Jean Swanson: Time for Vancouver to use local powers to protect SROs for low-income residents

About 4,000 Vancouver residents live in these buildings, which are mostly in the Downtown Eastside

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      For the past four years, the City of Vancouver has been calling on the province to implement a type of rent control that would help preserve our rapidly dwindling SRO stock—the last stop before homelessness.

      About 4,000 low-income people live in single-room-occupancy hotels, mostly in the Downtown Eastside. The rooms are small, with a bathroom down the hall and no kitchen. Rents, on average above $500 per month, are as low as it gets in this city. With shelter welfare rates only $375 per month, tenants commonly go without food to be able to cover their rent.

      Bad as conditions are in many SROs, a growing number of these buildings are being bought up in an investment frenzy by private investors.  New owners often do minor renovations when one tenant leaves and then raise rents by hundreds of dollars for the next occupant. 

      This practice of raising rents between tenants is so lucrative, some landlords have offered tenants large buyouts. Other landlords use the fact that many tenants don’t know their tenant rights to push them out.

      While we do have rent control in B.C., it only regulates rent increases year-over-year for individual tenants. Next year, landlords will be able to raise rents by 1.5 per cent for tenants who continue to live in their buildings. If a new tenant moves in, there is no law that controls how much rent can be charged. The sky is the limit. 

      While waiting for the province to implement this type of rent control, called vacancy controls, numerous SRO hotels have been lost as affordable accommodation for low-income people. When we reduce the number of SRO rooms, there is nowhere else for people to live. We aren’t building new housing that low-income people can afford fast enough. B.C. Housing has a waiting list of more than 4,000. There are already an estimated 700 people living on the streets for whom we don’t even have shelter space.

      When rents go up too much and too fast, it dooms more people to homelessness. We need to protect that rental stock now more than ever. If the province won’t act, the city must.

      Fortunately for Vancouver, the City of New Westminster in 2018 took the bold step to use its own business-licensing tools to protect its rental housing. Though legally challenged by several landlords, a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled in March 2021 that the bylaw was legal.

      That opens the door for Vancouver city council to use its business-licensing tools to implement vacancy controls in privately owned SROs and prevent landlords from raising rents as much as they like for new tenants. (Government-owned SROs, where rent is a percent of your income or pegged at the income assistance shelter allowance, would be exempt.)

      A staff report comes to council on November 17th to provide various recommendations for how to use this new tool. I’m hoping that SRO residents and other low-income residents will be able to write a message on the city’s website or sign up to speak to council to advise which option is the best.

      Ultimately, we need to replace SROs with dignified, self-contained housing that low-income people can afford. But until we get that housing, we need to make sure people aren’t pushed to the street because landlords have imposed high rents they can’t afford.