Homeless in Vancouver: Social housing accounts for over 41 percent of rental building bylaw issues

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      As of June 5th, 361 rental properties in Vancouver had a total of 1,824 unresolved bylaw-related issues, according to the City’s online database of problem rental buildings.

      One striking thing the database shows is that nearly 42 percent of unresolved bylaw issues can be laid at the doorstep of just 14.4 percent of problem rental buildings—mostly aging social housing located downtown, such as single-room occupancy hotels (SROs).

      All of them are owned and operated by a handful of nonprofit societies and government housing agencies and, for all their faults and bylaw infractions, these buildings represent an absolutely critical stock of low income rental housing.

      Of 1,824 unresolved bylaw-related issues affecting 361 problem rental buildings in Vancouver, fully 765 issues (or 41.9 percent of all issues) can be laid at the doorstep of only 52 properties (or 14.4 percent of all problem rental buildings).

      All of these 52 properties are owned and operated by a handful (14 to be exact) of nonprofit societies and government housing agencies, which represent a mere fraction (4.5 percent) of the total of 310 property owner/operators of problem rental properties.

      Shrinking low-income housing tail wags rental housing dog

      One such nonprofit is Atira Women’s Resource Society, which operates seven properties listed in the city’s problem rental building database.

      All the properties are downtown and all but one is in or near the Downtown Eastside.

      The “newest” of Atira’s seven buildings is the 99-year-old, 37-unit Empress Rooms at 362 Alexander Street (this has 20 issues). The oldest is the 115-year-old, 79-unit Winter Residence at 102 Water Street (with only two bylaw infractions to its name)

      Somewhere in the middle is the 109-year-old, 73-unit single-room-occupancy (SRO) property at 208 East Georgia Street—which goes by the name London Hotel.

      It has been owned by the provincial government and operated by Atira since at least 2009 (when it was listed as having been fully renovated).

      It has 57 outstanding bylaw issues relating to fire safety and maintenance.

      The number of outstanding issues at the London is actually down from an earlier total of 136—the city indicates that some 79 issues have already been fixed.

      Atira’s other six properties have much the same ongoing repair history.

      All the same, its seven buildings top the city’s database for bylaw issues, with a total of 572 “current issues” listed against them.

      At least one infraction (for the 140-unit Colonial Hotel at 122 Water Street) has been unresolved since 2016.

      As with the London Hotel, almost all involve either the fire or standards of maintenance bylaws.

      It should be no surprise if Atira and the other nonprofits have to struggle to keep their building up to snuff. Time and generations of impoverished tenants have probably not been kind to these old buildings.

      And it’s even more obvious why the nonprofits wage the never-ending struggle.

      The 52 rental properties that account for nearly 42 percent of all current bylaw violations in Vancouver also happen to constitute a whopping 3,438 units of low-income social housing that, for all of its shortcomings, exist here and now, when the need is so acute.

      Thanks to a mixture of negligence, wilful indifference, and deliberate efforts at “urban renewal”, Vancouver has actually been losing its old downtown SROs, or “welfare hotels” (where rents were held to the rent portion of welfare) units at a staggering clip.

      SROs in Vancouver reportedly dropped from 13,300 in 1970 to 6,079 in 2006. And another 1,000 such units were estimated lost to renoviction and rent hikes between 2008 and 2016, leaving maybe 2,600.

      Top government and nonprofit landlords of problem rental buildings (buildings/units/issues)

      Affordable Housing Charitable Association—2 / 71 / 3
      Atira Women’s Resource Society—7 / 572 / 405
      bcIMC Realty Corporation—2 / 63 / 6
      Brightside Community Homes Foundation—4 / 162 / 10
      Central City Foundation—2 / 113 / 74
      City of Vancouver—3 / 181 / 9
      Coast Foundation Society (1974)—3 / 128 / 14
      Entre Nous Femmes Housing Society—2 / 67 / 3
      Lookout Housing and Health Society—4 / 351 / 37
      Neighbourhood Housing Society—2 / 119 / 2
      PHS Community Services Society—5 / 392 / 9
      Provincial Rental Housing Corporation—10 / 766 / 180
      Raincity Housing And Support Society—3 / 201 / 9
      Bloom Group Community Services Society—3 / 323 / 4

      A Band-Aid solution to help heal housing crisis

      Vancouver’s first temporary modular housing complex, which opened February 2017 at 220 Terminal Avenue.; photographed March 2019.
      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      It is not at all obvious that the city and province are successfully building better, new social housing units at a rate that even matches the loss of bad, old SROs

      Although the city has shifted a number of SRO residents to new, temporary modular housing (TMH) units—38 to the Chartrand Place TMH at 1131 Franklin Street in 2018—I would argue that no one should look to the provincially funded crash $66-million program, which built 600 units of TMH, as a real replacement for lost SRO units.

      For one thing, TMH units are not meant to be permanent housing. They are intended to be short-term transitional spaces (three-year occupancy at most), where occupants learn how to live in real apartments.

      The requirement for real apartments to transition TMH occupants into, within three years is a fundamental (but generally unspoken) assumption built into the TMH model.

      And to digress for a moment, it is actually a misnomer to even call TMH housing.

      The legal agreement that I understand all would-be TMH occupants have to sign is careful to avoid ever referring to it as “housing”.

      According to the agreement used by the operator of the M. Mitchell modular housing complex at 2132 Ash Street—namely the PHS Community Services Society—would-be tenants are defined as “Occupants”, rather than tenants.

      They are not said to be moving in to an apartment in a rental building but rather an “Accommodation in a temporary 'Program' ".

      This program is designed to help the occupants “get ready for a successful tenancy somewhere else”, as the agreement explicitly states.

      Never mind that an occupant’s rent, er, “Program Fee”, must be paid “in advance, no later than the first day of each month”.

      One notable consequence of recasting the modular housing as a temporary health program, rather than—you know—rental housing, is that it is exempt—so far as the agreement is concerned—from any of the normal legal protections enjoyed by renters in B.C.

      As clause 2.12 of the agreement states:

      The Residential Tenancy Act (or successor legislation) (the “Act”) does not apply to this Agreement. The Act does not apply to the Accommodation because the Accommodation is temporary accommodation made available in the course of providing you with rehabilative [sp] or therapeutic treatment or services.

      It is unclear if the above would stand up to legal challenge. Hopefully not. However PHS knows how infrequently street-embedded people go to court as plaintiffs.

      Interestingly, the PHS modular housing agreement contains clauses stating that visitors under 25 must be accompanied and pre-approved by PHS and show valid ID upon entry.

      In 2017 an arbitrator threw out similar clauses that PHS put in place for a Victoria, B.C., supportive-housing complex, which required guests under 19 to show legal ID.

      The key for the arbitrator then was the fact that the supportive housing in Victoria (just like the TMH in Vancouver now) was created in response to a housing crisis, not a health crisis, and was therefore a residential property, not a health facility.

      But as things stand now, another big difference between the old SRO hotels downtown and Vancouver’s new temporary modular housing complexes is that—not being rental buildings—the modular housing complexes will never (no matter what kind of disrepair they may fall into) end up gracing the City of Vancouver’s online database of problem rental buildings.