A city crackdown on a notorious hotel in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and the scores of tenants displaced as a result have galvanized neighbourhood residents and advocates, who say they'll fight to maintain the Balmoral Hotel as social housing.
"I really hope by having this community block party that we come together and stop what the landlords are doing – not only the Sahotas, but other landlords, too," Jack Gates, a resident of the Regent Hotel, a single-room occupancy hotel across the street from the Balmoral, said on Sunday.
Mr. Gates was referring to members of Vancouver's Sahota family, owners of several SROs in the neighbourhood, including the Balmoral and the Regent.
As Mr. Gates spoke, the block was barricaded at both ends by police cruisers for a street party that featured speeches, music, posters and food. Many attendees carried signs criticizing the city government or Mayor Gregor Robertson.
Earlier this month, the city found the Balmoral Hotel was unsafe and gave tenants a deadline of June 12 to leave the building. Since then, housing providers have scrambled to find new homes for about 140 Balmoral tenants, many of whom are on social or disability assistance and some who have lived in the building for decades.
In an update Sunday, the city said it had found housing for all registered tenants for the Balmoral, amounting to more than 140 units. Those units are in both privately owned and non-profit buildings, deputy city manager Paul Mochrie said in a statement, adding that, "there have also been extraordinary efforts to expedite the turnaround of recently vacated units and make them available for tenants being evacuated from the Balmoral."
While that came as a relief to tenants and advocates, questions remained about what would happen to the Balmoral, which is more than a century old and among a shrinking pool of SROs that provide what the city calls "housing of last resort:" the last stop before homelessness.
"Why has this happened – that's the burning question – why has this happened and how do we go forward?" community organizer Wendy Pedersen said from a stage set up mid-block.
"We don't disagree that this building should be shut down but we want to know – why has it taken the city so long [to act]? … There are dozens of hotels like this in the city that are on the edge of being condemned," Ms. Pedersen said.
She and other advocates say the city could – and should – do more to ensure safety and upkeep in privately owned SROs, including conducting necessary repairs and then billing the owner.
City bylaws would allow for that approach but, so far, the city has been reluctant to pursue it, possibly because of legal concerns, advocates say.
"Every city in the world has problem landlords," Judy Graves, who retired as the city's homeless advocate in 2013, said at the demonstration.
"And you just have to come up with the legislation and the enforcement to deal with it," she added.
The city has said it prefers to use the courts and other enforcement strategies to hold owners accountable.
The Sahotas have not responded to messages seeking comment about the situation at the Balmoral or its other properties.
The mayor has also said the city planned to take the Sahota family to court for more than 150 bylaw infractions.
With help from community organizers, tenants of the Balmoral and the Regent last year launched proposed class-action suits against the Sahotas. The City of Vancouver is also a defendant in the proposed class actions.
The Sahotas have challenged those actions on jurisdictional grounds, saying the Residential Tenancy Branch is the proper venue for landlord-tenant disputes.
The B.C. Court of Appeal heard arguments on that issue on June 8. A decision is pending.
With a report from The Canadian Press