The City of Vancouver has spent at least $1.5 million on security, maintenance and other costs associated to two vacant single-room occupancy hotels in the Downtown Eastside that it purchased for an undisclosed sum in November 2020.
The city bought the Balmoral and Regent hotels from the Sahota family with the intention to turn the buildings into safe and secure low-income housing. The century-old highrises, which have a combined 300 rooms, have been vacant since 2017 and 2018.
The city has since decided to demolish the Balmoral and lease the Regent to BC Housing, which has plans to redevelop the building but has yet to provide details. The city announced Tuesday that demolition of the Balmoral at 159 E Hastings St. won’t be completed until late 2023.
Glacier Media reported in November 2021 that the city had racked up roughly $1 million in costs related to security and other charges to protect the hotels from further deteriorating or catching fire.
The buildings are located across the street from each other.
Since that article was posted, the city has spent an additional $536,000 to date, according to information the city’s communications department released this week to Vancouver Is Awesome.
Such costs will continue and increase until both properties are redeveloped, which could take several years.
“Beyond measures necessary to ensure the security of the buildings, including measures such as fire watch, boarding up broken windows, etc., the only additional costs are related to the planning of the demolition by the project team,” the city said in an email.
The city said people living in tents and makeshift shelters on the sidewalks outside the Balmoral and up and down East Hastings are not connected to the reason why the hotel hasn’t already been knocked down.
“The Balmoral is a very complex building and staff are working as expeditiously as possible and are prioritizing the work as per [chief building official] orders,” the city said.
Meanwhile, two adjacent two-storey buildings to the Balmoral damaged by fires this year will be demolished within the next two weeks. The city said it will bill the owners for the cost of demolition.
1,300 units of social housing built
The slow process to turn the Balmoral and Regent properties into social housing comes as homelessness persists in the Downtown Eastside and across the city.
City officials, Mayor Kennedy Stewart and social service agencies have all suggested homelessness has increased since the city’s last homeless count in March 2020 recorded 2,095 people without a home.
“Neither building is habitable in its current form,” the city said when asked about the urgency to build more housing.
“Staff have been actively prioritizing work on the Regent and Balmoral with BC Housing while also continuing to progress development of many other non-market housing projects across the city. Since November 2020, more than 1,300 units of social housing have been completed.”
The city didn’t provide an estimate of the cost to demolish the nine-storey Balmoral, saying “the demolition of this building is a very complex process.”
“The city will continuously assess the site and building conditions and will adjust the demolition process and timing to account for any unforeseen circumstances, changes or new developments,” the city said. “The actual costs will be impacted by these still-to-be-confirmed circumstances. We can share the costs as we near completion.”
The costs to maintain the Balmoral and Regent do not include the unknown but significant costs the city has spent over several decades on enforcing orders at the hotels. Annual costs related to police and firefighters responding to calls at both buildings are also unknown.
Firefighters called 31 times to vacant Balmoral
Capt. Matthew Trudeau, public information officer for Vancouver Fire Rescue Services, said in an email this week that firefighters responded 31 times to the Balmoral since January 2020 and answered 23 calls at the Regent.
Trudeau said the calls were for fires, flood problems, and alarms and don’t include medical calls outside the buildings.
Glacier Media reported in April 2018 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 city closed both buildings because they were deemed unsafe to occupy.
At the time, the city cited engineering reports detailing fire hazards, rotting wood, sagging floors, water damage and mould inside the Balmoral. Similar problems were raised by the city in its decision to close the Regent.
In November 2019, the city's estimate to repair both hotels was $90 million.
'Faster pathways' to new housing
Vancouver city councillor Christine Boyle, who was re-elected Oct. 15, said Wednesday that she wished redevelopment of the hotel properties “could all happen a lot more quickly.”
But, Boyle added, she understood some of the delay is related to the need to properly and safely decommission parts of the Balmoral before full demolition.
“And there's a lot of work underway to try to line up senior government funding to build replacement housing,” said Boyle, whose next four years on council will be served alongside an ABC Vancouver majority.
“We need a lot faster pathways to make all of that happen. I don't know exactly what that looks like with this new council. But I have spent four years advocating that we make it a lot faster and easier to be building non-market and social housing — and we know we need it at [the Balmoral and Regent] sites. We know we need it in neighbourhoods all across the city.”