Janice Abbott, CEO of Atira Women’s Resource Society, took me on a tour of some new real estate Friday—a dozen brightly coloured orange and blue recycled shipping containers piled on top of each other like giant lego blocks. This housing—the first social housing development of its kind in Canada—has attracted all sorts of attention as a potentially viable form of cheap accommodation.
The fact that it sits squashed between two former 100-year old brothels was part of the appeal, she says.
Atira also owns the big brick building next door at the corner of Jackson Street. It was built as an 18-room brothel in 1912 by Dolly Darlington and part of the red light district that existed on Alexander Street. “Most of the young women who live right here now have been on the street since they were 12 or 13,” she says. “Our goal is to get them using less and working less and it’s meant to be transitional so after about a year or two they should be going somewhere else.”
The self-contained shipping containers will house women over 50 from the DTES who have managed to get their lives back on track and who will mentor the girls.
The shipping container development sits on the site that, up until its demolition last year, was the second oldest house in Vancouver. Abbott says the idea was to keep the 1888 house, renovate it, and put the containers behind it in the alley. The property had been owned by one family for the past 40 years, had not been kept up, was infested with rats, and the house had no foundation, but sat on four cinder blocks. Too costly to fix.
“Where has everybody been for the last 40 years? When we bought it it wasn’t even on the [City of Vancouver Heritage house] Register” says Abbott.
Two people thought they might move the house–one a couple of doors down on Alexander Street and another who wanted it for a laneway house on Cordova.
But it was still too expensive to move, and the City refused to kick in a penny said Abbott.
The former brothel, and one-time home of the British Seaman’s Mission, has Heritage B status on the Register and Abbott has tried to replicate the original stain-glass at the front and mosaic tiles in the foyer.
Abbott said they had another fight with the City over a thin strip of garden. The city wanted ornamental bushes, the girls wanted to grow vegetables. They decided to plant veggies and beg forgiveness later.
Too bad about the house. It could have shared a 125th birthday party with the City of Vancouver.
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