One last chance to save the SRO Hotels: By DJ Larkin and Jean Swanson
Vancouver’s Single Room Accommodation (SRA) Bylaw has been in place for over 11 years and has proven ineffective at protecting affordable housing. The Bylaw was passed in 2003 to protect single room occupancy hotel rooms for low-income tenants, mostly in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. At the time, the City thought they were saving the Single Room Occupancy buildings (SROs) from being turned into tourist hotels. However, the City didn’t foresee the changes that the neighbourhood is going through. Landlords are evicting low-income tenants and then painting and remarketing the old buildings for higher income tenants and students.
The Clifton Hotel on Granville St. is the most recent loss. Owners have allowed the building to fall into terrible disrepair, which has provided them an opportunity to evict all the tenants for the purpose of making repairs. Renovations are now set to begin, but not for the benefit of the former tenants who lived in it while the Clifton crumbled, but rather presumably to rent out to tenants who can pay higher rents.
If City Council had the political will, they could use the existing SRA Bylaw to protect privately owned SRO hotels as low-income housing. But it seems landlord profits are more important than tenant rights and low-income affordable housing in our fair city.
In December the City had the chance to step in and save the tenancies of those remaining at the Clifton but they decided not to. Instead City Council has opened up the SRA bylaw, giving us the opportunity to advocate for a law that would save the remaining SRO hotels for low-income residents. City staff has been instructed to report to Council at the end of March with recommendations for bylaw changes.
There are three fundamental protections required to safeguard the SROs that are lacking under our current laws: 1) rent controls that will stop ‘reno-evictions’; 2) guaranteed good maintenance; 3) clear and consistent protection under the Residential Tenancy Act. The city and the province need to ensure that these protections are in place. There are specific actions that CCAP and PIVOT are recommending to make that happen. (See the side box)
The 2015 provincial budget failed to increase social assistance or disability rates and said nothing about building new social housing. As the province continues to fail to meet its responsibility to provide housing and a livable income for all people in British Columbia, it is more important than ever to save the SROs for low income tenants and make sure they are in good condition.
Six key things the City and Provincial governments could do to amend and implement existing laws to protect SROs as low-income housing:
- Tie business licenses required for SROs to a promise to maintain the building and control rents
- Landlords who fail to maintain buildings properly should not be allowed to raise rents after renovations or should be required to pay a $15,000 fee per room to do renovations. This would discourage landlords from allowing buildings to fall into disrepair so they can evict tenants for repairs and then raise the rent;
- Allow the city to give tax breaks, renovation grants or other incentives to landlords who maintain buildings properly while keeping rents low;
- Give the city the exclusive right to purchase any SRO that is put up for sale;
- Study the impact of using SROs as student housing on rents and possibly amend the SRA Bylaw to include changing the use of an SRO from long-term tenancy to student housing in the definition of ‘conversion’. This means that evicting long-term tenants and replacing them with students would require a landlord to pay a conversion fee of thousands of dollars per room.
- Amend the Residential Tenancy Act to make it clear that residents in the SROs have the same rights as everyone else under the Act.