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Thousands of Vancouver’s poorest living in buildings listed at risk in earthquake

Gordon Hoekstra, Vancouver Province, Dec 24. 2016

Thousands of the poorest residents in the Downtown Eastside are living in buildings, designated by the City of Vancouver as single-room occupancies, that are at risk in an earthquake.

In the past several years, a dozen of those buildings managed by non-profit organizations have had seismic improvements thanks to a $143-million upgrade program led by B.C. Housing.

But many others designated as single-room occupancies — at least 59 buildings with more than 3,000 rooms — appear to have had no upgrades, according to an ongoing investigation by Postmedia into the earthquake readiness of the city’s older, privately-owned building stock.

The examination by Postmedia — published in a series of stories in October and November — has already revealed that the city first identified a need more than 20 years ago to reduce the seismic hazards among older, privately-owned buildings but has failed to create a proactive program to do so.

Scientists and earthquake advocates insist there is a need to act on the issue because of a 30 per cent probability of a damaging earthquake occurring in a populated area in southwestern B.C. within the next 50 years.

Computer modelling has shown the effects of a major earthquake near populated areas such as Metro Vancouver or Victoria could be catastrophic, leaving thousands of buildings damaged and hundreds dead. One study for Emergency Management B.C. released in 2015 indicated that displacement of residents would be greatest in downtown Vancouver.

Postmedia’s examination also discovered that hundreds of buildings on a list of seismically-at-risk buildings compiled by engineering consultants Delcan and Norecol, Dames & Moore for the city in 1994 appear to have had no seismic upgrades.

The single-room occupancies — often called SROs — are a subset of those seismically-at-risk buildings.

The SRO designation is laid out in a city bylaw that is designed to preserve the rooms as low-rent stock. Many of the SRO buildings are more than 100 years old and have changed little over the years.

The Delcan-Norecol seismic assessment conducted in 1994 included 98 of the 171 buildings designated by the city as SROs. Nearly half of the 98 SROs evaluated were given the poorest seismic ranking and a “very high” need for further evaluation by Delcan-Norecol, according to an analysis of the seismic assessments by Postmedia.

An updated estimate of the buildings’ age — used in earthquake damage and risk modelling in B.C. and California — is provided by its “effective” construction year found in B.C. Assessment data provided to Postmedia by Landcor Data Corp.

It shows that more than 59 of the 98 buildings — accounting for more than 3,000 SRO rooms — have an effective construction year of 1972 or earlier, before modern seismic building codes were introduced.

Visits by Postmedia to 45 of the SROs with the poorest seismic ranking from the city’s engineering consultants in 1994 also showed that 32 had no visual signs of upgrades.

That included the nine-storey Balmoral Hotel in the 100 block of East Hastings, in the heart of the Downtown Eastside. The brick building was built in 1908 and recently has had structural problems in its basement with rotting wood beams. In the past two weeks, city staff said no officials familiar with the seismic issues were available for media interviews.

In a written response, city spokesman Jag Sandhu said work is underway at the Balmoral — and the Regent Hotel across the street — to the windows, walls, roof and “localized” structural repairs.

The city did not directly respond to a question by Postmedia on whether it had a plan to deal with other SROs that have not had seismic upgrades.

Because there is no mechanism for the city to require seismic upgrades to existing buildings without other changes — such as major renovations or changes of use — seismic upgrades are at the discretion of the building owner, Sandhu said in an email.

The Balmoral and Regent hotels are part of $130-million in real estate holdings owned by the Sahota family, which includes Pal, 77, his brother Gudy, 79,  and sister Parkash, 86. They have owned rundown rooming houses on the east side for decades.

Contacted by phone, Gudy hung up when asked about the Balmoral and Regent hotels.

David Laing lives at the top of the nine-storey Balmoral Hotel. During an earthquake, he believes the unreinforced brick walls would tumble to the streets and alleys below, but that he would be safer inside the building.

“It is not necessarily a death trap,” says Laing, a retired carpenter.

His opinion may not be without merit.

In the catastrophic 2011 Christchurch, New Zealand earthquake of 2011, of the 39 people killed by unreinforced brick buildings, 35 were from bricks falling on pedestrians, people in vehicles, in neighbouring buildings or people who ran out of a building. Another four people were killed inside brick buildings, according to reports from a royal commission.

On the same block as the Balmoral and Regent, are two buildings upgraded as part of the B.C. Housing upgrade program: the Sunrise Hotel at 101 East Hastings and the Washington Hotel at 177 East Hastings.

At the Sunrise, metal post and beams, as well as large metal x-braces, are visible on the ground floor. The Washington has similar supports.

B.C. Housing officials could not say exactly how much was spent on the seismic improvements of the 13 rooming houses, but noted the upgrades brought most of the buildings up to about 30 per cent of Vancouver’s modern seismic codes.

“B.C. Housing’s decisions on the level of seismic upgrade appropriate for these buildings were made in consultation, collaboration and agreement with the City of Vancouver and our consultant engineers,” B.C. Housing spokeswoman Cindy Kralj said in a written response.

In the City of Vancouver’s written response, Sandhu said some innovative approaches were taken to address collapse risk and facade protection.

What’s clear is that before the seismic upgrades, the 13 buildings were deemed at risk in an earthquake.

Surveys carried out by Glotman-Simpson consulting engineers for B.C. Housing in 2012 concluded that all 13 buildings had structural deficiencies that could result in extreme damage or collapse in a major earthquake and posed a “significant” life-safety risk, according to documents obtained by The Vancouver Sun under the province’s freedom of information laws.

Graham Taylor is a consulting structural engineer and one of the organizers of a $65-billion proposal to the federal government to promote seismic upgrades of buildings in B.C. and other provinces. (Ottawa contributed $29 million to the upgrade of the 13 SROs).

Taylor, who holds a Phd in engineering,  said the old seismically-at-risk buildings in the Downtown Eastside perfectly underscore why an incentive program is needed.

If the owner has to carry the full cost of seismic upgrading, the housing will no longer be affordable for low-income residents, noted Taylor.

He said a federal incentive program, perhaps topped up with money from the province and municipalities, specifically targeted at the high-risk buildings, could have the desired effect.

Said Taylor: “It’s the only way out of this circle of inactivity and buck passing, and ringing of hands and doing nothing.”