Save Low-Income Housing at the York Rooms

For Immediate Release: October 19, 2011

Join DTES groups and SRO tenants to call for City and Province action to

Save low-income housing at the York Rooms

VANCOUVER, UNCEDED COAST SALISH TERRITORIES: On Wednesday October 19th at 10am Downtown Eastside (DTES) groups and residents of the York Rooms hotel are gathering in front of the York Rooms hotel at 259 Powell out of concern that their housing is at risk since is has been recently bought by notorious SRO hotel “upscaler” landlord Steven Lippman.

In the past two years Steven Lippman has bought as many as seven hotels in the DTES and has upscaled the rents in most of them way above what low-income residents can afford. DTES Neighbourhood Council (DNC) board member Ivan Drury explains, “With city support Steven Lippman has threatened more than 300 units of low-income housing by upscaling them for students and young workers. The new social housing units that the government was celebrating during homelessness action week are just backfilling the hole made in the low-income housing stock by gentrifiers like Lippman. The number of units lost to this upscaling is almost exactly the same number of units that the city and province have bragged that they have built.”

Roger Hadder has only lived in the York Rooms for a few months but has spent most of the last nine years on the streets. “I lived homeless outside for seven years. Even though they’re not great, we really need these hotel rooms to rent at welfare prices,” Hadder said, pointing out the need for SRO hotels as transition places for people on the street, “If I couldn’t get a room in a hotel at welfare rate I’d still be on the street today.”

Damien Dubois, who has lived at the York for four years argued for rent controls and for a bylaw that holds SRO hotels at welfare and pension rate, “We need these hotels but they have to be at welfare shelter rate. At the York I’m paying $50 out of my support cheque for a tiny room. That just leaves me with $150 to live on for the month,” he said. “The only way it would be worse is if there was no welfare at all.”

The DNC will support tenants’ demand to owner lower rents to $375 a month and fix up the building for existing tenants. And together they are calling on the City of Vancouver and the Province of BC to:

  • CITY: Buy the York Rooms. Removing the York Rooms from the market housing stock is the only way to protect the low-income rooms there and it is not too late for the city to act.

  • CITY: Close the loopholes in the SRA bylaw to protect the low-income housing stock by adding to the definition of SRO Hotel “conversion”: Raising rents above welfare and pension rent rates;

  • PROVINCE: Implement effective rent controls in the SROs to stop evictions and the emptying and upscaling of buildings by investors;

  • PROVINCE: Fully fund the HEAT shelters immediately. The “Homelessness Action Week” announcement of 300 units of new social housing does not fill the need for shelter beds. Steven Lippman’s real estate investments alone have stolen almost as much low-income housing as has been built.

Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) coordinator Jean Swanson called for the city to put the action back in Homelessness Action Week and make affordable housing the most important issue of the civic election campaign. “What did we get out of Homelessness Action Week?” she asked. “A re-announcement of housing at the Remand Centre with only 24 units at welfare rate; A photo-op for the city and province at 1005 Station Street, a building cancelled in 2001; An announcement from the Province that they will not fund 4 of the HEAT shelters; and Kerry Jang’s embarrassing statement that the city (delete: he) is so close to ending homelessness he ‘can taste it.’ We still have about 700 people living in DTES shelters every night who desperately need homes, and that doesn’t count people living on the street.”

“The DNC has a five year plan to end homelessness in Vancouver and we have given it to the city for free,” said Drury: “Buy ten sites in the DTES for housing a year for five years and replace the SRO hotels as housing. Let them be temporary accommodations for people coming off the street or arriving in town. And do it now.”

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Backgrounder: Why Steven Lippman’s purchase of the York Rooms worries us…

  • The American hotel (37 rooms): Lippman bought the empty American hotel and converted it into rooms for young workers and students with rents that start around $650. He got the city’s blessing to bypass the SRA anti-conversion bylaw by promising to council that 6 rooms would rent at $400 for 10 years.

  • The Lotus hotel (110 rooms): Lippman bought the Lotus earlier this year. In a survey CCAP conducted in the early summer a low-income Aboriginal resident was told there were no rooms available, and that rents began at $800 a month. A student-appearing white volunteer spoke to the same manager minutes later and was told he could move in on the first of the month. For him rent was quoted as $675 a month. This discriminatory renting practice was confirmed in a phone conversation between a CCAP employee and Steven Lippman on Tuesday October 4th. When asked how much a room in the Lotus would cost Lippman said, “It depends what you look like.”  And about the rumours that he had paid low-income residents a thousand dollars to move out of the Lotus he said, “I have never personally paid anyone to move out.” But he did not deny instructing his managers to pay residents one thousand dollars to move out. Instead, he scoffed and said, “That’s not eviction. They are making a free choice to go.”

  • The Golden Crown Hotel (28 rooms): According to news reports, residents of the Golden Crown hotel were illegally evicted and coerced or tricked into signing a statement agreeing to leave the building in September 2009. Steven Lippman and Christian Williams bought the building, empty, two weeks later. Williams claimed in the media that they had been “lied to” by the former owner who claimed the building was already empty. But on October 4th Lippman only repeated, “I have never personally evicted anyone.” Regardless, a news report now puts rent at the Golden Crown in the $650 to $825 range.

  • York Rooms (34 rooms): Steven Lippman fired and evicted the long time residential manager immediately upon purchasing the York Rooms. And he also immediately got a construction crew to strip the ground floor storefront and basement and got an architect to draw up plans for a high-end restaurant and bar. Could upscaling and high rents for the upstairs rooms be far behind? In a phone conversation with a DNC organizer Steven Lippman said he would “charge whatever rents the market will bear.”

  • The DNC also believes that Lippman may also own Alexander Court with 59 rooms, and the Picadilly Hotel with 45 rooms. The Picadilly is still closed and the Alexander Court, after a suspicious fire, raised rents well above welfare rate. He also owns the London Hotel, with 73 rooms. He received a heritage bonus in the form of a 10-year property tax holiday, two facade grants, and a density transfer bonus from the City for his redevelopment, a massive incentive package totalling $1,374,131. Atira property management maintains the rooms at $375 a month but holds only a five-year lease, which ends, and leaves the rooms vulnerable to Lippman-style upscaling, in January 2014. The council motion that supported the renovation, for the purposes of heritage, to the tune of nearly $1.5million, qualified that if Lippman chooses to upscale the rooms the city will support the tenants in their moves out.

The DNC believes that Steven Lippman owns a total of 386 SRO hotel rooms that used to, or temporarily, rent to low-income people. These rooms have been upscaled or likely will be upscaled from low-income to student or young worker housing. While no one denies that students and young workers need housing in one of the most unaffordable cities in the world, we believe that this housing should not come at the expense of people who are one step away from homelessness.

During Homelessness Action Week 2011 the City of Vancouver and BC Housing cheered their accomplishment in building 388 units of low-income affordable supportive housing. Compared to the loss of 386 low-income affordable SRO units at the hands of Lippman alone, this surplus of two lonely units is hardly something to cheer. Add to that the other units lost to student and young worker “upscale” conversions and, in overall low-income affordable housing, our city is not keeping its head above water.