How Regina threw some of its most vulnerable under the Saskaboom bus

25 City | by Paul Dechene

Biggest story? (He says, responding to a question off camera.) Probably housing, just in terms of sheer scope. I’ve written thousands of words on it.

I started covering city hall back in 2008. Those were the early days of the housing crisis. Vacancy rates were plunging and council was making everything worse by approving condominium conversion after condominium conversion in flagrant disregard of their own condominium policy which prohibited conversions when vacancy rates were too low.

Eventually, vacancy rates hit functional zero and for years the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation would publish these dismal numbers and always cite the condominium conversions in 2008 and ‘09 as a contributing factor.

Council didn’t talk about that much.

The housing stupidity crescendoed for me late in 2011 when city administration quietly approved a demolition permit for Westland Ventures. The company wanted to knock down the Black Block at 1755 Hamilton Street. This was an apartment building that provided low-cost rental housing in the heart of downtown for 46 households. Most of the people living there were low-income. Some were new immigrants. And they were being tossed out on the street in the middle of winter in the middle of a housing crisis.

Remember: functionally zero vacancy rate.

Most galling of all, Westland wanted to turn their apartment building into a parking lot.

It was naked capitalist profiteering off that Saskaboom — which in hindsight is looking more like a Saskafootnote for the history books. Everybody was going to get rich wheeling and dealing in real estate. Who needed to provide housing for the lowest of the low anymore? Not Westland Ventures.

The line from city administration was that their hands were tied — oh, how I’ve grown tired of that phrase. There was no way the city could legally stop a property owner from doing what they wanted with their land, they said. They had to grant the demolition permit.

(And that raises the question, what exactly is the point of permits if city administration is compelled to accede to whatever foolish, cruel, corrupt, unproductive or unprofitable demands it receives from property owners and developers? *

Why not just mothball the whole permitting system? Would downtown look that different without it?)

Of course, there were plenty of things administration could have tried to halt or hinder the Black Block demolition. Council had passed the Downtown Neighbourhood Plan in 2009 and it specifically prohibited the demolition of downtown housing without council approval.

Sure, by 2011, two years after council approved it, administration still hadn’t managed to convert the Downtown Plan into an enforceable bylaw. But they could have tried to apply their policy, bylaw or no. Basically, all anyone expected from city hall on this was for it to act like a government and not just a permit printing machine.

In the end, the Black Block came down. And Westland Ventures got their parking lot at 1755 Hamilton Street. Oh, new surface parking lots are prohibited downtown, but Westland was given a three-year zoning exemption, by the end of which they were expected to have plans to develop the lot — condos, maybe, or an office tower. A hotel or even apartments. Just, something money.

So, while things didn’t work out so great for the 46 households made homeless in Regina’s worst rental market, Westland Ventures got what they wanted.

But all that’s ancient history now. Regina’s vacancy rate is flying at seven per cent. Seems the old laissez-faire capitalist, let-the-housing-trickle down worked. Just really, really slowly.

Doubt the success of today’s real estate market is much comfort to the former residents of the Black Block and all those people who lived in precarious housing throughout the years of cratered vacancy rates.

Crediting the market with miracles is easy to do when you didn’t spend 2007 through 2014 worrying about how much longer you’d have a place to live.

Meanwhile, back at 1755 Hamilton, a development proposal for the site has yet to materialize. The temporary parking-lot zoning expired in March of 2016. Westland Ventures quietly applied for a zoning extension. City administration quietly turned them down.

The lot is sitting there empty now, doing no one any good, another broken tooth in Regina’s downtown.

It’s not a happy story. But it’s one worth remembering.

* That’s a question to keep in mind in March when Fortress Real Development applies for — and likely receives — a new construction permit for Capital Pointe after letting another one lapse. But hey that’s a hell of a hole, eh? They say it goes down FIVE STOREYS!