Rising rents in single-room occupancy hotels in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside are squeezing out low-income tenants that used to rely on the basic rooms as a last resort, says a report released today by the Carnegie Community Action Project.
In its fourth annual report assessing the area’s privately-owned SRO housing stock, the group says that just seven percent, or 235 of the SRO units, are located in hotels where all rooms are being rented at the income assistance shelter allowance rate of $375 per month. The number is down from 12 percent in 2010, and 29 percent in 2009.
The amount of units in hotels where the lowest rent is $425 has also declined from last year, while the number of rooms in buildings charging $600 or more has increased by 227, the report indicates.
According to Ivan Drury, one of the authors of the report, the rising rents are due in part to the “upscaling” of units to more expensive rooms aimed at students and young workers.
“Our report shows that there’s been an explosion in the loss of rooms to upscaling,” Drury told reporters at a news conference across from the York Hotel, an SRO building on Powell Street. “We’re losing our rooms to conversions that are happening without the regulation of the municipal or provincial government.”
Herb Varley, who lives in the York Hotel, noted he has no problem with students and young workers finding housing the area. However, he argued that it “shouldn’t be done at the expense of the low-income residents in the Downtown Eastside.”
“This literally is the last stop before homelessness,” he said. “There’s roaches, there’s bedbugs, there’s mice… if you’d asked me a few years ago if I would ever fight to live in a place like this, I would say you’re crazy, and now I am actually fighting to live in a place like this.”
Varley said his neighbour told him he’d been offered $500 to move out of the York Hotel. The tenant is concerned the building will be converted into higher-priced units.
Drury noted that SRO rooms are typically 10-by-10 feet with no kitchen or bathroom. The CCAP report describes the living conditions in many of the buildings as “squalid”.
The report also alleges that some buildings are excluding low-income residents through class, racial and health profiling done by desk clerks.
Robert Bonner, an aboriginal resident in Vancouver and a CCAP volunteer who assisted with the survey, said he was quoted $800 a month for a room in an SRO building, while Drury was quoted $600 a month by the same desk clerk.
Jean Swanson, who also authored the report, said the city’s current SRA bylaw has “a lot of loopholes” that allow for conversions of rooms to higher-priced units. For example, she said, the city’s “one-for-one” replacement of SROs does not prevent increasing rents.
“Rent control is based on the person, not the unit,” she said. “It means that it’s virtually useless in the Downtown Eastside, because as soon as somebody moves out, they can raise the rent, and it actually gives landlords an incentive to evict people, or to pay them to get out if they want to upscale.”
Jim DeHope, the city’s managing director of social development, said the issue of rents increasing over time has impacted neighbourhoods across the city, including the Downtown Eastside. He noted the city also conducts surveys of the low-income housing stock in the downtown area, including the Downtown Eastside.
The city's last official survey of low-income housing stock in the downtown core was conducted in 2009, and indicated that 36 percent of units were renting at income assistance shelter allowance rates.
DeHope said that while the city implemented a bylaw prohibiting the conversion of the SRO stock, it hasn’t prevented rents from increasing in those buildings over time.
“Certainly the City of Vancouver from a policy perspective is concerned about increases in rents overall across the city, and especially for the lowest-income residents,” he told the Straight by phone. “The fact that the shelter allowance hasn’t changed for quite many years, that’s part of the problem, because these operators of single-room occupancy hotels are hard-pressed to cover their costs or make money when the shelter allowance rates have not increased for so many years.”
The CCAP report makes a number of recommendations for all three levels of government to address the need for low-income housing in the area, including amending the SRA bylaw to define SRO Hotel conversion to mean raising rents above welfare and pension level shelter rates, and reforming the Residential Tenancy Act to enact effective rent control by rental unit rather than tenant. The group is also continuing their call for a moratorium on condo development in the Downtown Eastside, and for the city to buy 10 sites annually for the next five years for social housing in the area.
CCAP went door-to-door in its survey of 90 hotels to compile the report, and was provided information from 69 of those hotels.