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One of the suites at the former Biltmore Hotel in Vancouver, which has been transformed into a low-income housing facility. (RAFAL GERSZAK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
One of the suites at the former Biltmore Hotel in Vancouver, which has been transformed into a low-income housing facility. (RAFAL GERSZAK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Vancouver hotel, now a supportive housing project, ready for tenants Add to ...

Residents of a new supportive housing project in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood will have bright rooms, a twin bed, a mini-fridge, a small closet space and private bathrooms – a rarity among such housing in the city.

They will also have access to the existing pub, cabaret and cold beer and wine store on the building’s ground floor – a point critics have pointed to as a cause for concern. As well, some parents are upset that the low-barrier building at the old Biltmore Hotel will be just one block from Florence Nightingale Elementary school. RainCity Housing, the operator of the facility, hoped to allay some of those concerns with a small media tour on Tuesday.

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The seven-storey building at Kingsway and East 12th Avenue, leased by BC Housing and the City of Vancouver for six years, has 95 rooms. Each is 150 square feet, with white walls, large windows and a bathroom with sink and bathtub. Most social housing projects in Vancouver have only one shared bathroom per floor, which can lead to health and safety issues.

The rooms have no cooking facilities, but one hot meal – prepared off-site by local catering company Savoury Chef Foods – will be provided each day, according to RainCity Housing, the operator of the facility. There is also a multipurpose room on the seventh floor with a microwave, counter space, tables and chairs where staff and tenants can prepare meals, lounge or hold meetings.

Staff will do laundry for all tenants. On-site support services include a needle exchange and dedicated clinic space, which Vancouver Coastal Health’s Raven Song clinic will staff once or twice a week. Down the line, RainCity Housing may partner with non-profit organizations to introduce programs such as food clinics and yoga classes, said acting associate director Amelia Ridgway. There is expected to be basic cable and a couple of shared computers in the building, and possibly wireless Internet access.

Tenants and guests must buzz and show identification to enter the building, whose front desk is staffed 24 hours a day. Rent is $375 a month, the amount welfare recipients receive for shelter.

The city calls the housing at the old Biltmore Hotel “temporary” – somewhere between a shelter and permanent supportive housing. Bill Briscall, a spokesman for RainCity Housing, said duration of stay will depend on individual tenants, but there will be no deadlines for them to vacate.

“That was one of the concerns that came up at one of the open houses: Is it going to be a revolving door?” he said. “I used to manage a transition program and some people would stay there for six months, some people would stay there for six years. It’s really as long as they need.”

Under mandated housing guidelines worked out by the city and province, the building will be home to 50 per cent street or sheltered homeless, 30 per cent currently in Single Room Occupancy hotels and 20 per cent people at risk of homelessness.

Some critics have raised concerns over the fact the building is low-barrier, which means tenants are not expected to abstain from drug or alcohol use. This is made more complicated by the fact the licensed establishments on the ground floor will continue to operate, they say.

“I can’t think of another facility the government has taken over where there’s licensed premises just down below,” John Buckberrough, part of a resident group in the Mount Pleasant area, previously told The Globe and Mail.

But Ms. Ridgway said that’s just a reality of true community integration. “We’re not trying to put people into a bubble,” she said. “We’re trying to move people into living in a community. Even though there is a cabaret and a bar below, anywhere you live in Vancouver there could be a bar or a cabaret or a liquor store nearby. … If there are issues with the cabaret or the bar, we’ll work with people on a one-to-one basis to work that stuff out.”

Minors are prohibited from the building.

The Residents Association of Mount Pleasant has called for public realm improvements, noting there is no pedestrian crosswalk on the south end of the high-volume, diagonal Kingsway and East 12th Avenue intersection, which is also poorly lit. As well, there is a lack of garbage bins, benches and bus shelters in the area, the group noted.

There is no set open date, but RainCity Housing is hoping to bring in the first group of tenants next week.

Follow on Twitter: @andreawoo

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