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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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