomas says she had to move into the Balmoral Hotel two years ago after she was hospitalized. (CBC)

The Balmoral was deemed uninhabitable by the City of Vancouver's chief building inspector over fears that the building could collapse due to water damage and structural issues.

According to the city, all of the 165 tenants of the hotel have now been relocated into safer housing, and support has been provided for them to move their belongings. 

But the Carnegie Community Action Project said it fears that once the downtrodden building is repaired it will house higher income renters.

The group is calling on the provincial government to either purchase or lease the hotel and make repairs, as they have done with other hotels in the past.

In a written statement issued Sunday, the city said it's waiting to hear from its prosecutor on how to proceed on taking the owners, the Sahota family, to court for the 64 bylaw violations related to the hotel.

Neither the owner of the hotel nor their lawyer could not be reached for comment.

The block party in front of the Balmoral Hotel included a barbecue and live music. (CBC)

Necessary housing

Despite the rats, cockroaches and clogged toilets at decaying rooming houses and hotels like the Balmoral on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, activists and experts say they provide necessary affordable housing to the poorest people who would otherwise be pushed onto the streets.

Vancouver's bylaws define single room occupancy as hotels or rooming houses with non-market units of less than 320 square feet that typically come with shared bathrooms and don't have a full kitchen.

There are 156 buildings with a total of 7,199 units that meet the categorization and 43 per cent are privately owned and managed. The rest are either owned or managed by non-profits or the government.

The exterior of the Balmoral Hotel, which was shut down by the City of Vancouver in June 2017. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Many of the buildings are more than 100-years-old and were first established to house workers in forestry and mining, said Abi Bond, the city's director of housing policy and projects.

Over the decades, low-income residents in need of affordable housing increasingly moved into the buildings and the city enacted a bylaw to preserve the buildings for that purpose.

Falling into disrepair

Bond said the city has a policy to ultimately phase out the buildings in favour of social housing that has kitchens and bathrooms in each unit, but the process could take decades and requires funding from other levels of government.

In the meantime, the city is encouraging more government or non-profit partnerships to purchase single room occupancy buildings that are privately owned in an effort to see them upgraded and provide social services to the tenants.

"The city can't do all of this on our own," Bond said.

The age of the buildings and rents as low as $375 a month mean some have fallen into disrepair.

The City of Vancouver ordered the water at the Balmoral to be shut from the bath tubes, because there was fear if a tub was filled with water it could cause a floor to collapse. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

A fire at the Pandora Hotel in 2010 led the city to step up enforcement of regulations and inspections particularly at the 10 highest risk buildings, said Kaye Krishna, the city's general manager of development, buildings and licences.

The city has the power to conduct repairs and bill the owner if orders aren't followed, but Krishna said the city doesn't typically take that route, preferring instead to use the courts and other enforcement strategies to hold owners accountable.

"Overall, the city feels it's really incumbent on the private owners to do the work and not necessarily at the expense of taxpayer dollars," she said.

With files from Canadian Press