Maria is standing at the corner of Gore and Powell, looking up at the concrete silhouette of the jail that once held thousands of people awaiting trial for drug-dealing, shoplifting and other crimes.
Now, that imposing building is being ripped apart and remade, which makes Maria very happy.
“It felt liberating to be able to knock down this prison and to make it a place for support for people,” says Maria, a 21-year-old worker with the BladeRunners’ program, which trains at-risk youth in the trades.
She and others like her are helping turn the jail into affordable housing. When the building opens its doors in May 2015, 37 people who work with BladeRunners will move in. For many of those future tenants, it’ll be their first independent home.
For everyone working on the project, it’s a miracle to see it coming to life.
“It just seems like such a hopeful thing to do. I think that it captures the spirit of the City and the neighbourhood, and that’s what’s making it happen,” said Lesley Anderson from The Bloom Group, the non-profit that will manage this building.
But it hasn’t been easy.
The project is costing nearly $20 million of public money. This is the third time someone has tried to give the jail a new life, and it’s taken years to draw in the necessary funding from all three levels of government. Additionally, it sits on top of an active courthouse, so construction has been complicated.
However, the project’s major players are determined to make it work this time.
“The community has been behind this idea and this project for so long that we wouldn’t want to let everybody down,” said Anderson.
Making a micro-community
The remand centre used to hold people awaiting trial. Now, the steel beds and the 200-pound doors are coming out, and the frames for self-contained apartments are going up.
The BladeRunners’ workers will get two floors of the building to themselves, where group activities and programming will be part of life.
Maria: “I really love the views in this neighbourhood.”
In the past, BladeRunners’ coordinators have helped their members find safe places to live. But they’ve never had a formal housing program, and they’ve always wanted to develop one.
“All of the kids that we have coming through the program have various degrees of instability with housing. There was always some kind of a goal to try and find housing to essentially finish the equation,” said Tom Galway, BladeRunners’ director.
He thinks it’ll be safer for BladeRunners to live in this building than elsewhere in the neighbourhood.
“There are a lot of our kids that end up in [rooming houses]. The difference now is that we’re going to have something that we know is going to be a good place for them to live,” he said.
The program wants to bring in speakers who can help their members living in the building with tenants’ rights and mental-health issues. They hope these workshops will also appeal to other residents.
“Although we’re setting up a micro-community between the two floors for the BladeRunners, the hope is also that they’re fitting in to the overall community,” said Galway.
[toggle title=”The Downtown Eastside by numbers”]
- Home to about 18,500 people
- 67 per cent are low-income residents
- 6,300 are on social assistance
- Average household income in the DTES: $13,691
- Average household income in the rest of Vancouver: $47,299
A new story for an old building
The man remaking the prison, architect Gregory Henriquez, is dismantling his father’s work. Richard Henriquez originally designed the jail in 1981.
He was drawn to the project because he wanted to support Mayor Gregor Robertson’s plan to get people off the streets. For him, repurposing an existing building is the fastest way to do that.
“This one happened to be a very good building for housing in the sense that it was a concrete structure, and there was a brick facade, and the only issue was there wasn’t a lot of windows in it ‘cause it was a prison,” said Henriquez.
“So we had to rip off all the carbuncles on the side of the building, which housed the bunks for the inmates, and we enlarged the units, so they’re larger than a little prison cell.”
He thinks the building will fit into the neighbourhood well.
“All the services are in the Downtown Eastside. The essential element is affordable housing, and with someone like The Bloom Group, I’m not even remotely worried about it being successful,” he said.
For him, this is more than another project. It is a sign of hope.
“What would be great is if people’s perception of the building transformed from one of an institution of oppression into one where it’s just another building in the neighbourhood where people live,” said Henriquez.
“I think if you see it as a symbol of our society’s desire to house instead of incarcerate, that would be even better.”
Dark and reinforced
For the construction workers on site, it’s a bit of a different story. It’s hard work for them to successfully convert a prison into long-term housing.
There are a number of former prisons around the world that have been repurposed, but they’ve been turned into other things, like hotels and museums.
Prisons are dark and heavily reinforced. These are not the types of features most people look for in a home.
At the former remand centre, construction workers have struggled with heavy steel doors, complicated locks and plumbing designed to keep inmates from passing messages through the pipes.
“It’s an extremely hard structure to take apart because the building is built at much higher tolerances,” said David Sedore, one of the sub-contractors working on the project. “They have to make it so that people can’t break out.”
The prison has had a patchy record since it was closed down in 2002.
Henriquez pitched a plan to convert the building before the 2010 Olympics to the mayor and BC Housing. But the projected rents were too high to be considered affordable.
Another contractor tried to turn this jail into housing 11 years ago, but ran out of funding in the middle of gutting the interior.
This time, the project has become a priority for the municipal, provincial and federal governments.
[toggle title=”Funding the remand centre transformation”]
Projected total cost: $19.4 million
- Federal-Provincial Housing Initiative: $1.3 million
- B.C. Government: $15.2 million
- City of Vancouver: $2 million
When the project was first announced in 2011, the budget was estimated at $13 million. At a press conference this March, that number was updated to $19.4 million.
The City of Vancouver has made a $2 million commitment to the remand centre’s transformation.
Homes for all
When it’s finished, the building will be home to people with a range of incomes.
[toggle title=”Who will live in the former prison?”]
- 24 units at shelter rate
- 72 at one-third income rate
Tenants on income insurance will pay shelter rate, which is $375 a month.
Tenants making between $34,000 and $38,000 a year will pay one third of their salary, which is the rate the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation recommends for low-income housing.
“The original financial plans indicate that if we rent all of those units out at the low-income rate, we should be able to have a sustainable project, and that will in effect subsidize the lower-rate units,” said Anderson.
Hutton has been a BladeRunner since January 2014.
Ninety per cent of the BladeRunners are dealing with some kind of housing insecurity when they start the program. They’re not alone. Almost one-third of Vancouver’s homeless population is between 19 and 34 years old.
Galway hopes this project will be a transformative force in these kids’ lives, regardless of whether they need a home, a job or both.
BladeRunner Bradley Hutton, who lives with his parents in Burnaby, says working on the remand centre has added purpose to his life. Before he joined the program, his life was “pretty much just a huge waste of time,” he said.
That has all changed now.
“I think about going to work before I go to sleep sometimes. It’s a strange feeling. I’ve never done that before,” said Hutton.
“In the end it could be ours so, why would we want to put worse quality work into it?” he said. “Why not put our best into it and make it the best that we can, because we are going to be making it for us.”