By Wendy Pedersen
In 2012, Vision Vancouver came up with a plan to phase out approximately 3,600 privately owned single-room occupancy (SRO) hotel units over 30 years. The plan is to let those rooms, which were historically rented at welfare rate of $375 a month, go to the market and replace them with social housing.
It all sounds reasonable, but in the fine print, the city only requires one-third of units in new social-housing buildings to rent at the welfare rate. The city also intends to build one-third of SRO replacement housing in other parts of the city. That is why many Downtown Eastsiders see this as a displacement plan.
Since Vision took power at City Hall in 2008, approximately 1,000 out of 3,600 SRO units have been lost to so-called renovictions or to rent increases above $500 a month, which is more than people on welfare or old-age pensions can afford.
That’s almost one-third of our SRO rooms lost to traditional SRO tenants. Some of these losses happened because SRO investors harassed and paid out tenants and then jacked up the rents for new tenants moving in. Other losses happened because the city did not enforce their own by-laws effectively, allowing SROs to deteriorated to a point where owners had an excuse to empty them out for major renovations.
The 2,600 rooms remaining are barely accessible to people on welfare, with average rents at $450 to $490 a month. These rooms are in high demand.
The Empress Hotel owner says that 20 to 30 people ask to rent a room every day. About 1,000 of these rooms are in deplorable condition, like at the Sahota-owned hotels along East Hastings. They are nearing the end of their life because of poor management and a lack of city-bylaw enforcement. Another 500 rooms are in small hotels and many are renovicting fast.
Even some of the Chinese benevolent societies are selling their SRO units, as we have seen most recently with the May Wah Hotel. Without early and aggressive code enforcement, rent control between tenancies, and constant monitoring and outreach to tenants, we are going to lose these homes in the very near future.
How is the city doing with SRO replacement housing?
Since Vision approved their plan in 2012, only 200 new units of social housing at the welfare rate have been built. That’s an average of 50 units a year. If the city continues to build 50 units a year, that is a mere 1,500 new units over 30 years, which is too little, too late. Given the current number of homeless people in the Downtown Eastside (approximately 1,000) and the fact that there is virtually no funding to build new social housing in the future, this is a smart time to rethink the city’s strategy on SROs.
There are a few assumptions the city must get over before an effective new strategy to prevent the loss of more homes can emerge.
One: the city must stop assuming that landlords—especially those who are multimillionaires who paid off their mortgages with welfare payments—cannot afford to upgrade and maintain their SROs because of the type of people that they house. There are private-sector SRO landlords who house vulnerable tenants nicely. Those who can’t figure out how to do it and keep their buildings up to code need to turn over their SRO buildings to professional management companies who can.
Currently, the city offers a $5,000-per-door subsidy to SRO owners who lease to nonprofits, but it takes $100,000 to fully upgrade one of these heritage buildings. Stronger penalties and partnerships with governments could be developed to get landlords on board to do systemic repairs while maintaining affordability.
Two: the city must stop assuming that enforcing their maintenance bylaws aggressively will lead to SROs emptying and closing down. The city has the power to do repairs themselves and put liens on title to recoup costs. Liens discourage sales and could be waived for landlords who turn over their properties to professional management companies who guarantee good maintenance and low rents.
No doubt there could be other creative strategies to reposition ownership into better circumstances, too, like collecting evidence of fraud or criminal activity that could lead to the province securing SROs through civil forfeiture.
In the meantime, many SRO tenants live in deplorable conditions, sometimes in dangerous safety conditions, and on the edge of homelessness. This is not the time to “let go” of the SROs. At the rate of loss happening now, we could lose all privately owned SROs in 10 years and homelessness could skyrocket, if the city does not change its plans and practices.
Watch for city council meetings about this issue coming up in January and February 2017.