Jean Swanson: Let's protect SRO residents from eviction to prevent homelessness

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      What do these quotes from a Colliers real estate brochure have to do with homelessness? “Prime by all definitions, 271-291 East Georgia Street stands as a landmark property…. the subject property shares the street with the ever-popular Phnom Penh Restaurant, London Pub, Fat Mao Noodles, The Ramen Butcher and Mamie Taylors Restaurant…strategically located to capitalize on the City’s tremendous growth, as just two blocks south will be the new $1.9-billion St. Paul’s Hospital …. Inevitable neighbourhood growth ensures this property is a secure and lucrative investment for both investors and developers alike.”

      This “prime by all definitions” property is the home to 34 low-income residents living in one of the better privately owned single-room-occupancy hotels in the Downtown Eastside. One of the residents told me that his rent is $450 a month and the place is relatively well managed; the rooms are small and they have shared bathrooms and no kitchen. The building is for sale for about $8.7 million.

      If it sells it is almost a certainty that the new owner will try to get rid of existing tenants by hook or crook so they can make minor renovations and increase the rents by hundreds of dollars a month. This has already happened to hundreds of units of SRO hotels in the DTES including the Lotus, Metropole, Alexander Court, Thornton Park Hotel, and more.  

      New landlords use methods like saying they need a unit for a caretaker, saying someone has too much stuff so they have to leave, saying they have bugs so they have to leave, saying they disturb other tenants, changing locks and requiring key fobs so that if someone loses their fob they can’t afford the $50 replacement fee, and simply offering residents hundreds of dollars to leave. I have seen every one of these methods being used when I was volunteering with the Carnegie Action Project between 2006 and 2018.  

      Many DTES renters have very low incomes and various health issues. When rent control is based on the tenant and not the unit, the burden of eviction defence is on tenants, in this case often vulnerable tenants who don’t know their rights. But landlords know that they can jack up rents as much as they like when they can get a tenant to leave so there is a profit motive for evictions, and the chance of homelessness increases.

      The problem: there is no place for low-income renters to go. The social housing wait list in Vancouver has over 4,000 people on it, and homeless people are filling our streets, parks, and shelters.  

      It’s not just the Arno that’s for sale. So is the Pacific, the Avalon, and the St. Elmo, with a total of 180 low-cost Downtown Eastside rooms at risk, that I know about. There could be more. 

      What can be done about this? Back in 2017 the city had a task force on SROs, also known as SRAs (single-room accommodation).

      One of the recommendations from this task force, approved by city council, was: “Work with Province to strengthen rent controls by creating a specific category in the Residential Tenancy Act for SRA-designated properties by tying rent increases to the room as opposed to the tenant in an effort to slow rent increases and tenant displacement.” 

      One of the cochairs of this task force was Kaye Krishna, who then worked with the City of Vancouver. Krishna is now the deputy minister of municipal affairs. I’m hoping she can explain to the relevant ministers why we need this change.

      COPE councillor Jean Swanson has a new motion calling on the province to take steps to protect the tenancies of low-income residents of SROs.

      While we desperately need new housing for people who are homeless, and while SROs are not really suitable housing, by maintaining them until we get decent housing built, we can stem the loss of SRO units that contributes to homelessness. Tying rent increases to the room instead of the tenant is a relatively cheap way to do this.

      Landlords could still raise rents by the annual allowable amount, about 2.5 percent this year. And they would be able to apply under section 23 of the Residential Tenancy Regulation to raise rents more than that for unexpected costs.

      Last year the city opened about 600 modular housing units mostly for people who had been homeless. If we had stemmed the loss of SRO units, the city’s homeless count would have gone down last March. But we didn’t.

      Last year and the year before, we lost the Balmoral Hotel, Regent Hotel, and Roddan Lodge to outright closure. The city’s SRO task force report from 2017 shows that we have already lost 22 buildings to rents over $600, and are at risk of losing 25 more buildings. These four that are for sale now are in that latter group. 

      The Carnegie Action Project’s latest hotel report says that rents in the 10 fastest-gentrifying hotels range from $850 to $1,550 a month. If we can stop the loss of low-cost rooms, then when we get new social housing, we can start reducing the number of people who are homeless. But we have to stop the loss of SROs in this time of crisis. Tying SRO rent increases to the unit, not the tenant, is one way to help. 

      Next week  I’ll be bringing a resolution to city council calling on the city to urgently ask the province to change the Residential Tenancy Act to tie SRO rent increases to the unit, not the tenant.

      I’m hoping that the province will see that this is one cheap way to help stem homelessness in Vancouver. If the province refuses, my motion will ask city staff to check out ways that the city might be able to do it.