Stop Homelessness – Buy The York Rooms

DTES groups call on City Council to put the ACTION back in “Homelessness Action Week”

This “Homelessness Action Week” DTES groups are calling on the City of Vancouver to make some real anti-homelessness steps and buy the York Rooms SRO hotel at 259 Powell and tighen up the SRA bylaw to protect the low-income housing stock.

The DTES Neighbourhood Council, Carnegie Community Action Project and Pivot Legal Society believe that the low-income affordable rooms in the York are in grave and immediate danger of being lost and that the city must step in and prevent the loss of these rooms – the last stop residents have before homelessness. We also think this threat of loss of low-income housing at the York points to the haemorrhaging of low-income housing in the DTES through ‘soft-conversions’ into student and young worker housing, within the SRA ‘anti-conversion’ bylaw. It’s time for City Council to close the holes in the SRA bylaw.

Last week the York Rooms was bought by notorious hotel developers Steven Lippman and Christian Williams and we are worried about losing 34 more low-income, welfare and pension rate rooms from that building. In the last three years Steven Lippman has acquired at least three hotels that used to be core housing for low-income people and are now housing a different class of people. We fear that he has acquired other hotels too, and that he is sitting on them and waiting to do soft conversions into student and young worker housing. His record speaks for itself:

  • The American hotel: Lippman bought the empty American hotel and converted it into rooms for young workers and students with rents that start around $650. He got the city’s blessing to bypass the SRA anti-conversion bylaw by promising to council that 10 rooms would rent at $400 for 10 years.
  • The Lotus hotel: Lippman bought the Lotus earlier this year. In a survey CCAP conducted in the early summer a low-income Aboriginal resident was told there were no rooms available, and that rents began at $800 a month. A student-appearing white volunteer spoke to the same manager minutes later and was told he could move in on the first of the month. For him rent was quoted as $600 a month. This discriminatory renting practice was confirmed in a phone conversation between a CCAP employee and Steven Lippman on Tuesday October 4th. When asked how much a room in the Lotus would cost Lippman said, “It depends what you look like.”  And about the rumours that he had paid low-income residents a thousand dollars to move out of the Lotus he said, “I have never personally paid anyone to move out.” But he did not deny instructing his managers to pay residents one thousand dollars to move out. Instead, he scoffed and said, “That’s not eviction. They are making a free choice to go.”
  • The Golden Crown Hotel: According to news reports all the residents of the Golden Crown hotel were illegally evicted and coerced or tricked into signing a statement agreeing to leave the building in September 2009. Steven Lippman and Christian Williams bought the building, empty, two weeks later. Williams claimed in the media that they had been “lied to” by the former owner who claimed the building was already empty. But on October 4th Lippman only repeated, “I have never personally evicted anyone.” Regardless, the Golden Crown is now the premier “microloft” project in the DTES, where 200 sq ft rooms cost something like $900 a month.

On Sunday October 2nd the DTES Neighbourhood Council, Carnegie Community Action Project and Pivot Legal Society organized a meeting for tenants in the building to learn about their rights, about lawful and unlawful rent increases and evictions. Of the 32 or so residents in the building, 18 came to the last-minute meeting and all were anxious about the potential upscaling of their homes. One resident has lived in the York Rooms for more than 50 years.  In the Historic Area Heights Review, passed this spring at City Hall, Vancouver Council recognizes, “It is Council’s priority to build and protect adequate housing to address low-income, homeless and vulnerable people in our community.”  It is the mandate of council to step in and take action to save the housing at York Rooms.

Steven Lippmand has said, “I’m proud of the fact that I have never personally evicted anyone.” But his technical definition of “not personally evicting” residents rings pretty hollow for low-income residents who can no longer live in the buildings he has invested in and redeveloped as high yield landlord properties. We understand his stated plans for the York, to “fix up the building like I always do,” as a threat to the security of the building as a low-income community housing asset. Although he claims that he will not evict anyone, he also promises to “charge whatever rents the market will bear.”

For national homelessness week this year we want Vancouver City Council to move beyond breakfasts and rhetoric and take two meaningful steps towards stopping homelessness:

  1. Immediately buy the York Rooms: Based on his record and his statements we know that Steven Lippman will upscale the York Rooms as he upgrade it and the doors of the building will be forever closed to low-income residents. The former owner, Mr. Yet Wah Chan, wants the building to remain housing for low-income people. He has suggested to us that he might be willing to reverse the sale if the city will make an offer within his 30 day window to back out of his agreement with Misters Lippman and Williams. Removing the York Rooms from the market housing stock is the only way to protect the low-income rooms there and it is not too late for the city to act.
  2. Strengthen the SRA anti-conversion bylaw: Lippman-esque ‘soft conversions’ of SRO hotels from low-income / close-to-welfare-rate rents to student and young worker housing with more than double welfare rate rents and accompanying anti-poor discrimination is the way that low-income housing is being lost in the DTES. City Council has so far made zero steps to protect the low-income housing stock against these soft conversions. Instead, they have celebrated Steven Lippman’s conversion investment at the American hotel. The health and homes of low-income residents at the York and other hotels must be prioritized over the health of the real estate market.This Homelessness Action Week Vancouver City Council should finally close the loopholes in the SRA bylaw by quantifying “affordability” in the DTES as welfare and pension rate rents to really defend the low-income housing stock. By working with the province to amend the Residential Tenancy Act to place controls over rent increases in the low-income housing stock and tying those rents to welfare and pension rates council will be recognizing the crisis in housing in the DTES and taking real action to address it. Council will also show that stopping homelessness is a bigger priority to them than supporting real estate speculation and landlord profits. With an SRA anti-conversion bylaw with teeth the real estate value of SRO hotels could be suppressed and more easily bought by the city or province and removed from the real estate market.

This year, let’s put the action back in Homelessness Action Week.

DTES Neighbourhood Council board of directors and Carnegie Community Action Project.