In a year from now, 59-year-old Tom de Grey could lose his home. That’s when his landlord will be released from a 15-year agreement with the city binding rents in his building to the welfare rate.
De Grey lives in an SRO — a single-room occupancy hotel. To some, they’re synonymous with cockroaches, bed bugs and slumlords, but not all are so poorly managed. For the low-income or homeless, SROs provide an integral option on a short list of shelter choices.
That, experts say, is why it’s not always a great idea to tear down SROs and build something new — even if the new structure is also meant to include some lower-income tenants. In fact, cities might do better to leave them in place — but insist they actually meet existing health and building standards.
U.S. research shows that the loss of virtually any form of existing shelter for vulnerable populations leads to street homelessness. And that is true even if the housing is replaced — usually later, only partially, and often costing more.
If de Grey’s rent is allowed to rise to market rates, the former film and construction worker says he’d face a “real crisis.” He fears winding up at another SRO hotel worse than the one he’ll have to leave. His current unit is well maintained, near a park, and has a big enough kitchen and washroom for him to live independently.
Before moving two years ago into his clean room in a 100-year-old heritage building with 12 suites outside the downtown core, de Grey lived in the storied Downtown Eastside landmark Astoria Hotel for seven years. It was “what you call a real SRO,” he says. “And I certainly don’t want to go back.”
De Gray lived on the North Shore for 20 years before circumstances put him in a cheaper apartment in Strathcona — until that too fell through and he wound up at the Astoria.
“I only planned to stay three days,” he says. But after years of working and being able to support his family, a chain of events kept him there. “They used to call it the poverty trap,” he says.
Despite their reputation, SROs are an important link in the chain of options that advocates say is necessary to address rising homelessness. Their demise in Vancouver, they say, is due to loopholes in their protection and not enough enforcement of SRO maintenance bylaws. And it’s putting even more people on the street.
Particularly at risk are SROs like de Grey’s, where rents are limited by agreements between the building owner and the city, supported by federal funding.
SROs getting fewer, costlier
A single adult on welfare in British Columbia receives $610 a month, and has a budget of $375 to pay their rent. Yet in 2015, the average of the lowest rents in Vancouver SROs surveyed by the Carnegie Community Action Project was $517, up from $398 in 2009.
Average rents in the “eight fastest-gentrifying hotels” doubled over the same six-year period, from $444 to $905 a month. One hotel advertised a unit on Craigslist for $1,500 a month.
The Carnegie report calculates that for every eight units above welfare rate slated to be built from 2014 until February 2016, there was only one built to rent at the welfare rate. In all: 205 units that low-income people can afford, 1,663 they can’t.
De Grey is fighting back by becoming active in the Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative, which aims to preserve units and make them more habitable. The group wants the city to better enforce existing bylaws aimed at slowing the loss of the hotels.
“That’s all we’re asking for,” says Wendy Pedersen, a longstanding advocate in the Downtown Eastside now active in the same group. SROs, she says, are “a pretty inadequate form of housing, but there is nothing else. We can’t afford to let them go.”
In 2015, the city changed its Single Room Accommodation bylaw in an effort to stymie landlords from using “renovations” as small as fixing a sink as excuses to evict tenants. Landlords now need a city permit for any renovations. The fee to convert a single SRO room to another type, like student housing or a hostel, jumped from $15,000 to $125,000.
The city also fines landlords when they break health and safety codes and don’t meet maintenance standards. According to a media release late in 2015, Vancouver City Hall issued “over 150 compliance letters and 75 orders” under the SRO bylaw that year. In the previous year, it levied penalties totalling $6,800 against landlords in what it calls “standards of maintenance” cases.
But some SRO owners, critics say, continue to use legal loopholes — such as forcing tenants to sign fixed-term agreements — that allow them to hike room rents significantly, forcing tenants out.
And according to a city staff report, a new trend finds investors buying SROs in strategic locations not to operate as low-cost accommodations, but as gentrification projects. After upgrading rooms they attract tenants with deeper pockets to up-and-coming locations where they can also earn revenue from renting commercial and retail space.
“These renovations, although helpful in enhancing the quality of the rooms,” the city report states, “are resulting in the displacement of tenants due to their lack of affordability, which has negative impacts on the individual but also the community as a driver of homelessness.”
The Carnegie report and other critics say that Vancouver can do more. They urge the city to give itself the power to impose non-profit management on hotels with outstanding maintenance complaints, and to limit incentives like renovation subsidies to owners that agree to keep units at the welfare/pension rental rate afterward.
The province, the Carnegie report adds, could provide more effective rent control and higher welfare and disability benefits.
‘Affordable’ — in whose eyes?
Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Chicago have all toyed with permitting new SRO-style micro-units to be built. But merely loosening zoning to allow for smaller rooms hasn’t always increased affordable choices. Many new micro-units aren’t built for lower income brackets, let alone those on welfare.
Vancouver already requires 30 per cent of units in new rental housing to be affordable to tenants with incomes low enough to qualify for BC Housing apartments. That works out to no higher than $912 for a bachelor. It’s also nearly two and a half times what provincial welfare provides a single person for rent in the city.
Vancouver has a separate definition for the Downtown Eastside. There, a bylaw stipulates that a building within the neighbourhood’s borders must rent one-third of its units at the welfare rate, another third at the BC Housing rate, and the final third at what it vaguely calls “affordable market rents.”
There are about 8,500 people living in the community on welfare and disability cheques, the Carnegie report states, and 4,000 more on seniors’ pensions. That’s roughly two-thirds of the neighbourhood’s more than 18,000 residents who have between $375 and $403 a month for rent. According to critics, building one-third of the housing for two-thirds of the people isn’t enough.
BC Housing says the province increased its total number of homeless shelter beds by a quarter between 2012 and March 2016. However the number of independent social housing units barely rose, by less than one per cent. The number of transitional, supported and assisted-living units actually fell, by about the same amount.
Meanwhile, more than 10,000 names still languish on the BC Housing waitlist for housing, and at any one time an estimated 15,000 people in the province have no secure shelter at all.
‘Help’ that (also) hurts
B.C.’s path of supporting housing for those in need selectively, and not the full spectrum, has produced unintended consequences in U.S. cities.
Los Angeles, for example, shifted city funds away from transitional housing with the admirable motive of building more permanent units. But the result left more people on the streets.
Although the estimated number of homeless living in the City of Angels didn’t change from 2015 to 2016, its “unsheltered population” rose by 1,400. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority blamed the rise on the disappearance of transitory beds to planned permanent housing — and cuts to funding for shelter programs in order to pay for the new construction.
The 220 low-rent rooms in the Panama Hotel in the city’s infamous skid-row neighbourhood, for instance, were recently vacated and gutted. It’s expected to reopen as permanent supportive housing. But there will be only 79 new units.
L.A.’s shift was encouraged by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development under former president Barack Obama. The agency bet on more permanent housing to solve America’s homelessness crisis. To help pay for it, HUD cut funding to some 2,000 transitional housing beds across the country.
But it takes time to build. People who lost beds mostly didn’t have an interim place to go, or a guarantee they would be able to get an upgraded unit when replacements were built.
No single ‘happy home’
That’s why it’s important to understand what “affordable” housing means to different people needing support, says Alina Turner, who played a role in eliminating long-term street homelessness in Medicine Hat, Alberta.
“The reality is that people vacillate through different housing types throughout their lives, depending on their experiences, situations, contexts,” she says. “So it’s unrealistic to think that one solution is going to solve all your problems.”
An architect of Alberta’s provincial framework for defeating homelessness and a former vice-president of strategy at the Calgary Homeless Foundation, Turner knows what it means to be homeless herself. Her family were refugees from communist Romania, lived in a refugee camp in Germany for two years, and when they came to Canada she was eventually removed by child-care workers and lived in a basement suite by herself until she aged out of government care.
Turner’s experience leads her to stress the importance of listening to those living without a home. “If you listen, you’re going to know it’s not going to be this ‘one size fits all’ [answer],” she says.
The best outcomes happen, she says, when the type of shelter — a temporary bed, transitional, or permanent — is well matched to an individual’s needs. And, more surprisingly, when they’re free to say, “No thanks.”
Turner contests an argument influential in the United States: that transitional housing isn’t as “cost-efficient” as permanent housing. While efficiency is desirable and worth improving, she says, “That doesn’t mean that we should do away with an entire sector.”
Vancouver lawyer DJ Larkin agrees. The housing rights advocate says the province needs to stop simply reacting to events.
Policy gestures in response to “a fuss” over symptoms, like the appearance of tent cities last year in Victoria and Vancouver, Larkin says, are “never going to solve the problem.”
Rather, they prompt the province to “over-focus on one aspect of the housing spectrum to the detriment of others.” Over the years, Larkin says, a shift of government focus to supportive housing has meant that other types “fall off the map a little bit.
“If we focus on permanent housing, there are going to be people who need transitional housing, who need shelter, and who are getting pushed out of those spaces where they currently exist,” Larkin says, as happened in Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, “people living in poverty end up being quasi-institutionalized in supportive housing where they may not need it.”
Canada: money, but no plan
Canada’s 2016 federal budget promised more money to address homelessness. There was $111.8 million for the Homelessness Partnering Strategy; $208 million to the newly created Affordable Rental Housing Innovation Fund; and $30 million to assist with upkeep of existing rent-geared-to-income housing units.
But neither Ottawa nor Victoria have presented thought-out plans to keep all the necessary doors on the low-income/homeless housing spectrum open to those in need. And they haven’t asked for the valuable input from those who would benefit from that shelter.
As for de Grey, he continues to work with the SRO Collaborative hoping to preserve affordable units like his.
“We’ve been crunching numbers, and half of them are gone — and by gone I mean they’re over $500 a month in rent. They’re no longer low-income,” he says. Another “550 rooms, I believe, are being rapidly gentrified, renovicted, by any means possible.”
The small rooms may not seem much to others. But to many seniors he knows personally, they’re a locking door and a place to call home.
“Poor people have to live somewhere.”