HOTELS ARE HOMES NOT INVESTMENTS
Non-profit management thrown out of Wonder & Palace Hotels by new investors
Residents of the Wonder Rooms and Palace Hotel have been worried about being made homeless again. The most recent scare has been owner George Wolsey’s foreclosure and court-ordered sale. The homes of 72 tenants of the two hotels are in the possession of the Solterra group, a major development company who legal papers show bought the buildings for $5, possibly a tax avoidance scheme. The day after they got possession of the buildings Solterra threw out of the non-profit management company, Community Builders, who had brought some stability to the residents. Their parting words, according to a Community Builders manager, were complaints that there were not more vacancies in the buildings. It’s not a good sign for the low-income residents or for the low-income affordable status of the rooms themselves.
The roller coaster started when the Wonder Rooms and Palace hotels had their day in court again on Wednesday June 13th. A court-ordered sale was supposed to approve or refuse a bid to buy the buildings by notorious gentrifier Stephen Lippman. Just days before the court date the DTES Neighbourhood Council, VANDU and allies flew into emergency action to stop Lippman from getting the buildings and turning them into student housing like he has already done to more than 300 other low-income hotel rooms.
On Monday they held a picket line in front of Lippman’s private West Vancouver mansion and set up a protest camp down the street. Lippman’s business partner Jeffrey Howes complained that protesting in front of his “private home is inappropriate.” One of his neighbours even swore at one of the children colouring Lippman’s driveway with chalk. Tami Starlight, DNC president, responded, “Lippman is the one displacing people from their homes. We are just visiting West Vancouver to let his community know what he has been doing in the DTES.”
The protesters set up a camp, strung up information signs, distributed pamphlets and held discussions with Lippman’s neighbours. Greg Williams, one of the campers in the green space steps from Lippman’s place, said, “No matter what happens we feel like we have won something important if Lippman doesn’t take over these two hotels. I met a lot of his neighbours and most of them don’t know him at all. Maybe his lack of relationships with his neighbours explains why he’s such a bad neighbour in the DTES.”
On Tuesday more than 50 DTES residents marched to BC Housing to stop the gentrification of 72 low-income housing units in the targeted hotels. As the crowd chanted for social housing outside, three Palace hotel residents met with Dale McMann, a member of the BC Housing executive board. Lorne, who has lived in the Palace for 5 years said, “My room is lousy but if I lose it I’ll be on the street.” And Linda, a recent resident who doesn’t want to lose the room she settled into after being homeless, said, “We get treated like dirt by these big landlords, that’s why we need BC Housing to help. Please save our homes.” McMann promised to look into acquiring the buildings and the residents left, pledging to return if BC Housing continues to do nothing.
Finally, on Wednesday morning a group of DTES residents gathered at Supreme Court for a confusing verdict. Lippman’s offer to buy the buildings is off. But someone else, a mysterious company, bought the mortgage. It meant that George Wolsey was still the owner. It meant the future of the 72 low-income affordable hotel rooms and the people who live in them hinged on a secret arrangement between Wolsey – the subject of tens of RTB complaints and hundreds of city bylaw violation notices – and a company willing to break bread with him.
Finally, on June 25, the lenders, who turned out to be junior companies under the Solterra Group development giant, applied for and got possession of the two hotels. Although Wolsey remains the owner, Solterra has all power and responsibility to direct the future of the buildings. Their first act, to take the keys from the most capable managers the residents have known and take over management themselves, is not promising. The only other rooming house Solterra owns (as far as we know) is at 1131 Haro Street in the west end. The cheapest rents in the building are over $500 a month and a resident told a DNC organizer that the managers do not tolerate any drug users or people with mental health issues in the building.
Wonder and Palace residents deserve healthy, safe and secure housing, not tenancy on a Monopoly board. BC Housing should buy the buildings and the city should finally enforce their laws and collect the bylaw violation fines Wolsey owes them. As long as they are in the Vancouver real estate game the Wonder and Palace hotels will not be the kind of housing that low-income people need.