One by one, Rick Spencer watched his neighbours disappear from the single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotel they lived in on Main Street.
His landlord began finding minor infractions for which he would threaten Spencer with eviction notices. Next came warnings that renovations would raise the building’s rent beyond what its low-income tenants could afford.
At first, Spencer planned on fighting to stay put, and filed a complaint with the Residential Tenancy Branch. But he said he eventually decided a complicated process wasn’t worth the risk of a total loss. He eventually took a small buyout from his landlord and began looking for a new home.
“It’s really sad,” Spencer said in an interview at the Carnegie Community Centre. “Every hotel has scaffoldings around it and everything is being developed. The area doesn’t have that much of a friendly vibe anymore. Everybody’s just worried all the time."
By Spencer’s count, he was number 14 of 20 long-time tenants to leave that hotel.
A June 11 forum organized by the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) will look at the rate at which so-called renovictions are happening in the Downtown Eastside and help inform low-income earners about their rights as tenants.
In a telephone interview, Tamara Herman, an organizer for the event, told the Georgia Straight she’s hoping renters from across the city will take an interest.
“The fact that people are willing to pay $750 or $800 a month to live in a 100-square-foot unit without a bathroom or a kitchen is scary for the 50 percent of the city that are renters,” she said.
Herman argued the problem is that SROs aren’t being maintained for current tenants; instead, they’re being renovated, rebranded as microlofts, and leased to new tenants at significantly higher rates.
According to CCAP’s latest report on housing, during 2013 some 5,000 DTES residents were living in SROs “on the edge of homelessness”. Fourteen hotels were found to rent all of their 614 rooms at $500 or more. An additional 236 SRO units saw rent increases to rates of $425 or higher. “No rooms are renting for the welfare shelter rate of $375,” the report states.
A search on Craigslist produces examples supporting those statistics. The Straight found a hotel at West Hastings and Abbott streets renting SRO rooms at $700 a month, another at Powell and Columbia at $800, and a converted hotel at West Hastings and Carrall renovated to include individual bathrooms renting at more than $1,100 a month.
Herman described a direct relationship between SROs, renovictions, and homelessness in Vancouver. “It’s really time to shed light on this issue and take some aggressive action,” she said.
According to a spring 2014 social-impact assessment prepared for the City of Vancouver, property values in the Downtown Eastside more than tripled between 2001 and 2013. In April, Mayor Gregor Robertson revealed that Vancouver’s unsheltered homeless population had increased by 249 percent since 2011.
Vision Vancouver councillor Kerry Jang told the Straight that rising hotel rates are on city hall’s radar. In a telephone interview, he described SROs as often the last option a person has before homelessness, and he expressed frustration with a recent report that 150 renovated SROs were sitting vacant.
“They’re privately owned, and so there is very little we can do,” Jang said. He argued the province should take a larger role in easing Vancouver’s housing crunch. At the same time, he applauded B.C. Housing for what it is doing with SROs in Vancouver.
“The fact that the province has bought up as many hotels as they have is actually quite amazing, given how much they do cost to repair,” Jang said.
B.C. Housing referred questions to the Residential Tenancy Branch, which declined to make a representative available for an interview. According to a B.C. Housing website, the province has purchased 24 hotels since 2007, protecting more than 1,400 SRO units for low-income earners.
Brent Toderian, former director of planning for the City of Vancouver, described microlofts as an important addition to Vancouver’s housing mix. He noted, however, that a problem arises when microlofts replace SROs instead of adding to available housing stock, and one that fits into the city’s objective of revitalization without displacement.
“When they are displacing an existing SRO, that is essentially doing the opposite of making Vancouver more affordable, because it’s taking more affordable units and making them less affordable,” Toderian said. “That tension is where microlofts don’t fit into the official policy or vision for the city. And that would be a point where the city should be ensuring that SROs—a housing type that’s a last resort for people who would otherwise be homeless—are maintained.”