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British Columbia Vancouverites band together for Balmoral Hotel as tenants face possible eviction

HOUSING

Vancouverites band together for the Balmoral Hotel

Roberta Wescenberg is a resident of the Balmoral Hotel, a building that may soon evict all its tenants.

Simmering rage over poor conditions in one of Vancouver's most notorious single-room occupancy hotels boiled over Thursday, with tenants gathering at City Hall to protest their possible eviction and the mayor vowing to force the owners to fix the Balmoral Hotel in the Downtown Eastside.

As of Thursday afternoon, the city had not publicly announced whether the family-owned building had been deemed unsafe after recent inspections or whether any of the about 140 tenants would be required to move for health or safety concerns.

But groups that run shelters in the neighbourhood have been told displaced tenants could be knocking at their doors as early as next week.

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"People are being hired to work extra shifts at shelters and told that it's because there might be people from the Balmoral coming in," housing activist Wendy Pedersen said at City Hall.

Karynton Derkson, who has lived at the Balmoral for about three years, said she had no idea where she would go if the hotel were deemed unsafe.

"Every day, it has gotten worse, but there is really no place else to go," Ms. Derkson said.

Other residents share her concern. Their worries underscore the city's housing crunch as well as chronic problems related to single-room occupancy hotels, or SROs, in the Downtown Eastside. Long part of the city's low-cost housing stock, SROs in recent decades have become known as "housing of last resort" – the last stop before homelessness – and are protected under the city's single-room accommodation bylaw.

The Balmoral, an occupancy hotel, sits in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and is home to roughly 140 tenants.

That law, enacted in 2003, was supposed to slow the pace of SROs being turned into more expensive housing. The bylaw and other measures, including the province buying and renovating more than a dozen SROs over the past decade, have kept hundreds of units in the low-cost housing pool and improved living conditions for many residents.

But some of the most dilapidated SROs, including the Balmoral, remain in private hands and are in dire condition.

Housing advocates say those efforts haven't been enough and that the city has allowed the worst hotels to slide into dangerous disrepair.

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On Thursday, Mayor Gregor Robertson called the living conditions at the Balmoral "disgusting" and cited several steps the city has taken to improve conditions, including requiring owners to make more than $1-million in structural repairs and referring more than 150 issues at the hotel to prosecution.

Mayor Gregor Robertson called the Balmoral’s living conditions ‘disgusting,’ but to some, such as Roberta Wescenberg, it is home nonetheless.

According to court records filed in a 2016 class-action lawsuit, the Balmoral is owned by Parkash Sahota, Pal Sahota, Gurdyal Sahota and Kirin Sahota. The Sahota family owns several SROs in the neighbourhood.

"Our staff are looking at every possible legal and regulatory tool we have available to force the Sahota family to improve the Balmoral and hold them accountable for ignoring City by-laws," Mr. Robertson said in a statement.

The Sahotas could not be reached for comment.

Housing advocate Jean Swanson scoffed at that claim, saying the city has not used the tools at its disposal.

"The bylaw says they can go in and do the work and bill the owner – they are ignoring that section and they have for years," Ms. Swanson said.

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At City Hall, tenants and housing advocates called on the city to do necessary repairs to make the building safe and to ensure no tenants are displaced.

Vancouver firefighters gather outside the Balmoral Hotel.

Ms. Derkson said she hasn't used the washroom on her floor for more than a year, instead relying on public washrooms in the neighbourhood.

At the Balmoral on Thursday, tenant Roberta Wescenberg said her unit has suffered damage from liquid leaking from the floor above and she worries about breathing in harmful mould.

Tenants have complained to the residential tenancy branch, to the city and, last year, launched a class-action suit against the hotel's owners.

The lawyer for the tenants in that case, Jason Gratl, said he was in the process of engaging a structural engineering firm to assess the hotel.

"We have yet to see any report from the City of Vancouver impugning the structural integrity of the Balmoral, or indicating that it is necessary to evict all the tenants of the Balmoral in order to engage in repairs," Mr. Gratl said.

A mass eviction "would make them all homeless," he added.

Roberta Wescenberg shows the water damage in her room that she says smelled and resembled urine.

Mr. Gratl said he has requested, but not received, engineering inspection reports from the city and from the Sahotas.

The city on May 26 restricted access to bathtubs to reduce weight on weakened floors.

The Metro Vancouver 2017 Homeless Count – a 24-hour survey used to estimate the number of people who are homeless in the region – found 3,605 people were homeless as of March 8, up 30 per cent from 2,777 in the previous count in 2014.

The number of homeless people in Vancouver climbed by 19 per cent between the 2014 and 2017 surveys.

Housing advocates say the city should also levy steeper fines on problem landlords.

The city has asked for the authority to fine more than $10,000 at a time, but provincial authority is required to implement that change, a city spokeswoman said.

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