Block party fosters hope after 2022 fire ravaged Vancouver SRO

The coalition is calling on the province to purchase and restore the building as a crucial community resource.

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A year after a fire engulfed a Chinatown building, displacing nearly 40 residents and damaging a decades-old Chinese eatery, classical music and drumming sounded out hope for the community on Saturday.

A block party in the alley beside 218 Keefer St. was organized by SRO Collective and drew dozens of people, including former single-room occupancy tenants of Keefer Rooms and patrons of Gain Wah restaurant.

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Former restaurant employees cut a cake in the shape of the building with a sign that translates to ‘New New Gain Wah.’

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Vancouver firefighters at the blaze on Keefer Street in Sept. 9, 2022. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

The coalition is calling on the province to purchase and restore the building as a crucial community resource.

“The hope is B.C. Housing puts up the millions of dollars currently needed to purchase and renovate the building and then transfer it to a non-profit organization that will operate the bottom floor restaurant as a community kitchen for locals here who struggle to afford groceries,” said Zakir Suleman, SRO Collective spokesperson.

“The big issue is that there is a serious lack of affordable housing in the neighbourhood — none of us want people in the DTES to be displaced on the street anymore,” Suleman said.

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Community advocates held a block party Saturday in Vancouver’s Chinatown to raise awareness about food security and affordable housing, one year after fire destroyed the Keefer Rooms and Gain Wah restaurant. Photo: Sarah Grochowski Photo by Sarah Grochowski /PNG

Christopher Wall, the owner of the 110-year-old building, said Saturday he’s open to the building’s sale.

“The province is aware of my portfolio and we’re currently in discussions,” Wall said.

A previous commercial listing of the four-storey building was priced at $17.8 million.

Vancouver Fire Services previously reported that 417 tenants at Vancouver SROs were displaced due to fires last year, and the stock of low-income housing is steadily declining.

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Nicole Baxter, 50, said since losing her room last September, she has struggled to find a place that is affordable and safe.

“When you get to know your neighbours like we did at Keefer Rooms for those few years, you watch out for each other’s needs and belongings — nobody’s coming around to kick in your door to try and rob you,” she said.

Baxter eventually found a room at a nearby SRO, the Hotel Empress at 235 East Hastings, but said rent takes an additional 10 per cent from her social assistance cheque.

“Most of us want to move back into Keefer Rooms. We miss the feeling of having a home. I’ve personally had to start from scratch with many of my most sentimental possessions destroyed,” she said.

Following the blaze, about $36,000 was crowdfunded to cover the restaurant’s rent, bills and some staff salaries, but wasn’t nearly enough to pay for the renovations required.

Gain Wah restaurant, which has served low-cost meals since the 1980s, was turned into a non-profit community kitchen during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing food for tenants and the DTES community.

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