- BC Games
The trouble with change
It had been 24 hours since a group of housing advocates, many representing a group called the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council, set up camp on an grassy boulevard that splits Hadden Drive and Eastcot Road in West Vancouver's British Properties community.
The rain had been constant. What felt like an omnipresent patter — not quite downpour but not quite mist — had come down on the collection of tents all night long.
By Tuesday morning, the boulevard is quiet. A few cardboard signs remained slung to small trees; an open case of Pepsi lay beside a blue cooler. Down the block, a gardener parks his car and readies his equipment.
The camp sits still, a stark contrast to the wealth surrounding it.
At about 10 a.m., 22-year-old Gregory Williams, a New Jersey-born recent graduate of the University of B.C., emerges from a large brown tent. He’s been left to watch over the grounds while his counterparts attend various meetings.
Williams is a polite, shaggy fellow, with long brown hair and a thick beard. Clad in bleach-stained slacks and a heavy knitted sweater, he’s tired but eager to talk. The night, he says, had been an interesting one.
“It was not bad, not bad at all,” a smiling Williams says, nodding his head.
“One person came around with a megaphone saying ‘Go home freaks, go home freaks, West Vancouver doesn’t want you.’ But we spoke with a fair number of people here and many were sympathetic to us and what we’re trying to do.”
The small encampment was erected Monday evening following an afternoon of protest in front of Steven Lippman’s Eastcot Road home. Lippman, president of the real estate firm Living Balance, owns a number of properties in the DTES including the Lotus, American, Golden Crown and Picadilly hotels. In total, Lippman owns more than 300 units in Single Room Occupancy buildings throughout the neighbourhood.
What brought the protestors to West Van was Lippman’s interest in purchasing the Wonder Rooms and the Palace Hotel, buildings housing a combined 72 rooms. Last year, the hotels' previous owner, George Wolsey, was ordered by the court to repair the dilapidated buildings. To pay for the facelift, IMOR Management Corp. provided him with a multi-million dollar loan. This spring, IMOR moved to foreclose on Wolsey and Campbell Saunders, a Vancouver-based bankruptcy firm, was appointed the receiver.
Protestors singled out Lippman because they fear he would, upon purchase, fix up the buildings and raise the rents, thereby forcing the cash-strapped residents out.
“He has a history or renovicting,” claims Williams.
“He jacks up the rents and markets the rooms to students and young workers. It‘s hard to know how many people he’s displaced as a result.”
If an investment of private capital is used to clean up the properties, an adjustment in rent would be the result admits Geoffrey Howes, a spokesman for Living Balance. But, he stresses, the adjustment would be a minor one. And the renovation desperately needs to be done.
These buildings, even in a community full of decrepit real estate, have had many complaints — city records show more than 150 infractions — levied against them. Last year, legal action against Wolsey was taken by the Residential Tenancy Branch on behalf of a group of former residents.
What Living Balance pledges to do if it takes control of the hotels, says Howes, is make them “clean and respectable.”
“These are disgusting suites. There are tales of rats, mould, bed bugs and the city has been trying to force the sale of these buildings,” says Howes, in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon.
“But the reality is somebody needs to step up to the plate. If the city goes in, they can keep the rates at $375-$425. If we go in and clean it up, there is a cost associated to that so rates might be $425-$450 but they will all be in that $400-range. We’re not the bad guys here. For that gang to protest outside of Steven’s home isn’t fair. We haven’t even bought the properties yet. To be honest, we don’t need the aggravation, we know we’re doing the right thing.”
The sale of the Wonder Rooms and Palace Hotel was scheduled for 9:45 a.m. Wednesday in B.C. Supreme Court. At 9:30 a.m., only Howes, a slim fair-haired man, and two associates are sitting near the courtroom. Lippman isn't present.
There’s a rumour, Howes says, that someone stepped in and bought the mortgage from the receiver late in the day yesterday but he’s not sure of the details.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” he says.
Lippman’s offer of $4.9 million for the properties, for the moment, stands.
As a line begins to form in front of the courtroom, just minutes before 9:45 a.m., Williams and other members of the protest group come down the hallway. Among them is Wendy Pederson, noted DTES activist and Ivan Drury, an organizer of Monday’s protest. Both are members of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council.
The pair exchange a few quick words with Howes and file into the courtroom. By the time the sale of the hotels comes up, the courtroom is near full. But discussion of the issue is brief. Peter Reardon, a lawyer representing a company called Laurelwood and Southwood Ventures, rises and explains to the judge that his client has paid the mortgage and plans to take control of the buildings.
“It is my client’s intention to become owner of the hotels. My client holds the mortgage. As of now, nothing changes,” Reardon tells reporters, Pedersen, Drury and others outside the courtroom.
“My client doesn't want to sell it to Lippman or anyone else.”
Further court proceedings into the matter, Reardon added, are expected in the near future but he would not comment on what the nature of those proceedings would be.
“The most important thing is the Wonder and Palace hotels have not been bought by Lippman. We’ve been fighting for a year for these hotels,” says Drury, outside the courthouse, the rain picking up.
“But we need the province and the city to step in and pick up these buildings. SROs are vulnerable if not. We need social housing, not SROs.”
Each day, 69-year-old Jim French gets up early, grabs some groceries at the Sunrise Market and walks the streets of the Downtown Eastside before heading for a few beers at Vancouver’s Favourite Country Music Pub, the bar in the Grand Union Hotel.
He likes getting out. And he likes a drink. “No sense staying in," he says, “there isn’t a hell of a lot to do in there.”
French has been living in the Palace Hotel for seven years. When he first moved in, at the tender age of 62, the first floor, where he lives, was okay. It was upstairs that was the problem.
"There was more drugs inside than out. They partied all night long. There was a few drunks, no door locks, drunks in the bathroom. I don’t like going to a bathroom that I share. There used to be bandages, blood in the tub from the needles they threw in there,” he says.
“I had to clean it out. But nobody ever bothered me.”
And things have gotten better, he adds. The Community Builders Group, the company currently managing the Palace, has helped turn it around. The hallways are clean these days. The bathrooms too. He nods approvingly.
Originally from rural Ontario, French left home at 15, not long his father died. Mom had four younger kids to care for and it was time for him to make some money. A self-proclaimed “damn good” mechanic, French was never much for school. He worked as a journeyman pipefitter in Saskatchewan, taking contracts wherever offered. After years in the Prairies, French drifted west lured by gigs in the oil fields.
Never married, French’s kids still live in Alberta. But he hasn’t been back to visit for years. He might be a grandfather, he might not. He isn't sure.
And back east? There's no one left, he says.
His friends are in his community — in the shops, in the bars and, for now, in the hotels.
“I’m going to stay,” he says.
“The only people I know are down here.”