Mayor Gregor Robertson revealed Wednesday that city council has directed city staff to begin negotiations with the owners of two of the city’s most notorious hotels for crime and disrepair to spend what would be millions of dollars to buy both buildings.
Robertson said if the city can’t reach a deal with the Sahota family, then it would look to expropriate the Regent and Balmoral hotels, which are directly across from each other on East Hastings near Main Street in the Downtown Eastside.
“We need to buy these buildings, we need to get them in public hands,” he said.
The mayor did not discuss a purchase price but B.C. Assessment records show the property value of the Regent was $12.1 million in July 2017. The Balmoral was assessed at $2.6 million, dropping from the previous year’s value of $10 million.
The decrease in the Balmoral’s value is likely connected to the city’s closure last June of the hotel, which forced the evacuation of more than 150 tenants. The order came after engineering reports concluded the dilapidated building was in danger of collapsing.
Fire hazards, among other deficiencies including rotting wood, sagging floors, water damage and mould were cited in engineering reports. Similar problems were raised Wednesday by the city in its decision to order the closure of the Regent, which also has more than 150 rooms.
Even if the city was successful in purchasing the hotels, Robertson made no promises the buildings would again open to tenants. The mayor noted it’s been a year since the Balmoral closed and it’s in “even worse condition.”
“We’ll make a decision whether there is a financial reality to try and salvage that building, or not,” he said.
Robertson announced the city’s intention to buy the hotels inside the Jubilee Rooms, which was recently purchased by the B.C. government from a private owner for $12.5 million. The Jubilee, which is in the 200-block Main Street and around the corner from the Regent, will provide homes for about 80 of the Regent’s tenants at a maximum of $375 per month in rent.
Atira Property Management signed a six-month lease in February to manage the Regent and has since found accommodations for at least 50 other tenants, including a 97-year-old man. Most have moved in to Atira buildings.
Housing Minister Selina Robinson, who joined Robertson at the Jubilee, praised Atira for its work, saying the non-profit inherited “a near impossible situation.” Robinson said she was “horrified and outraged” at the images she’s seen and stories she’s heard about the living conditions in the Regent.
Robinson said the Jubilee will offer tenants clean rooms that include microwaves, fridges and shared washrooms. Tenants will be moving in over the next two weeks, with the city’s order stating the Regent has to be vacant by June 28.
“This is a drastic improvement to how people have been living in the Regent,” she said, noting RainCity Housing will manage the Jubilee, which consists of two joined buildings.
Jack Gates, who has lived in the Regent for four years, said he was disappointed the city hadn’t previously used its bylaws to renovate the hotel and bill the Sahotas. This way, the city would not have had to close the building, he said.
He said the closure means the loss of another 150 single-room-occupancy rooms in a community that anti-poverty advocates say lost 500 last year. Gates, who is disabled, said he has been offered a room at the Jubilee but because it doesn’t have an elevator, he’s not sure he will move in.
“I can’t climb up and down these stairs,” he said, standing outside the Jubilee. “I’m on disability for a reason. I’ve got back problems, arthritis in my ankles and it’s pretty difficult to get around—and that’s not just me, there’s other tenants in the building that have other physical problems, too.”
The Regent and Balmoral have made the city’s top-10 list of problem hotels for almost 20 years and have been cited by police in numerous reports for drug activity and other crimes. Aside from court action, Robertson said the city was limited in what it can do to compel the owners to address more than 1,000 violations.
“The system has not been designed in favour of the tenants or the government’s side at the city,” he said, noting the closure of both hotels was only done knowing the B.C. government had space in its other buildings to move tenants. “We still have work to do. We’re still talking about what tools we can partner on [with the provincial government], what other tools the city can use. Bigger fines, a more expedited court process are a couple of the options.”
The Courier reported in April that police responded to 845 calls in and outside the Regent between Jan. 1, 2017 and Feb. 22, 2018; the Balmoral generated 248 calls for the same period, although it was closed in June 2017.
The Courier left a message Wednesday at the Sahota’s family home in Shaughnessy but had not received a return call before this story was posted. The Sahotas also own the Regal, Cobalt and Astoria hotels, which made the city’s list of top 10 worst single-room-occupancy hotels in a November 2016 council report.