The City of Vancouver has scheduled two meetings about the Biltmore social housing project in early January. The first meeting is set for Wednesday, January 8th (6 – 8pm) at 140 East 11th Avenue (St. Patrick’s Regional High School). The second meeting is set for Saturday, January 11th, 2014 (10 am – noon) at 285 East 5th Avenue (Native Education College).
In between the two City-run meetings, RAMP is organizing a Community Forum on Thursday, January 9th, from 6:30pm to 8:30pm. The forum will be held at 2881 Main Street at St. Patrick Church. There’s a direct entrance to the meeting room from Main Street (St. Patrick Parish is between 12th & 13th Avenue, west side, Café room).
The Community Forum will provide a chance for participants who attended the City’s January 8th meeting to debrief and share information, and to also prepare people planning to attend the Saturday January 11th meeting. General information will also be provided to citizens who cannot make either of the City-organized meetings. We’ll be also using this upcoming forum on January 9th to follow up on our previous meeting in December and to answer outstanding questions. Posters of the upcoming events are available below (click to download PDF files, posters updated on January 9th):
RAMP supports social housing and we want to make sure that the Biltmore is a successful facility. We’ll be looking at precedents in the city, such as Dunbar House on 16th Avenue at our meeting on January 9, 2014. It’s important to determine how meaningful public involvement can tap the collective wisdom of the community and achieve many of the goals for housing and for finding solutions to homelessness as set forth in the Mount Pleasant Community Plan (sections 4.0, 4.5 in Community plan PDF). As of January 8th (1pm), the City has not posted recent information on their webpage about the Biltmore, nor is there a facility to make comments online.
At the previous RAMP-sponsored event on December 18, 2013 a number of questions were raised by the participants. Chris Taulu of the Community Policing Centre was also on hand to help answer questions and she gave a summary of the planning thus far for the Biltmore facility. She added, “if it’s well managed, you’re not going to have a lot of problems.”
A few of the questions included the following:
Who is the property owner of the Biltmore? The numbered company that owns the property is 636608 B.C. Additional details on ownership are contained in a land title search record (PDF file: 375 Kingsway).
How long is the lease on the Biltmore hotel? BC Housing has leased the facility until 2019, with an option to renew up to 2028. The Request for Proposals document states: “Provincial Rental Housing Corporation (PRHC) has entered into a lease with the owner of the facility through 30 April, 2019 with options to renew for up to nine (9) additional years.”
How were other social housing projects planned in Vancouver, are there precedents from other communities? We’ll present details about the Dunbar House development with 51 units built on City land at West 16th Avenue and Dunbar Street at our January 9th meeting.
The following comments were made at the Community Information meeting we held on December 18, 2013. Please note: the summary below contains a variety of views expressed by the many participants at this meeting. RAMP is providing the summary for the record only and is not endorsing any of the positions or statements from the participants. We do hope that the City of Vancouver, BC Housing and RainCity Housing will be able to answer all of the outstanding questions and concerns.
At the meeting, Chris Taulu of the Community Policing Centre (CPC) gave a short summary and detailed the involvement of the CPC in planning of the Biltmore. There are 95 units now in the Biltmore (down from the planned 100) as some of the units will be used for amenities and a room will be provided to Coastal Health to serve the needs of the residents. The CPC are working to make the facility a success and to address concerns around safety. The Community Policing Centre has patrols in Mount Pleasant 7 days a week and is very familiar with the area.
The Biltmore will be staffed 24/7 with people on shifts. Residents will be able to get in by buzzing the reception. Chris Taulu pointed out that if you have good management in building, then it will run smoothly. The new residents will trickle in slowly over time before reaching the full capacity, unlike the Marguerite Ford building where everyone came in at the same time. Letters will be sent out to the local community (after December 18th) to inform residents and businesses of the upcoming City-sponsored events on January 8th and 11th. The work to promote the awareness of the City meetings will be assisted by the CPC.
A question came up about informing local businesses. To date, some businesses had not heard about the facility. Ms. Taulu answered that the BIA will inform all businesses prior to the meeting. She also stated that an advisory board will be established on the Biltmore housing, with a terms of reference created by RainCity Housing.
Residents that are moving in include homeless (50% of the mix). Participants asked if there will be priority to housing homeless in Mount Pleasant, and Ms. Taula said that some homeless will identified by agencies in the community (they will still have to apply via the standard BC Housing application form).
Question: What will the tenant mix be? From the Request from Proposals: “It is the intent of this RFP that a minimum of 50% of the units be occupied by street or sheltered homeless individuals; a maximum of 30% of the units be occupied by individuals currently housed in Vancouver’s Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels; and a maximum of 20% be occupied by low-income singles at risk of homelessness that need safe, secure affordable housing plus support services.”
What is the Rent? (RFP) “The rents will be set at $375 per unit per month.” (at shelter rate, the rents are usually automatically deducted from welfare and/or disability).
How much were the renovations? The City of Vancouver spent $1.2 million in renovating the Biltmore. It was unclear if this was a no-bid contract of if the work was put out to tender. However, the work took considerably longer than anticipated as the facility was originally scheduled to open in the summer of 2013. The renovation budget was originally set at $1 million.
How much are the operating costs? BC Housing will pay RainCity Housing (the operator) $870,000 per annum for the next 6 years to run the facility. The RFP stated that the BC Housing will have an option to renew for up to 9 years after 2019 (until 2028). It’s unclear what the plans are for housing residents after 2019 in the event the facility is shut down after 6 years.
What is the maintenance budget? [Answer: unknown at the moment] The importance of maintaining the renovated facility in its current condition was raised. It was unclear if a building upkeep and operating budget was a separate item.
The operator (RainCity Housing) was selected from a Request for Proposals to Non Profit Societies from BC Housing issued on March 7, 2013. All interested operators had until March 13, 2013 to inform BC Housing that they wished to bid on the contract, in a very short window to respond. Bid submissions were allowed until April 2, 2013. The selection of the operator was announced in May 2013.
One of the participants stated the importance of good meals for the residents. Meals become a very important part of the life of a resident, a focal point. The terms of the operator are to provide only “one meal per day for the tenants.” Furthermore, the meals can not be prepared on site, as the Province’s RFP states “No commercial kitchen/dining room facilities are available in the building for meal preparation or food service; therefore the selected Proponent will need to prepare food elsewhere or subcontract this service.” Translation: only a single high calorie meal cooked offsite will be provided by the operator. RAMP asked if BC Housing and the City of Vancouver should rewrite the terms of the operating agreement to provide better and healthier meals for the residents: three meals a day, cooked on-site. There was general agreement in the room to this suggestion. There were concerns what happens if a resident misses a meal, where do they go? Food is one of the few things that residents have some control over. Variety in food and healthy meals are key elements in social housing. The fridges in the rooms were taken out and it was noted that there is no chance to prepare meals in rooms (no hot plate or microwave). A common kitchen area near the reception will be available along with shared fridges; the shared fridges were seen as problematic.
A young lady in the crowd had three simple questions for the City of Vancouver. (1) How will they monitor the people who are alcohol addicted and who wish to purchase liquor in the two pubs on the ground floor of the Biltmore? (will liquor purchase by residents be allowed?) (2) How will they accommodate homeless shopping carts, bicycles and other vehicles? (3) Can we meet potential future residents? A number of the concerns raised around the Biltmore will likely apply to the new social housing building that is due to come online later this year at Fraser and East Broadway.
A representative for the commercial spaces along 355 Kingsway made an appeal to “make it [the Biltmore facility] the best we can”, while pointing out concerns about crime (that happens anyway, at present). She asked about the ETA for occupancy; this is apparently near the end of January or February if the renovations don’t drag on. A property owner in the neighbourhood said that the social science evidence on reducing street crime was to give people social housing; they were strongly supportive of the facility. Questions were raised on whether there will be enough resources in place in the RainCity contract and resources at Coastal Health for social workers and support staff. Are there sufficient resources made available for the case plans developed for each of the residents? (are residents are assigned to a staff person, with regular meetings and support?)
The two bars at the lower levels of the Biltmore will continue to operate, as will the off-site liquor store. The Biltmore Cabaret apparently has a 15-year lease from the property owner. The entrance to the Cabaret is off Prince Edward Street. The Locker Room Pub (formerly Mavericks) is the other bar on the site, and has an entrance off Kingsway. The CPC said that it seemed “ludicrous to put a pub” in with many people living at the housing facility. A participant point out that the City also has some leverage through its authority for liquor licensing at the outlets. The parking lot at the rear of the Biltmore will be closed to residents.
A single lady and resident of the Uptown (the recent condo development across the street from the Biltmore at 2788 Prince Edward) had concerns about safety and security and also about noise from the street. She also mentioned issues about plummeting property values for the owners of condo units at the Uptown. Who is responsible? She asked why is this the only first meeting on the Biltmore, where is the City Hall, have there been any other concerns raised? The Uptown is located on what was formerly the parking lot for the Howard Johnson hotel before Concord Pacific developed the property, Prince Edward Street is now a dead-end (at 12th Avenue). Florence Nightingale Elementary School is located a block to the east. A participant pointed out that that issues of safety are really about the residents of the facility themselves.
Another resident who lives a couple of blocks away at Main Street and East 11th Avenue was highly supportive of the social housing units. He’s lived in the community for over 15 years and seen a lot of change. This resident said he works near the overnight shelter at 21 East 5th Avenue between Quebec and Ontario Street, and said that there were no problems with his workplace with that facility. Giving the new facility the benefit of the doubt was a point raised a number of times. A social housing activist and mental health worker praised RainCity Housing’s reputation at other facilities in the City. He raised the example of a facility that opened at East 40th Avenue and Fraser and how a it became a success story with the involvement of a broad representation from the community in an advisory panel. A recurring question was how can the quality of life for the residents be improved?
Ms. Taulu mentioned that the Biltmore is still considered a hotel. In this manner it’s still possible to evict “problem tenants” with 24 hours notice. However, this brought up the question of where does a tenant go, if they are evicted? Is there a place for them? Another participant mentioned background checks on prospective tenants. Concerns about drugs and needle sweeps in the community were raised by a parent. Will there be a community agreement? Will there be any measure of accountability for the City or for BC Housing? There were concerns raised about the mix of tenants who will live in the Biltmore. A participant noted “We’re all here for the same reason. We’re worried for the community, we’re worried for the people coming in, and about the terrible circumstance that they [the future residents] must be coming from”, and urged to community to work together and to be positive.
The well being of future Biltmore residents was discussed in detail. What are the goals for the individuals who will be housed? Are there plans for a building lounge? Recreation space? [Question: What are the floor plans for the renovated facilities?] The existing pool will not be available for use, as the RFP states: “The pool and pool facilities on the second floor will be cordoned off and secured from tenant and public access.” A concern was raised about the plans for public areas in the facility in the event of a virus, such as a Norovirus outbreak (see St. Paul’s Hospital example).
There was some apprehension about the facility, and concerns that the City of Vancouver has not involved residents, business and local stakeholders to date. “There’s been a lack of consultation.” The plans for the facility were announced on February 5, 2013. There was also optimism and enthusiasm for providing new social housing the community. A common question was “what can we do together to make it better?”