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Management talks over Vancouver’s Regent and Balmoral hotels hit a snag

Edward Simeon is seen in his room at the Regent Hotel in Vancouver on Feb. 5, 2018. A non-profit is currently in talks to acquire management of the building from the Sahota family.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

A non-profit group is negotiating to take over management of the Regent and Balmoral hotels, two of Vancouver's most notorious single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels, signalling a potential shake-up at the fixtures on the city's list of problem buildings.

Over the weekend, signs went up that Atira Property Management would be taking over management of the Regent – an eight-storey SRO in the Downtown Eastside – as of Monday and implementing a 30-day ban on guests beginning Feb. 13 to "sort out tenancies, maintenance needs, tenant needs, etc."

As of midday Monday, those signs had been taken down after the building's owners, Vancouver's Sahota family, balked at the arrangement.

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"Sahotas had second thoughts over the weekend," said Atira CEO Janice Abbott in an e-mail on Monday. "We are still talking, but not sure we can come to a deal."

Talks are also under way regarding the Balmoral, but it is currently vacant after the city ordered it closed last year for safety reasons.

If a deal were reached, it would mark a significant shift for the Sahotas – who for years have rebuffed suggestions to lease their SRO buildings to a non-profit operator – and potential relief for tenants, who have endured pests, broken plumbing and elevators and criminal activity, including drug dealing and assaults.

As Vancouver wrestles with a housing affordability crunch, privately owned SROs such as the Regent have become the housing of last resort for some of the most vulnerable people in the province, including many who are living with mental illness or substance abuse disorders.

A city bylaw protects SROs from redevelopment, but conditions in the aging buildings have deteriorated to the point that bylaws are routinely violated.

As a non-profit operator, Atira is eligible for city grants for repairs and renovations that are not available to private owners.

The Regent, which has 158 units, had 516 current issues on the city's rental database as of Monday. Those issues, under the city's fire and standards of maintenance bylaws, include things such as a lack of hot water and missing smoke alarms. Built in 1913, the Regent is in poor condition, with old plumbing, an elevator that is frequently out of order and garbage and rats in the hallways.

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Its assessed value as of July 1, 2017, was $12.2-million.

The city filed 426 charges against the Sahota family related to the Regent in December "due to significant safety risks and maintenance deficiencies," city spokeswoman Lauren Stasila said Monday in an e-mail. Those proceedings are ongoing.

The city has been working with the Sahotas and Atira to help them understand the outstanding violations and scope of required renovations to both the Balmoral and Regent, Ms. Stasila said, adding that if an arrangement between the owners and a non-profit owner can help improve the status of the Regent, "the City would see that as a positive development."

Tenants said they hoped a change in management would bring improved safety and more timely repairs.

Jack Gates is the plaintiff in a proposed class-action lawsuit on behalf of Regent tenants that names the building's owners and the city as defendants.

On Monday, he said he had called building security in the predawn hours after he heard someone being beaten outside his door. He said he had also called police.

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Police responded to the incident, but building security ignored his calls, Mr. Gates said.

He said he would support a 30-day ban on guests, saying such a temporary restriction would help new management bring order and safety to the building.

"It's a necessary thing – to bring back some sort of order to things that have been way out of control for too long," he said.

On the seventh floor, James Mickelson was getting ready to head out for his daily routine of binning – collecting beverage containers for the recycling fee. He had a full cart the previous day and was about to head out on a route that takes him along the seawall and through back alleys and keeps him outside for six or seven hours a day.

He only comes to the Regent to sleep, he said.

He said he has lived in the building for 36 years and has memories of it when it was in better shape, with carpeted hallways and bathrooms with no mould on the walls.

Now, though, he thinks about moving – perhaps to a place where he would allow his daughter and granddaughter to visit him. He considers the Regent too dangerous.

"I need a change of scenery. I've been down here too long," he said, adding that he has struggled with alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder. "I want to change – I'm willing to take the steps to move out of here."

Non-profit housing managers such as Atira typically provide support programs along with housing.

On the sixth floor, tenant Edward Simeon said he would welcome new management if it meant improved security – people come in and out of the building at all hours, he said – and repairs.

But he was worried about a potential ban on guests. He has diabetes and uses a walker to get around. Often, his friends and family come to see him.

"I don't want my family kicked out," he said.

Entrepreneurs, developers and more affluent residents have been moving into Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside at an accelerating rate. Activist Fraser Stuart says the changes are displacing longer-term residents. The Canadian Press
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