Three years ago, Steve Arnett had a vision to transform one of Nanaimo’s notorious crime hubs into respectable and affordable youth housing.
This month a restored white house opened to accept its first tenant. More young people are expected to move into the building in the coming weeks.
It is the culmination of a dream for Arnett, chief executive officer of Nanaimo Youth Services Association. But it also represents the reincarnation of the old rooming house and the push to revitalize a neighbourhood that’s long struggled with slum landlords and drug activity, he said.
“I don’t want to over-dramatize, but I also don’t want to [underplay], this place got a reputation for a reason,” Arnett said. “It was a real blight on the neighbourhood and people were angry … and horrified and there didn’t seem to be much they could do about it.
“Then a will swept through the community … and here we are.”
When Arnett first came across the old rooming house at 545 Haliburton St., it was only a husk of its former self. The 107-year-old Edwardian-style home had been built by one of the area’s founding families, but over the years had fallen into disrepair at the hands of landlords and tenants.
According to the Nanaimo RCMP, it had become an “absolute ghetto” and one of the top concerns in the south end between 2006 and 2008.
Police, who at times held keys to the rooming house, would come across street thugs peddling drugs out of bedrooms and homeless people sleeping in the bathroom. One day they found so much blood splattered against the wall of the Edwardian home, it looked like there had been a massacre – though no one reported any violence, said Cpl. Dave LaBerge.
Another time, a woman was found passed out on the floor still gripping a flaming blow torch she’d used to cook crack or heroine. Anything seemed to go at the White House, said LaBerge, who adds the house was unsafe and on the verge of becoming a nuisance property before Nanaimo’s fire department shut it down over fire code violations.
“It was bad,” he said. “I can tell you before NYSA bought it, I didn’t even know if it was worth the money to bring it back.”
Arnett had heard the stories about the house when he first came across it, but was still able to see its long-term potential, he said. Located in one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, the two-storey residence would offer youth waterfront views of the Nanaimo estuary and the convenience of living close to the downtown core. It was located in a diverse neighbourhood and near transportation and recreation.
The challenge would be in restoring the building and creating a new reputation for a house that had become synonymous with drugs, violence and sexual exploitation, said the youth services CEO.
“If you said the words ‘white house’ to most people who have lived in this community long enough, an image would pop into their heads,” Arnett said. “We promised when we were done with it it wouldn’t be the white house anymore.”
It took more than $75,000 in government funding to transform the building into the 14 units of affordable housing for employed youth. Work crews took four bins of garbage out of the house and stripped most of the building down to its studs, leaving only the original wooden floors and the old Edwardian-style banister. A new coat of blue paint hid the white and the building was renamed the Rowe House after its original owners.
In a final act of showing the neighbourhood the building has undergone a physical and spiritual renewal, Arnett had a Snuneymuxw healer cleanse and bless the building. He promised nearby residents the house would start fresh, just like its new tenants.
“[The house] started out as quite a prominent location and building in Nanaimo and you feel that when you go in now,” he said. “There is just an ambiance in the house … it’s full of light when it was full of darkness.”
For the neighbourhood – and the RCMP – the new youth housing is anticipated to be a positive change and part of an ongoing effort to revitalize the south end. There has been a movement for close to a decade to take back the neighbourhood from street culture and those who’ve lived and worked in the area say they’ve noticed a shift. The neighbourhood is more connected and engaged in taking ownership of their private property and parks, there’s more live-in homeowners and more efforts to give street people stable housing, they say.
Nanaimo Youth Services Association has added to the transition by turning something dilapidated into something useable, said LaBerge.
“I think it’s the best thing to happen for that site and the neighbourhood,” he said. “I don’t know who other than a society with grant funding could see the value into putting that much money [into] fixing up a place as far gone as that [one].”
Douglas Hardie, South End Community Association president, and resident Susan Powers, both call the new Rowe House an improvement. Powers is taking a wait-and-see approach to whether it becomes a long-term benefit for the community, but said she hopes it offers the sort of respectability the south end is looking for.
Furnished suites will be rented out for $450 and include use of kitchens, bathrooms and showers.