BY SARAH BERMAN, MEGAPHONE MAGAZINE
For two weeks of February, a notice posted in the Asia Hotel on Pender Street informed tenants they have to move out by the end of June. And while the announcement has since been taken down, pending building repairs suggest the 34 to 38 low-income, Downtown Eastside residents will still have to relocate in the coming months.
“We just found out our lease for the Asia Hotel will not be renewed,” read part of the notice, “and therefore everyone must be out of the building by the end of June this year.”
The nearly 100-year-old Single Room Occupancy Hotel (SRO) requires extensive electrical and plumbing repairs according to Dana Mah, VP of the Mah Society, the non-profit that owns the building. Mah says the first step toward fixing the hotel was allowing property management company Shun Chi’s long-term lease to expire at the end of February.
“After the lease expires at the end of the month, Shun Chi will continue [managing the hotel] on a month-to-month basis,” he says. The VP says the Mah Society still needs to secure funding and permits before announcing when repairs will take place.
“What happened was that the leaseholder had the impression they wanted to expedite the move to allow us to get going with repairs,” says Mah. “However, we’re not in the position to apply for permits at this particular point.”
“From what I understand they wanted to take advantage of warmer weather,” adds Mah. “They wanted to invoke this move before the end of the summer.” Shun Chi manager Faith Whu denied weather was a motivating factor, saying she was unaware of any notice posted in the building.
Though the repairs are not yet certain, building caretaker Dave Zebraski didn’t want to keep his tenants in the dark, so he wrote up the notice. “I posted it myself about three-and-a-half weeks ago. As soon as I found out about it I told my tenants,” he says. “I said the same thing my boss said to me.”
Zebraski says it’s unfortunate that his tenants will have to uproot after calling the Asia home for nearly a decade. “Most of them have been here as long as I’ve been caretaker.”
“I’m in the same boat as my tenants,” he adds. “This is my home and place of employment.”
Advocates for housing rights in the Downtown Eastside say the move will further deplete low-income housing stock in the neighbourhood.
“I fear the worst,” Wendy Pederson of the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) says. “We have no new social housing coming after 2013, and what little bits of so-called social housing that come at the bottom of condo towers have no guarantee that they’ll be affordable to old age pensioners and welfare recipients.”
Because the Asia Hotel is one of the few low-income hotels that rents below $400 per month, relocation will likely translate to rent increases for tenants. A study by CCAP found that only 7 percent of SRO rooms in Vancouver rent for $375 per month or lower. This figure is down from 12 percent in 2010 and 29 percent in 2009.
Pederson says Downtown Eastside residents on government assistance are only given $375 for housing, and that higher rents take away from the $235 allocated for monthly food and living expenses.
“The people in the Asia will be squeezed, which just puts more pressure on low-income people,” Pederson says.
In a letter to the City of Vancouver, the Mah Society promised to provide six months of advance notice to tenants, as well as assistance in finding affordable accommodations when repairs are officially announced.
Mah recommended the Toi Shan Society building and the Yee Fung Toy building as having current vacancies, the former renting for under $400 per month. “We’re hoping that everything will go smoothly and we’ll find accommodations for all the tenants.”
Although the Mah Society intends to keep the building as a non-market SRO when repairs are finished, Mah could not guarantee that rent would be frozen at current rates. “We want to make it more livable for tenants,” he says. “We’ve had offers to buy the building—which does sound tempting—however our position is this building is a sacred trust, so we refused and intend to keep the SRO hotel in its current configuration.”
Mah says responsibility for the tenants is ultimately in the hands of the property management company Shun Chi. “They will have to do the research and contact different organizations.”
When contacted, Shun Chi did not have a formal plan to relocate all tenants. “If we have any vacancies in our other locations that we manage, we might refer to those,” says Whu, who also oversees the Glory Hotel in Gastown and Keefer Rooms.
In the meantime, the building remains in desperate need of repair. “I do agree with the Mah Society,” Zebraski says of the SRO’s degraded condition. “We can’t even use a toaster down here without the breaker popping.”
Mah says the repairs will take nine to ten months to complete. Pederson hopes to convince the benevolent society to renovate floor by floor, so that residents won’t be displaced in the process.
“The York Hotel on Powell’s 200 block right now is renovating room by room,” she says. “But the rents used to be around the welfare rate and now they’re $525 to $650.”
Pederson says all these developments are part of the Downtown Eastside’s slow and painful gentrification. “This Asia Hotel is just a harbinger of things to come,” she says.
Originally published February 28.