VANCOUVER – Vancouver's city council has voted unanimously to expropriate two rundown hotels on the Downtown Eastside for $1 each.

 The unprecedented move came Wednesday after hours of hearing from speakers both for and against the recommendation to take over the Balmoral and Regent hotels on East Hastings Street.

The day was, at times, emotional: nurse Meriah Main addressed council in favour of the expropriation, and shared a story about an Indigenous woman in her early twenties who had been living in one of the two buildings. Main said it was discovered she had a heart infection and was suffering from bug bites and malnutrition. Main said she she was moved into other housing, but ultimately did not survive.

"The silver lining in this case was that they died in a place where they felt some dignity,” Main said. “This is totally unacceptable.”

Councillor Jean Swanson also became visibly teary as she spoke in favour of the recommendation.

“We desperately need housing," Swanson said. "We have over 2,000 homeless people. We desperately need shelter-rate housing."

“We need to keep the buildings in the public sector so we can protect the tenants' security and protect their health.”

The city also heard from lawyer Evan Cooke, who represents the owners.

"Between June of 2018 and July of 2019, almost 10 offers to purchase these properties have been made by sophisticated arms-length purchasers, including purchasers who have considerable experience renovating and putting back into service SRO buildings," Cooke said, and added the offers have ranged from $7 million per building to $12.5 million per building.

Referring to his clients, Cooke said they are not "obstructing" turning over the properties.

"They have only asked that they be treated fairly in the process, and that they be paid market value," he said.

Cooke asked council to abandon the expropriation and enter negotiations with the owners.

Fiona York, of the Carnegie Community Action Project, spoke in favour of the expropriation.

"This is a clear message to landlords about maintenance of SRO stock," she said, and added there is a dire need for social housing, referring to the ongoing tent city at Oppenheimer Park as an example.

Lisa Giesbrecht with the Heritage Charitable Foundation told council her organization was one of the parties that made an alternate offer to purchase the buildings and operate them as single room occupancy housing with private financing. She asked council to consider rejecting the idea of expropriation.

“We would not have been seen as a reasonable organization nor credible purchaser if we had suggested the current owners give us the buildings for one dollar,” Giesbrecht said. “The city council vote today will determine whether these 345 rooms can be re-opened for supportive housing as quickly as possible, or whether their eyesore state will linger on in the courts and multi-level government funding challenges for years to come.”

The report recommending the expropriation outlined how the Balmoral was deemed unsafe in June 2017 and was evacuated. The Regent was also closed as of June 2018.

"Since then, the owners have not made any substantial repairs to the Hotel Properties and the rooms remain closed," the report reads.

The city said it made offers to purchase the properties from the owners, members of the Sahota family, but were unsuccessful. That's when they began expropriation proceedings. According to the report, the owners requested an inquiry, which is allowed under the Expropriation Act, but then withdrew the request in April.

"The one dollar valuation for each of the hotel properties is the result of the city's appraiser considering a renovation scope and cost estimate provided by multiple sub-consultants," the report continues.

Deputy city manager Paul Mochrie called the expropriation “an extraordinary response to a unique set of circumstances." He said the next steps will involve paying the owners and filing notice with the land office to take possession of the properties within the next 30 days.

He said staff will also move forward with working with senior levels of government to turn the hotels into social housing, including renovations.

“For the Balmoral, it’s roughly $46 million, and the Regent, it’s roughly $40 million,” Mochrie said. He said demolishing the buildings would cost about $3 million each, but the focus right now is on remediation.

Pal and Gudy Sahota, two of the property owners, were listed as speakers at the meeting, but they did not appear when their names were called.