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Imminent opening of Biltmore transitional housing in Mount Pleasant prompts community debate, promises to choose tenants ‘carefully’

November 27th, 2013 · 13 Comments

There was an announcement earlier this year that the Biltmore (or, what used to be the Biltmore at 12th and Kingsway and has until recently been a Howard Johnson’s) was going to be transformed into “transitional” housing for Vancouver’s homeless.

At the time, the only queries I got on Twitter were whether that would affect the hipster club that operates in the basement.

But in the last few months, I’ve been hearing increasing rumblings from the neighbourhood about what the Biltmore will mean for them. Concern that it’s only a block from an elementary school. Support from some residents who say that Mount Pleasant has always been home to a big mix and these people belong here. Lots of rumours about who is going to be living there.

Recent news stories about the high number of police calls at the Marguerite Ford social-housing complex in the Olympic village haven’t helped. (Not to mention probably really annoying Marguerite Ford, a former councillor who is still very much involved in city life.)

Here’s my story about the current situation surrounding the Biltmore, with Councillor Kerry Jang, who’s been dealing with concerned parents, saying that the tenants are going to be chosen very carefully, along with an explanation of what the actual allocation is for the building.

There is going to be more of this kind of reaction and discussion. Another six social housing buildings, out of the 14 promised by the province, are still due to go up. The Ford building has given people a negative impression. (And, I have to say, people in the area also have commented on some of the goings on at the nearby new social-housing project at Second and Main, being run by Lookout.) But there are also some success stories. One of my UBC journalism students wrote this story recently.

(My story, as always, posted below for those without access to the Globe.)


New housing project’s proximity to grade school has sparked concerns with local residents, parents

Residents of a new housing project aimed at getting Vancouver’s homeless off the streets will be selected with great care, in an acknowledgment by city and provincial housing officials of the project’s unique location only a block away from an elementary school.

Vancouver Councillor Kerry Jang said a different approach to picking residents is needed because the project in the former Biltmore Hotel at 12th and Kingsway in Mount Pleasant, due to open some time in early 2014, is the first one of its kind so close to a school.

“That’s why a client mix is important,” said Mr. Jang, who has been trying to allay parent concerns at Florence Nightingale Elementary for the past few months. “We’re choosing the clients carefully to mix appropriately with the neighbourhood.”

The project has generated a mix of concern and support in the east-of-Main neighbourhood among parents at Nightingale and in the general area.

Even though Mount Pleasant is already home to a number of drop-in services and housing for the homeless or people kicking addictions, the Biltmore is raising alarms among some residents in the wake of reports about problems with other new projects nearby.

The Marguerite Ford social-housing complex near the Olympic village, just down the hill from Mount Pleasant, has generated a steady stream of complaints and police visits since it opened in May.

“The two problems we see is that, one, it becomes a dumping ground for undesirables from the Downtown Eastside, like the Marguerite Ford [complex] that has apparently turned into a war zone,” said John Buckberrough, part of a resident group in the Mount Pleasant area that communicates through a large listserv.

“The other issue there is the cabaret,” he said, referring to the bar under the hotel. “I can’t think of another facility the government has taken over where there’s licensed premises just down below.”

But Stephen Weeds, who can see the Biltmore from his house, said he thinks there’s a lot of fear-mongering going on in the neighbourhood.

“Homelessness and poverty are being treated as a crime,” said Mr. Weeds, who manages a residential hotel for PHS Community Services in the Downtown Eastside. He believes the project will provide a home for people already living on the streets in the area, and that sensibility fits in with Mount Pleasant.

“This has been a community where everybody is welcome, with a real mix of incomes. When we start pushing people out, we become like the communities we have criticized.”

According to BC Housing information, the former Biltmore has been leased for several years to provide “bridge” housing for people on the street or in the city’s residential hotels while they’re waiting for units in new social-housing projects.

The province is midway through building 14 social-housing projects with about 1,500 units, part of a massive push to reduce what had been a steady increase in homelessness in the last decade.

Under guidelines worked out by the province and city, the 100-unit Biltmore is supposed to accept 50 people who are currently in shelters or on the street, 30 who are living in downtown hotels, and 20 who are “at risk” of homelessness.

That’s considerably less than the 147 people who moved into the Marguerite Ford building, said Mr. Jang, which should help reduce potential problems.

“People will be moved in gradually, to make sure they’re stable. And another thing we learned is that you should move people who are part of a stable social group.”

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  • teririch

    The problem that can be worked around – not housing hard core addicts in with those that are ‘low income’, seniors, disabled and with mild issues. It doesn’t work. And it is not fair to those that don’t have a choice because of circumstance.

    There should be separate residences with the appropriate services for the various groups. It would solve a lot of the issues like those we are seeing play out at Marguerite Ford building. I would also think it would effect funding models which may free up needed dollars.

    As for Jang’s reasurances – I wouldn’t trust that man as far as I could throw him.

  • Kenji

    Well, social mix is interesting and useful, ghettos suck.

    I wonder if the RIZE opponents, who detest the coming influx of presumably wealthy (i.e. mortgaged to the eyeballs) condo dwellers, will see the opening of multiple social housing towers in approximately the same neighbourhood as a balance against the area becoming too, y’know, posh.

  • Tessa

    The social mix missing from this equation is the middle group. If the RIZE brings the type of gentrification many worry, then those of us currently able to afford our rents could soon be applying for the housing at the Biltmore.

    (But really, I think most of the concerns on that project were about the built form, not necessarily the tenants)

  • Kenji

    The threat of a rapid, displacement-inducing escalation of apartment rent is one that I would take seriously too.

    It seems to me that that is a separate concern from whether or not Rize is fat and will block out the sun. Aesthetics are one thing but the bottom line is the bottom line.

    I would wonder if it would be time for Vision to steal an idea from the COPE playbook and institute some form of rent control.

    I don’t know what that might be exactly, but my understanding is that people who hold residential rental property licenses have to renew them every year. Perhaps the city could decline to issue renewals on the basis of excessive rent increase, or something like that.

    To try to regulate the cost of a neighbourhood by essentially saying that the city ought not make it too amenable, too likeable to the gentry, has a downside as well.

  • Bill Lee

    And they still have not been able to rent out the street level 28 metre (90 foot) retail fronts, even after two years.
    Still a City of Vancouver for rent sign in the window of the Dunbar and 16th building that Mme Bula refers us to in her UBC J-student’s piece above. [ See link above “One of my UBC journalism students wrote this story recently.” ]

    But see the former fuss about the proposal for a Fraser and 40th complex for drug addicts, and how quiet it is now.

    As for the Biltmore, parents should be more concerned about the hazardous goods trucking route and race cars speedway that is 12th Avenue running right by Nightingale school. (and by City Hall at Cambie)

    Look up the ICBC map of accidents along there.

  • a different approach to picking residents is needed

    A different approach to picking the building form for housing the homeless is needed! Putting the homeless in towers is NOT a good idea.

    Coming out of Chicago, the formula that works has seven to a house (not 100) and one resident support staff per house (not 2 day-time, and nothing at night for all 100 residents).

    The building form is the problem.

    Adding insult to injury, the Biltmore is two house lots away from Florence Nightingale Elementary School! Two new residential buildings separate the Biltmore from Nightingale. This a short-Vancouver block. So…. 300 feet or 100 meters, not a “full” block.

    Bill Lee—I think parents worry about more than one thing at a time 😉

  • Waltyss

    Bill Lee, I don’t think the “for rent” signs are because of social housing. Rather that corner for some reason is a difficult retail zone. A Starbucks closed and it is now a mortuary. A convenience store across the street did not last long and the space still sits empty. Other places like Tim Hortons, the LCB and a breakfast and lunch restaurant on the other hand seem to prosper. Go figure.

  • teririch

    @Lewis N. Villegas #6:

    You don’t need to look to Chicago for failed social housing initiatives; Toronto has its issues with towers clustered = crime and ongoing drug dealing/addiction problems.

    Like I said, mixing hard core addicts in with those that are ‘not there’ is a huge problem that can be solved by….not doing it.

    There is social housing at the Oly Village that works well (not the Marguerite Ford buildings). And I will bet we will see the same issues arise when the new youth social housing opens up on Burrard at roughly Davie (across from St. Paul’s) and next to the Burrard Hotel. That building is large and I am guessing will hold upwards of 100 people.

    The idea that hard core addicts should be mixed in with other low income people is just a huge social experiment mistake.

  • The “problems” at Marguerite Ford Apartments, at 215 West 2nd Avenue, are not difficult to understand at all.

    What was the province (and the City for that matter) thinking when they allowed a gargantuan, almost-certain-to-become “a slum” 147 unit social housing megaplex to be built adjacent to the Olympic Village?

    From day one when the announcement was made, any thinking person could reasonably predict that moving 147 hard-to-house individuals afflicted with mental health problems (many of them unaddressed prior to moving in to Marguerite Ford), many of the residents with bi-polar and schizo-affective disorders — not to mention, significant personality disorders — drug-addicted persons who were only going to draw drug dealers into the neighbourhood — I mean, migawd, what a recipe for disaster. And so it has come to pass.

    I remember some years back, talking with Ned Jacobs one sunny summer afternoon at Jericho Beach, and he said (although more judiciously than I) pretty much what’s written in the paragraph above.

    As Ned suggested, and I concur, numerous studies have shown that social housing complexes of no more than 25 units are ideal — with all the supports that are necessary, from nurses, social workers, and mental health workers.

    As is the case with the 51-unit Coast Dunbar apartments (written about ably by Darryl Hol), an at least better-sized social housing complex, is much preferable to the much-larger Marguerite Ford Apartment complex, particularly when that social housing complex is so close to the DTES.

    Fortunately, RainCity Housing — which operate Marguerite Ford Apartments — is one of, if not THE, best social agencies operating in our city. So “the problem” almost certainly doesn’t originate with them, or their hard-working staff.

    The only “solution” would seem to be, over time, to work to change the mix of residents, ensure that residents receive the supports they need (from detox to medication, and appointments at appropriate health agencies), and that the Province, and the City, might learn from the “mistake” that was made at Marguerite Ford apartments, and never again build such a large facility of its (much-needed) kind, particularly so close to the DTES.

  • Kenji



    I think that governments should continue to build or at least facilitate the building of social housing. Some of these are going to be towers, but I like the idea of mixing residential populations so that it is not all yuppie scum nor all sexually intrusive firestarters.

    The tower at Broadway and Fraser was, if memory serves, initially going to be 8 floors of supportive housing and 3 floors of market rental.

    At the public hearing, the City heard speaker after speaker decry the size and form and shadowing and blah and doo and blah, and then they said, ok we’ll get rid of the market rental, now it is only 8 stories.

  • Joe Just Joe

    So housing 147 social housing units in a building hasn’t worked out, the solution must be to house 10-15K in the same neighbourhood…
    Why is it so politically unpopular to look at many small solutions instead of chasing a single big solution sure to fail?

  • Frances Bula

    @joe just joe. I heard there are changes afoot re all that.

  • Silly Season

    That would be welcome. I agree with a previous poster—7-8 tenats would be optimal. With full-time supervision, and programming. This works in little homes around the city, for those who in treatment.

    Housing without care and treatment for the ‘hard to house’, is useless. And housing so many together with problems doesn’t create ‘community’, but bedlam.