A recommendation going before Vancouver council next week could speed up the city’s response time to outstanding bylaw violations at single-room occupancy hotels.
Currently, the Standards of Maintenance bylaw requires city staff to get council approval to intervene and fix outstanding violations on a building owner’s behalf. If council approves the recommended bylaw change, it would delegate authority to the city’s chief building official, expediting the process by an estimated two to four weeks.
“Right now, the Standards of Maintenance [bylaw] requires us to go to council to give 60 days notice before we go in and do the work,” Vancouver deputy chief building official Carli Edwards said in a phone interview. “And this is removing that requirement, so that we can just simply give the 60-day notice and move in at the end of that and not have to go to council.
“We want to be more timely and we want another tool to be able to use to deal with some of the worst SROs,” she added.
The Standards of Maintenance bylaw deals with building problems like pests, holes in walls and ceilings, worn and soiled flooring, and plumbing issues.
Poor living conditions in many Downtown Eastside SROs, including bedbugs, mice, plumbing problems, and shared bathroom facilities for multiple tenants, prompted activists to set up a tent city demonstration in Oppenheimer Park this summer. The protest has since grown to about 200 tents.
One of the tent city residents, Douglas Geib, said he prefers to sleep outside than deal with the housing conditions in SROs.
“I got so sick and tired of the bedbugs,” he said in an interview. “You can’t live in these kinds of places.”
Don Martens, another Oppenheimer resident, said he’s going to give his notice at his SRO room at the end of the month.
“If I find something else, I find something else—if not, I have a nice tent,” he told the Straight. “I like my tent better than I did the room that I had.”
Edwards said city staff have met multiple times with tent city participants to discuss housing conditions.
“We’ve been working with the protestors all the way through,” she said.
“They’ve given us some great feedback about some of the conditions of the hotels, some of the things we weren’t aware of, so we’re actually trying to build a relationship with them so that we can get their feedback on an ongoing basis.”
Stella August, one of the tent city organizers, said protestors have decided to focus on staging demonstrations instead of meeting with staff.
“We stopped the meetings—we’re deciding to do action,” she told the Straight outside the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, where she and other advocates were demonstrating today (September 11) as B.C. Premier Christy Clark and her cabinet met with First Nations leaders inside.
August added that the Oppenheimer protestors don’t want to live in SROs at all. They’re asking for self-contained housing units, where they can have their own bathroom, privacy, and a place to cook.
“They want homes,” she said. “Living in a matchbox like that, they feel like they’re prisoners. It’s really not an appropriate place for anybody.”
According to a city survey of low-income housing in the downtown core, there were 109 privately owned SRO buildings as of January 2014, containing an estimated 4,579 rooms.
In January 2013, the city launched a Rental Standards Database that lists bylaw violations at all licensed buildings in Vancouver with five or more residential units.
Since then, the number of buildings with more than 100 violations has decreased from seven to one, and the amount of properties with between 10 and 49 violations has been reduced from 50 to 29. Buildings with fewer than 10 violations have increased from 243 to 369.
“Basically what that tells me is that we’re dealing with the worst buildings,” Edwards said.
She noted the city’s goal is to get owners to fix their buildings. If council does give staff the authority to go in and do the work (and bill the owner for the cost of repairs), it will be a measure the city will take once it has exhausted other tools.
Under the current inspection process, the city issues a 30-day order to fix any Standards of Maintenance bylaw violations.
If the building owner hasn’t remedied the problems within that time, the city can escalate enforcement, including bringing forward cases for prosecution to get owners fined, meeting with the building owner once a month to address the issues, or seeking a court injunction—a measure that will still require council approval.
The report goes before council next Tuesday (September 16).