Unlimited growth increases the divide

Del Mar Hotel, Vancouver

The strategy behind “Unlimited Growth Increases the Divide” is direct. It is directed at those who operate our free-market economy in their own interests, while excluding those interests that would be responsive to the needs of the community.

For about a decade starting in 1981, British Columbia’s power company, BC Hydro, had owned most of the block where they planned to build their new office tower. The Del Mar Hotel, owned by George Riste, occupied the missing piece. The Del Mar is a small, unassuming building providing clean, affordable housing for the poor. Despite all the weight brought to bear by the Hydro Goliath, including what must have been enormous amounts of money, Riste refused to sell. Hydro eventually had to redesign to build around the hotel.

George Riste took on B.C. Hydro and won.

And he did it to provide the poor with a clean, affordable home. Hydro has owned all the land surrounding the 30-room hotel since 1981. It desperately wanted to demolish the Del Mar to make way for its proposed office tower.

But Riste put his money where his heart is.

“This is my life – this is what I love doing,” he said in the office of his spotless Hamilton Street hotel.

“I feel very good about showing our rooms, because they’ve very clean and very comfortable.”

For 18 years, Riste has been giving downtown eastside residents more for their money, charging $20 to $25 a night for scrupulously cleaned and maintained rooms just blocks from the hovels of skid row.

“We used to lease buildings, but we found the landlords were terrible people,” says the camera-shy Riste, now in his late 60s. “So we went to the bank and managed to buy our own hotel.”

Riste ran into a powerful adversary when Hydro started buying up the block. The Del Mar was to be the last domino to fall.

“I’ve been asked more than 100 times to sell,” says Riste, who hasn’t forgotten his poor childhood in the Fraser Valley.

“We’ve decided to keep this property for low-cost housing, and B.C. Hydro thinks we’re silly. But I really believe that we should try to put something back into society.”

Riste’s will specifies the heritage building is not to be sold, and his son and daughter have agreed.

“He’s a fair and honest person,” says Sukhbinder Bhatta, a maid in the hotel since 1981. “He doesn’t care about money – he only cares about poor people.”

Hal Taylor, 76, has called the Del Mar home for 17 years.

“I’m very happy,” says Taylor. “The hotel is clean and well-managed, and George is very helpful.”

Frank Klassen of B.C. Hydro said after “numerous calls,” his company has finally given up on Riste.

“I think he has every right to do that, and we have to change our (design) plans to accommodate that,” he said.

“At this point, we have no desire to purchase the property.”