Victoria Hall is up for rent. The Gottingen Street heritage building that once served as housing for low-income senior women is currently being renovated into a market-rate apartment building.
A couple weeks ago, Home Rents rental specialist Debbie White took me on a tour of the nearly 33,000 square foot French chateau-style building. The 50 dorm rooms, seven washrooms, two kitchens, a parlour, and a dining room that once accommodated elderly women are now joined together into 16 apartments, each with one-to-five bedrooms. On the second storey, a single apartment gobbles up a giant communal bathroom the entire floor of ladies once shared.
Units start at $950 to $1,000 for a 590-to-640 square foot one-bedroom. The largest unit, a 1,850 square foot five-bedroom, rents for $3,000 a month. Heat and hot water are included, but not electricity.
Last year, the Victoria Hall Trust put the property on the market after mounting upkeep costs became unsustainable. In 2008, investment in a new roof combined with the financial crisis cost the charity $545,000. Between 2009 and 2011, costs outpaced revenue by about $200,000 each year, according to the charity’s tax returns.
Rents at the women’s residence increased each year while the number of residents fell. The charity subsidized up to half of the cost per person.
In an interview last year, building administrator Donna Merriam said the decision was a long time coming. “Every year we would do the budget and say, my heavens, we’re eating into the capital of our trust, which puts in jeopardy future generations.”
Last summer, the trustees sold Victoria Hall to Halifax property developer Joseph Arab. The assessed value of the property at the time was $905,400; Victoria Hall Trust asking price was nearly $3 million, but Arab bought the building for $1,925,000 and took out a mortgage for $1,058,750. Arab did not return the Halifax Examiner’s call for an interview.
Tenants have signed leases for three apartments so far, White says, and others have expressed interest. She has also received calls from people who saw the rental sign in front of the building and wondered whether it was a low-income rooming house. “I say they’re apartments and they’re starting at $950 and they say, ‘Goodbye.’”
Shola Riggs lives across the street in Uniacke Square, which offers subsidized low-income housing. When I tell her how much the apartments cost, her eyes widen. “That’s too much. $950 for poor people around this area, it’s too much.”
Her walking club used to visit the ladies at Victoria Hall. They would bring them food, play music, sing with them, and have fun. She misses having them across the street. The former residents were relocated to nursing homes across the city.
Her neighbour Phillip Daniel Izzard wonders whether the new residents will feel they have a superior claims to the neighbourhood because they pay more.
“They’re gonna look down on the people that are living here now,” he expects. “You got a conflict there because they’re going to think, I’m paying $950, I’m paying more than you, this neighbourhood should be mine, you know?”
According to the CMHM Rental Market Report, average rental rates in the north end increased from $563 to $734 between 1997 and 2006.
Phil Pacey of the Heritage Trust dropped by Victoria Hall recently to check out the renovations, and says he’s “favourably impressed.” There’s a principle of minimal intervention when it comes to heritage buildings, he explains, and “[Arab] has followed that principle I believe quite well.”
Since it’s a municipally registered heritage building, the exterior of Victoria Hall can’t be altered without permission from the city. The building has kept its original windows and three-storey staircase. A phone booth on the first floor may be converted into a cab-calling landline.
The woodwork hasn’t been tampered with, and even the Victorian radiators are intact, Pacey points out.
“I think it would be a very nice place for people to live. It’s all fixed up in quite a cheery manner. It seemed to me it was done quite nicely.”