Vancouver homelessness forecast for 2016: By Jean Swanson and Maria Wallstam

Rally for social housing not SROs and not homelessness
Rally for social housing not SROs and not homelessness

Homelessness in Vancouver could increase by hundreds next year unless all levels of government act now. For the last two years Vancouver has had record high numbers of homeless people; in 2015 the count was 1,746, down 57 from the previous year but still up 146 from 2013.

The number of homeless people remains high despite the fact that last year several hundred new social housing units opened up. Altogether, 648 new social housing units opened throughout the city last year and 458 of these units were used to house homeless people.

The new units include 383 in provincially-funded supportive housing buildings, another 66 supportive housing units owned by the City, and 199 interim housing units in four hotels that the City bought or leased: Quality Inn, Ramada on Hastings, 1060 Howe and the Biltmore. Despite a seemingly steady pace of construction, these numbers of yearly social housing construction are far below what was built in the 1980s.

Even though all these new units opened up and 458 homeless people moved into them, homelessness in Vancouver only went down by 57.

Low-income people across the city continue to be evicted and displaced by rising rents, renovictions and demolitions of existing affordable housing. In the Downtown Eastside alone, over 300 affordable SRO rooms were lost in 2014 due to gentrification.

Looking ahead, the already acute housing crisis will be made worse when federal funding ends for over 17,000 non-profit housing units across the city in the next 10 years. Leading up to the expiry of these funding agreements and once they hit, co-ops and non-profits will be less likely to house low-income individuals and families, since low-income and working-class tenancies are “not viable” without external funding.

Despite this deepening housing crisis, the city’s director of housing policy and projects told Council that only 45 new social housing units that could house homeless people are confirmed to open in 2016. If homelessness only went down by 57 when 458 new rooms were opened, what will happen when only 45 new units open in 2016?

The City’s lease on the Quality Inn also expires next year, which means 157 more rooms will be lost. While the city has made changes to its SRA bylaw, these changes are not strong enough to prevent continued rent increases and renovictions in SRO hotel rooms. If the SRA bylaw is not strengthened immediately, we should expect to lose another 300 SRO units next year.

Therefore we need immediate action:

We need immediate commitments to build new social housing that people on welfare can afford, housing that rents for the welfare shelter rate or 30% of income. Specifically the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) is calling on the City and Province to:

  1. Build the last of the fourteen sites
    What has happened to the 14th of the social housing sites that the Province agreed to build in 2007? This building was announced but hasn’t been started yet. Why? When will it be built if ever? This could be 100 new units.
  2. Build 100% Social Housing on city-owned land
    Has the city put in a proposal to the Province for new 100% welfare rate units on city owned land and if so what was the response? The city already owns sites at 58 W. Hastings, Powell and Jackson, and the 700 block of Main. These should be fast tracked for new social housing which could be paid for with the $174 million available this year from BC Housing as a result of the sale of BC Housing assets. The Buddhist temple at Gore and Hastings is owned by Coastal Health. This should be made into social housing with an Aboriginal Health and Wellness Centre on the ground flood. Housing is a prerequisite for good health. But none of this could result in newly opened units for at least 2 years.
  3. Continue leasing Colonial, Flint and New Marr hotels
    The SROs that the province is renovating should be finished by the end of 2015, early 2016. Many of the tenants of those buildings are staying in the Colonial, Flint and New Marr hotels with a total of about 250 rooms. The lease on these buildings should be continued for the future by some level of government. As the tenants of the newly renovated SROs move back to their original home, they will free up rooms for homelessness people IF some level of government continues leasing the 3 hotels.
  4. Secure SRO’s most at risk
    For example, the West Hotel (98 rooms), and the Clifton Hotel (74 rooms)
  5. Lease SROs with empty rooms
    The city should make an inventory of SRO hotels that have numerous empty rooms like the Patrick Anthony and Winters. These buildings should be leased by some level of government and run by non-profits for people at risk of homelessness.
  6. Raise welfare rates
    The province must raise welfare and disability rates that have been frozen for 8 years.

Taken together, all of these actions won’t end homelessness. They would hopefully keep homelessness from escalating by hundreds next year, a modest request.

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