Lack of government regulation and austerity budgets cause student housing losses, may continue the displacement domino effect
When Teresa Dettling noticed that Simon Fraser University’s administration had closed applications for the huge campus residence she lives in, she started to worry. Maintenance responses to calls to fix simple problems had gotten slower and slower. Administration had shut down part of the building due to mould and unspecified “health hazards.” More than half of the building’s 209 units were vacant. Teresa contacted building management to ask what was going on. They told her administration is unofficially “advising families to move out.” She realized SFU is planning to demolish the Louis Riel House.
Teresa, a single mother of a seven-year-old daughter, says that it matters that the family housing at Louis Riel is affordable for a single, low-income parent. But what is even more important is that her and her neighbours support each other. She says residents have the same needs so it’s easy to support each other. The families in Louis Riel House are made up of same sex couples, mixed race, Indigenous, single parent, international students, and hybrids of biological and foster kids. “Different types of families are recognized and treated with the same respect as white nuclear families,” she says.
Another community asset is the public school on campus where all the kids go. Mai Abdelmoaty came to SFU from Egypt with her husband Ahmed so he can complete his engineering PhD. She says that because international student families cycle through, new kids don’t get made fun of. Both moms worry about what will happen to their kid’s sense of security if their housing gets shut down. Mai explains, “Our kids feel more secure because they go to school with the kids who live down the hall at home.”
What’s at stake for students in the Louis Riel households is the ability to finish their studies. “Helping each other have a better life, I believe this is our role in life,” says Ahmed, Mai’s husband, whose PhD research is to develop technologies to help stroke victims recover. “If SFU closes Louis Riel House, my family’s life will be harder. And if this happens to my family, how can I concentrate on my research to help people who are suffering?”
In February, Mai and Teresa knocked on the doors of their neighbours and organized a meeting of Louis Riel House residents to fight back against their displacement. The group they formed at this meeting wants residents to be part of deciding the future of Louis Riel House and planning the housing that takes its place. They want a guarantee that low-income families and grad students will not be displaced from Burnaby Mountain. And above all they want the administration to put low-income affordable family housing in the future plans of the university’s development.
Gil Aguilar is an organizer with the Social Housing Alliance, which has been supporting the Louis Riel House tenant struggle. He says there’s a political reason Louis Riel House has been allowed to fall into disrepair and tenants are facing the prospect of mass evictions. “University grounds are a black hole for legal regulation of rental housing,” Aguilar says. “Because a public university runs it, student housing is exempt from the protections of even the very few regulations that exist to protect renters. You go to school to improve your life but you become a vulnerable tenant.” Social Housing Alliance hopes to work with SFU tenants to launch a challenge to amend the provincial Residential Tenancy Act and fill this regulatory black hole.
The displacement of students and their families from SFU housing would not only be a tragedy for the Louis Riel community but could continue a worrying domino effect of displacement. The Carnegie Community Action Project’s annual survey of rents in Downtown Eastside residential hotels has tracked increasing rents partly to a shift in marketing rooms towards relatively higher income tenants. Once informally restricted to low-income residents (people on welfare and pensions who could not afford better quality housing), a new breed of residential hotel owners have been renovating, doubling rents, and rebranding hotels as “Parisian style micro-lofts” for students who don’t have a residence option and cannot afford better quality housing. Low-income former tenants are pushed to the streets.
If SFU demolishes its lower-income student and family housing, and UBC raises its residence rents by 20% (as planned), abdicating their responsibility for housing their students, these families and many more vulnerable tenants may suffer.