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Relocated Vancouver residents breathe easier after move from Sahota-owned buildings

Jack Gates begins each day with an informal prayer – on a recent morning, he asked God to deliver some rain to his parched province – and then, around 8 a.m., he takes the elevator down eight floors to his building’s common room, where he grinds out at least half an hour on an elliptical machine.

The 56-year-old has recently embarked on a quest to lose some weight, but he has been hampered by the presence of the kitchen and full-sized fridge at his bachelor suite in Vancouver’s Chinatown.

It’s a dramatically different picture than his life just a few weeks ago, when he was living two blocks away at the Regent Hotel, an apartment block that was shut down by the city in June after its owners, the Sahota family, amassed numerous bylaw violations.

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Jack Gates, a former Regent Hotel resident, is much happier with his new place in Vancouver.

Rafal Gerszak

When he lived at the Regent, Mr. Gates would wake and immediately try to get to one of the communal washrooms before the bathtubs were filled with dishes or clothes from other tenants and the toilets jammed with toilet paper and feces or discarded needles. Once he had completed his bathroom mission, he would lay back down in his room, about half the size of his current one, and watch TV until about 1 p.m.

“I didn’t feel like getting up,” Mr. Gates said. “When you’re living in a place that bad, you just really don’t feel like doing anything.”

The closing of the Regent Hotel in June, as well as the Sahota-owned Balmoral Hotel last year, forced provincial and municipal officials to work with local non-profit groups to house close to 300 tenants. Whereas the Balmoral’s closing caught authorities by surprise, the Regent emptied out in a more orderly fashion with the help of non-profit Atira, a provider of housing and social services in the area. Atira took over management of the building in February and slowly began closing down the mouldiest, most-damaged rooms and moving their tenants to other units run by the group.

“We moved probably close to 50 people,” Atira’s chief executive officer Janice Abbott said of that four-month period.

That left about 110 tenants, 70 per cent of whom ended up two blocks away at the Jubilee Rooms, according to BC Housing, the provincial housing agency. That 78-unit building, run by non-profit RainCity Housing, was purchased by BC Housing on May 31, 2018, for a combined cost of $14.8-million in order to house the Regent tenants.

The rest of the Regent tenants went to other empty social-housing units in the area run by non-profits, according to the provincial agency.

Housing advocates and experts say the worst of these private single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels operate as de facto social housing − taking in millions of dollars a year in social-assistance payments − but do not offer the types of support services, such as meals or free and clean needles, that are standard at buildings run by non-profit organizations in the city.

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More than a month after it was shuttered, the Regent, as well as the derelict Balmoral across the street, remain in legal limbo as the city fights to expropriate the properties, two of the larger pieces in a Sahota family local property empire estimated to be worth more than $200-million.

Gurdyal (Gudy) Sahota did not respond to a request for comment.

Like Mr. Gates, the plaintiff in a proposed class-action lawsuit against his former landlords and the City of Vancouver for the poor living conditions at the Regent, many of the 100 or so former Regent residents say their lives are immeasurably better since being relocated to social housing in June.

Shelly Ingram will still wake up in the middle of the night to a random noise and think mice are once again scrambling through her room, as they often did in the Regent.

Ms. Ingram, who works at the SisterSpace supervised-injection site, says the first day she and her partner, John, were moved into a nearby SRO in Gastown, run by Atira, they were happy to have amenities back, such as WiFi and a working shower.

“We had like five showers the first day we got here to scrape that grime off,” said Ms. Ingram, whose room is now larger and more than $200 cheaper than the one their social assistance paid for at the Regent.

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Julian Somers, a clinical psychologist and health researcher at Simon Fraser University, said the squalor and disorder in Vancouver SROs reflect successive provincial governments’ failure to diagnose and treat mental illness adequately.

Dr. Somers said SRO residents don’t speak up more about their poor living situation because they are used to being ignored.

“They may not like it, but it’s a group that will tolerate − as we have seen − abhorrent living conditions. The way in which that compounds their psychological health is every day, when they’re entering, leaving and spending time in their place, [it reinforces] that society thinks you don’t deserve anything.”

Mr. Gates said he initially had difficulty processing the move to his new unit, which looks out onto a housing complex where children often play among a community garden.

“When I came here, I don’t even know how to describe what the feeling was,” he says with a big smile and a chuckle.

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