Council approves gentrification project at American Hotel

Only 6 out of 42 rooms at the American Hotel will rent for $400 a month (for 10 years). Remaining rooms will rent for whatever the owner can get – possibly in the $700 range. That is what city councillors (except Coun. Ellen Woodsworth) voted in favour of at city hall last Thursday, September 23rd.

The history of the American Hotel is not very pretty. It was notorious for bad living conditions and its raucous bar. But at least there were 39 rooms renting to DTES residents for around the welfare shelter rate. In 2006, DERA held a rally to protest its closure and blamed the evictions on the speculation and gentrification caused by the Olympics. Now the new owner, Stephen Lippman, will re-open the rooms and the bar. Lippman owns the Golden Crown Hotel too, which rents for in the $600 a month range and he is rumoured to now own other properties in the area too, like Save On Meats.

We learned some new things at the American Hotel council meeting. When the city staff tried to negotiate with the owner for some “affordability” in exchange for the permit to open the rooms and the bar, they had no idea how much profit the owner could make. Coun. Woodsworth asked why the extra $25 charged over welfare rate for the 6 rooms. Can’t he afford 6 x $25? David Beattie, a volunteer in the DTES, picked up on this in his speech to council and said “the bar will have 193 seats? The bar at that size will be a licence to print money. So wondering how it is possible to have only 6 out of the 44 units.”

Three others spoke against the project. Wendy Pedersen presented CCAP’s point of view and said, “the American Hotel is a gentrification project. In order to live in most of the rooms at the American a person may need to make about $30,000 a year in order to not be living in core need. Minimum wage is about $16,000 a year and welfare $7,300 a year. These rooms are not affordable.” She said the city should count all hotel rent increases above $375 in all DTES hotels as losses instead of secure low-income units. And that the city can compensate for gentrification projects like this by buying 5 properties a year for 10 years and designating it for housing and holding off on new “market” projects for that time period.

Tami Starlight, for the DTES Neighbourhood Council said to council: “6 units of low-income housing is woefully inadequate. This is more gentrification in the DTES. There should not be a single condo built until there is not a single person who is homeless and all our hotels are replaced. And….nothing about us without us.”

Dave Murray, of VANDU and CCAP, made a great point that other landlords will see what happens at the American Hotel and want to empty their buildings too. “The city will let them get away with it. It’s a bad precedent.”

Coun. Kerry Jang argued it is better to have six rooms renting near $375 than none. He said this is a “one-off” it won’t happen again. He also said that “folks with different socio-economic backgrounds will have someplace to live.” The Mayor said the plan for the American was “better than turning it into condos.” (Of course this is nonsense – city hall has a wide array of zoning and design tools to shape development as it sees fit.) Coun. Deal said “we need to look after the needs of the full spectrum of affordability.” (New code for no more social housing projects coming to the DTES.) Even Councillor Cadman of COPE said “he’s not holding his breath” for money from the senior governments for housing and 6 rooms are better than leaving it empty. (This means he agrees a few crumbs for the poor here and there as the way to go). Coun. Reimer said we could talk about the bigger questions CCAP and DNC raised about homelessness, buying property etc. at a review of their housing strategy later this fall (city says fall, likely means spring).

At some point, Coun. Reimer started to say something about considering everyone’s needs including the desperately poor and Diane le Claire, Carnegie volunteer, yelled from the back of the chambers “the desperately poor are committing suicide. You are claiming you are trying to save low-income housing? And you are allowing private development? What kind of claim is that?”

And then, shortly after, mayor and council, except for Councillor Woodsworth, approved it.