For many years, the unit block of East Hastings Street has been one of Vancouver’s most visible homes of poverty, mental illness, and addiction.
The stretch between Carrall Street and Columbia hosts three large social-housing buildings plus several smaller ones. It also has the Downtown Eastside Street Market Society and unsanctioned vendors that spill out around the society’s designated space. Then there’s an overdose-prevention site at 58 East Hastings. Between it all, several buildings on the block have been left vacant for a decade or longer.
Now some 200 tenants are moving onto the street, into a shiny new building that’s owned and operated by Atira Development Society.
Called the Olivia Skye and occupying 41 East Hastings Street, the 13-storey structure consists of 52 units renting at the province’s welfare shelter rate, 68 units renting to people earning $49,000 or less at housing-income limits (HIL), and 78 units pegged to the city’s low-end-of-market (LEM) rates. The 42 shelter-rate units are reserved for women or couples where a woman signs the lease.
In a telephone interview, Atira chief executive officer Janice Abbott said that between 20 and 30 people have already moved in and that the rest of the building will fill up gradually over the next month or so.
“There will be a lot more people on the block,” she told the Straight. “We’ve been clear with people, that this is the neighborhood you’re moving into. And so far, that hasn’t been an issue.”
Abbott said her team has been a little overwhelmed by interest in the building. (A studio apartment at the Olivia Skye rented at the HIL rate can go for less than $1,000 a month; meanwhile, units of a comparable size in a private building just one block away are posted on Craigslist for $1,500 a month.) So she said move-ins have been slightly delayed, but that they’re working through applications now.
“I’ve heard from a handful of people who said, when they read about it, they thought it was a scam,” Abbott added. “So for the HIL units, we’re really trying to focus on folks who work in local-area businesses. We’re trying to prioritize folks who work in Gastown, Chinatown, and in the area.”
In addition to 200 tenants, the Olivia Skye is bringing a collection of new public art to the neighbourhood. Its south-facing façade includes two series of panels created by Judy Chartrand, an Indigenous artist who lives in the Downtown Eastside not far from the building.
“I am an inner-city First Nations woman who grew up in the skids (DTES) since the age two. I am the fourth youngest of 13 children raised by a then single parent who spent 12 years of her formative years growing up in the harsh, loveless environment of an Indian Residential school,” reads a statement by Chartrand on an Atira website. “Because of its developer’s mission as a women’s anti-violence organization, I was asked to honour the resilience of the women who live in the Downtown Eastside, as well as the women we have lost.
“The design with the women holding hands around the medicine wheel will be displayed in its entirety on a wall as you enter the building,” it continues. “The word cloud will be on the glass awning so that on a sunny day, the words will be projected as shadow onto the sidewalk, and at night through illumination. We hope that on any given day of living life in the DTES that someone receives comfort from the text.”
The Olivia Skye is a partnership between Atira, the City of Vancouver, B.C. Housing, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and the federal government's Homelessness Partnering Strategy, with additional funding from Streetohome, the Carraresi Foundation, and the MariaMarina Foundation.
The three-block stretch of Hastings Street that runs from Abbott Street to Main Street has seen a number of new developments in recent years and has more on the way.
In early 2016, a six-storey private development opened at 138 East Hastings. Now the Olivia Skye is moving people into 41 East Hastings. Lots around Pigeon Park on the corner of Hastings and Carrall are under renovation. And there are currently proposals for two low-rise residential towers on the 00-block of West Hastings Street.