Vancouver–West End NDP MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert is concerned about low-income seniors housing in Vancouver.

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Since the 1970s, Nicholson Tower has provided low-cost housing for seniors in Vancouver’s West End.

With B.C. Housing selling the place, there’s worry that about half of its homes will be rented out at market rates.

Nicholson Tower, a 20-storey building located at 1115 Nelson Street, is one of the first two properties that will be sold by the provincial government to nonprofits as part of its new housing strategy.

Expressions of interest for the high-rise as well as for Stamps Place, a townhouse and apartment complex in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, were due on November 3.

Other public-housing properties will also be on the auction block. By March 31, 2015, B.C. Housing expects to have transferred ownership of about 115 of its approximately 350 properties to nonprofits. The rest will be disposed of over the next three years.

NDP MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert (Vancouver–West End) had just come from an October 31 meeting with seniors in his community when he responded to a Georgia Straight interview request.

“These are the first two, and if this goes ahead,” Chandra Herbert told the Straight by phone, “and they see no push back and the community does not raise the alarm, then we could have a real problem as we lose more and more affordable housing.

“And the question that I have is,” he continued, “why the heck would the government ever do this if, as they say, they want to build affordable housing, and building affordable housing is way more expensive than maintaining the existing low-income housing that you have? And I should say ‘low-income housing’ because, as you know, ‘affordable’ means something different to many people.”

The MLA said he has written deputy premier Rich Coleman, the minister responsible for housing, to inquire about Nicholson Tower. He also asked Coleman about future plans to sell B.C.-government-owned housing sites in his constituency such as Sunset Towers and the West End Manor.

According to Chandra Herbert, he has yet to hear from Coleman.

In his October 21, 2014, letter to Coleman, Chandra Herbert noted that the documents related to the sale suggest that the new owner of Nicholson Tower will be allowed to rent out 49 percent of the building at market rates.

“How can your government allow this when the need for housing is so large?” Chandra Herbert asked the minister.

The New Democrat also noted that although the government has said that no resident will lose their home, other low-income people currently on the B.C. Housing waiting list “will no longer have the opportunity to live there, and be forced to leave our community”.

B.C. Housing spokesperson Laura Gallant said that Coleman was unavailable for an interview “because he has an event” and that B.C. Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay was out of town and “also unavailable to chat”.

The provincial government wants about $34 million for Nicholson Tower, which was built in 1969 and has 219 suites plus five units used as a common area and staff residences.

Based on the profile of residents drawn by the government, 54 percent of dwellers are on income assistance and 40 percent are on pension. About half the residents are between 55 and 74 years old.

According to a draft operating agreement between the government and any potential new owner, the buyer “may accept applicants at any income level with the approval of B.C. Housing” if there are no low-income applicants for a future vacant unit. Based on that draft agreement, any new owner must ensure that “at least 51% of all Residential Units are offered at below market rates”.

In the interview, Chandra Herbert said that he doesn’t have an issue with nonprofits getting ownership of public-housing sites.

“My problem is if it’s set up in such a way that it requires the nonprofit—in order to maintain the building, in order to continue operating it—for them to change what was 100 percent low-income housing into 50 percent low-income housing with a loss of many units,” Chandra Herbert said.

He suggested that the province is “selling out”.

“They’re basically walking away from their responsibility,” Chandra Herbert said, “because they don’t want to maintain the buildings.”