Converted single-room-occupancy units (SROs) dubbed “microlofts” are renting in the Downtown Eastside for more than $1,100 a month.
The Burns Block at 18 West Hastings Street (at Carrall Street) once rented rooms at the welfare rate of $375 before it was left vacant and later renovated by ITC Construction Group and Reliance Properties. Its units are between 226 and 291 square feet. They were expected to go for an average of $850 per month when they first went on the market in 2012, but they quickly surpassed that rate and now have a wait list.
In a telephone interview, Reliance Properties president Jon Stovell told the Straight that the current rent is merely a reflection of demand. He described microlofts as addressing a “real blind spot”.
“This is my number one issue and gripe right now with what is going on in the city,” Stovell said. “The whole working-youth cohort is being completely lost in the shuffle.…There is a massive amount of people who earn between $38,000 and $50,000 a year, and that’s who these are for.”
Stovell said he expects Vancouver will see more microlofts, possibly in Grandview-Woodland.
Brent Toderian, former director of planning for the City of Vancouver, said he supports microlofts for reasons of affordability, density, and their relatively small ecological footprint.
“There is a synergy between developer interests and public interests in the sense of providing smaller-footprint living for a niche market,” he told the Straight. “The market is there; it makes sense from a private-sector perspective, and cities are starting to allow them. So they’re a small part of a large discussion around affordable living in the city.”
Toderian, however, cautioned against converting more SROs into microlofts, suggesting that the city protect existing SROs as part of addressing the need for affordable housing.
“Microlofts and SROs, not only are they not the same thing, but they may be creating a tension between each other,” he explained. “If SROs are being replaced by microlofts, then all that does is put more pressure on our city to address the issues of deep affordability.”
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.
Like Stovell, Wes Regan, executive director of the Hastings Crossing Business Improvement Association, told the Straight that younger, middle-income earners are being overlooked in the housing debate.
With so much attention on the DTES and the “serious nature of the housing needs that exist there”, he said developers should look at the whole city when considering alternative-housing ideas like microlofts. He noted that would likely involve confronting existing residents’ "NIMBY" attitudes in areas such as Renfrew-Collingwood or Dunbar-Southlands.
“Is affordable housing needed for young professionals?” Regan asked. “Absolutely. Is the Downtown Eastside the best place for it? I think that’s the question that we need to grapple with.”