Former Vancouver jail to breathe new life as much needed housing for Downtown Eastside’s poor

Steve Mertl

The steady gentrification of Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside has put pressure on the stock of affordable housing for the neighbourhood's poorest residents.

But a novel solution to help at least some of them find clean, low-cost housing in the city's one-time detention centre is just a year away from scheduled completion.

The latest housing survey by the Carnegie Community Action Project found the number rooms available at privately run single-room occupancy hotels for the $375 monthly welfare shelter allowance has declined dramatically, the Georgia Straight reports.

Rents have risen and in some cases take nearly all of recipients' $610 monthly cheque, researchers found. The average lowest rent rose to $469 from $398 between 2009 and 2013.

"For a person on social assistance, $375 a month in rent is 61 per cent of their income…the $71 average rent increase means that a person on social assistance spends 73 per cent of their income on housing," the report says, according to the Straight.

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So the planned 2015 addition of almost 100 units in the former Vancouver pre-trial centre at 250 Powell Street no doubt will be welcome.

The remand centre at the corner of Powell and Gore Ave, attached to the Main Street provincial court building, was closed in 2002 as the province consolidated pre-trial detention at its suburban Surrey facility.

The decision to convert it to housing was first announced in 2011 with a budget of $13 million, the Globe and Mail reported at the time.

The lower floors are used for a community court that handles the neighbourhood's petty criminals but the upper floors are vacant, The Bloom Group, which will develop and manage the building, says on its web site.

The Bloom Group, with funding from the city, B.C. and federal governments, last month began overseeing renovation of the jail to create 96 units of "permanent, affordable and shelter-rate housing for people working and living downtown."

The rents on 24 of the units will be kept at the province's income assistance shelter allowance (currently $375), with rents for the rest set within Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.'s housing income level – which last year for Vancouver was $34,000 for a studio apartment and $38,000 for a one-bedroom in the city.

Some units will be reserved for at-risk aboriginal youth participating in the BladeRunners job-training program.

"Ninety-five per cent of the kids we work with are homeless when they first start the program," BladeRunners' Garry Jobin told Global News.

"Our need for affordable, stable housing is unbelievable. We have six intakes a year, with 12 participants each time. If one of those kids has housing already, it’s a bonus for us."

Other units in the seven-storey building will be set aside for women who are homeless or at risk of becoming so.

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The jail, first opened in 1981, was designed by Henriquez Partners Architects' founding partner Richard Henriquez. His son, Gregory, is handling the re-purposing of the facility, the Huffington Post reported.

"We have worked hard to get it off the ground and know it will make an enormously valuable impact on the DTES community, providing stability and dignity to at risk aboriginal youth, women at risk of homelessness and others struggling to build better lives," Gregory Henriquez told Post via email.

"That my father designed the original detention centre further personalizes this project for me – I'm proud to be breathing new life into his original design."

Henriquez Partners also handled the design that transformed the old Woodward's department-store building on the Downtown Eastside into a multi-purpose complex with a mix of social and market housing, as well as commercial and educational spaces.