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Pennsylvania Hotel opens supportive housing

January 8th, 2009 · 5 Comments

It was quite the party scene in the Downtown Eastside today, as the Who’s Who of the neighbourhood and the province’s social-housing mafia gathered on Carrall Street to celebrate the opening of the new Pennsylvania Hotel with 44 housing units. Much oohing and ahing over the lovely new rooms, refurbished lobby and the restored ancient wire-cage elevator from the 1906 building.

This is where the Portland Hotel Society started back in 1993 with a mission to house some of the mentally ill people who were showing up in the Downtown Eastside in increasing numbers and getting kicked out of the existing social housing. (They’ve since gone on to run several other buildings and some 300-plus units of housing in the neighbourhood.)

The PHS (Liz Evans and Mark Townsend) staged the event in their inimitable style, with a gospel choir, pancake breakfast, and ceremonial lighting of the new heritage-replica Hotel Pennsylvania sign.

A lovely, feel-good event with Housing Minister Rich Coleman, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, Concord Pacific’s Peter Webb (Concord helped the project by buying $3.5 million of its heritage density), housing activists Wendy Pedersen and Jean Swanson and various others all making nice with each other. Also in the crowd: Earl Crowe, a one-time activist with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, who will be getting a room at the hotel; Shawn Millar, the young man famous for getting a loan from one-time mayor Sam Sullivan to buy crack, now active with a men’s meditation group and writing projects; Lynn Zanatta, Sullivan’s long-time companion, who was helping with the event organization; NPA park commissioner candidate Chris Richardson, in his role as a cop; one-time councillor Peter Ladner, now employed; current councillor s Suzanne Anton, Kerry Jang and George Chow, and quite a few people out for the pancakes.

Of course, what people studiously avoided mentioning was how much it all cost — at a total capital cost of $14 million for the 44 rooms, that’s about $326,000 per small room. (Small, but bigger than they used to be when the hotel used to have 70-plus rooms.) Granted, a bunch of agencies threw in money to help restore the heritage part of the building but, gulp, that’s quite a bill. (See Stephanie’s comment on my previous Pennsylvania hotel post for her explanation of why the bill rose to such heights.)

Everyone has to be hoping that the next 2,956 units to come of the 3,000 needed won’t have quite such a high price tag. And what’s next to come of the many units on stream? No one could say.

That’s what everyone’s waiting for now, along with an interim plan from the city on where everyone currently being enticed into shelters is going to go. The mayor told me his HEAT team is working on that and should be coming out with some answers shortly.

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  • Stephanie

    Just as long as I can be clear that I don’t make any claim to expertise…

    My recollection was that the cost was hovering somewhere around $1K per square foot, but as I couldn’t be certain I wouldn’t cite a number.

    Presumably yet another source of the high cost is that it’s expensive to build in a way that’s durable enough to stand up to the wear that hard to house residents will bring. Money spent well up front can save a lot of money over the life of the building.

    Meanwhile, does anyone know if there’s a relationship between that Concord density purchase and their controversial project at 58 W. Hastings?

  • jen

    $326,000 per room????

    That is absolutely appalling. What colossal waste. What stunning mismanagement.

    But isn’t it nice that all the poverty professionals and poster-kid junkies got to have a lovely photo-op with the politicians while the media dutifully applauded.

    Taxpayers paid for the pancakes. And everything else.

  • dave

    Funny, I’m with a group that has been offering supportive housing using a model of live-in community builders (people who care about those who are homeless or on the verge of it, who choose to live with them, not get paid but actually pay rent, share resources, stories, lives) for 10 years, and when we approached the province to ask for money (spare change, really) to run an SRO that is currently used as hostel on this kind of community building model, they said “thanks, but no thanks.” What we are offering is a powerful model of supportive housing, financially viable, low-cost (1.5 million for 23 units), grassroots and community-based (neighbor -to-neighbor rather than paid staff-to-client) and we get blocked and rejected by BC Housing at every turn. I guess even among organizations willing to step into the fray to make a difference, the little people get silenced and shut out.

  • When it comes to fixing up the residential hotels why not use some of the methods employed by Habitats for Humanity,i.e volunteer labor,volunteer expertize ,building supply donation
    This would help lower the cost,speed things up,build community spirit etc etc.Indeed if a barn can be thrown up in a day surely we can build housing more efficiently and quicker if we did not just contract the work out for profit.For profit is not a bad thing but the priority has to be getting people housed using every means at our disposal.

  • carole

    how are the hard to house anymore expensive to build for then tourists. this is nonsense. public housing might cost more because bc housing demands that the building be standing in so many years and doesn’t leak…not for profit housing does…and often