A Victoria charity’s plan to shut down a 62-bed rooming house across from city hall next year is raising concerns among local politicians and anti-poverty advocates.
The Pacifica Housing Advisory Association intends to end its lease at the former Fairfield Hotel on Douglas Street and move all the residents to other homes by next August.
The association says it’s unable to support the complex medical and emotional needs of its tenants in an aging building where none of the rooms have kitchens and residents are required to navigate stairs and share four bathrooms.
As well, Pacifica says it continues to deal with violence and substance-use issues, significant maintenance and staffing costs and chronic non-payment of rent by some of the tenants, who pay $420 a month on average.
The charity’s financial statements show that it lost nearly $90,000 on the Fairfield last year, despite receiving a city subsidy.
“It’s something that we didn’t arrive at lightly,” Jenn Boulton-Stehle, Pacifica’s director of property services, said of the decision to leave the 107-year-old Fairfield Block.
“We are aware that this is a heritage building. It’s very old. There are some issues that need to be attended to and we are simply not able to do what we believe is paramount for every tenant in that building.”
The association says it hopes to find homes for all 51 remaining tenants by next summer.
“We really want to find them the best place that they can live in dignity,” Boulton-Stehle said.
But Coun. Sarah Potts said the city can’t afford to lose so many rooms in the midst of a housing crisis.
“We have 62 units of deeply affordable homes and it would take years to get these back if we had to rebuild,” she said.
Potts said council is awaiting legal advice on the status of a 2017 agreement under which the city committed to paying Pacifica up to $500,000 over 10 years to continue housing people with little to no income at the Fairfield.
The city paid the first $250,000 up front and council was told at the time that Pacifica would have to repay the money on a pro-rated basis if it ceased to operate the rooming house.
A city report said the Fairfield represented 30 per cent of the total single-room occupancy stock in the city at the time.
“SROs are considered an important part of the affordable-housing spectrum as they are often the first type of housing available and appropriate for those moving from homelessness to housing,” the report said.
Potts said she’s not prepared to stand by and watch the Fairfield’s units disappear.
“If the current tenants are not the right fit for the building, perhaps that’s a conversation to have,” she said.
“However, removing those [units] from the stock of available affordable housing simply is not an option, in my view, for the city and where we’re at.”
Boulton-Stehle said the Fairfield was never intended as a long-term solution.
“This was a temporary transitional option, recognizing that the building requires some pretty significant upgrades,” she said.
She said the focus should be on building more supportive housing units that allow people to live with dignity.
“Currently, with a [single room occupancy building] such as the Fairfield, you have a mix of tenants who vary in unique levels of acuity of need,” Boulton-Stehle said. “And you make them live together because it’s the only option, and it actually reduces quality of life when you really look at it from that lens.”
She added that Pacifica doesn’t have the staffing to support the unique needs of the Fairfield’s tenants.
Anti-poverty advocates, however, argue that shuttering the Fairfield would be a major setback. They say the former hotel might not be suitable for everyone, but it serves an important housing niche.
“I do think that it’s worked in some ways really well for its residents,” said Daniel Jackson, a staff lawyer at the Together Against Poverty Society. “And with some additional investment, I would hope that it could actually serve as a suitable housing option again on this continuum of housing that’s needed in the city.
“I don’t think status quo is necessarily the answer for the Fairfield. It needs some investment if it’s going to be legitimate housing for folks, but I don’t know that shutting it down is really going to solve that problem.”
It’s unclear what will happen to the Fairfield once Pacifica departs.
“We really have no plans,” said Jon Stovell, president and chief executive officer of Reliance Properties, which purchased the Fairfield Block in 2017.
The company signed a 10-year lease agreement with Pacifica in 2018 under which the charity was to operate the rooming house.
Stovell said Reliance did not charge Pacifica rent, but did require that it pay administration fees and a share of property taxes, insurance costs, utilities and other expenses totalling about $6,500 a month.
He said that since September, Reliance has been covering all those costs to ease Pacifica’s transition.
“We have empathy for what Pacifica has encountered with its current tenant population and we continue to support their work with the community, which is why we entered a unique 10-year lease and then made concessions to help them terminate the lease eight years early in pursuit of more suitable housing for tenants,” he said in an email.
Stovell said Reliance has been focused on other areas of the building, including reconditioning the ground-floor retail spaces, restoring the heritage facade and putting in new double-glazed windows, hot water tanks and other amenities.
“We didn’t really initiate the change,” he said. “Pacifica just found that, even though there was some funding assistance coming from the city and so on, they just can’t make the numbers work to properly take care of those vulnerable residents in that older facility.”
Stovell said it’s doubtful the Fairfield’s upper rooms will remain as low-income housing once Pacifica leaves.
“We don’t know how to operate that kind of housing and they’re experts at that — and they can’t make it work,” he said.
Pacifica notes that, in addition to the money it pays Reliance, the charity is responsible for staffing, maintenance and utility costs that totalled more than $360,000 last fiscal year.
Even with a city subsidy and the money it collects in rent, Pacifica posted a loss last fiscal year of $89,616. “Our financial statements tell the story,” Boulton-Stehle said. “It’s not a viable building and if it was a viable building, I don’t think we would have had this kind of loss.”