Tomorrow, June 30th, Vancouver City Council will decide whether to seek legal injunctions to force repairs of the Palace and Wonder single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
The living conditions in these buildings are intolerable. The City report mentions that the Wonder Rooms is in an utter state of disrepair on account of being neglected by its owner. The City found Wonder Rooms to be in violation of 141 Standards of Maintenance Bylaws and 24 Building Bylaws including, for example: “The entire basement and first floor are littered with rat feces and smell very strongly of rat urine.”
Unfortunately, these conditions are representative of many residential tenements in the Downtown Eastside, where landlords increase profits by avoiding maintenance costs. Despite the poor state of repair, owners get away with charging unusually high rents because there is nowhere else in the city for low-income tenants, who are often subject to housing discrimination.
There are about 10,000 low-income housing units in the Downtown Eastside, and a full half of these are SRO hotel rooms. Of those 5,000 SRO units, 1,500 have been purchased in recent years by the Provincial government (although the majority of these still languish in terrible disrepair). Housing advocates have long argued that these 5,000 SRO units must ultimately be replaced with self-contained social housing as soon as possible. The Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) has calculated that, at the present snail pace, it will take governments over 50 years to replace the units! CCAP is calling for the units to be replaced with real homes in 10 years or less.
For housing conditions to improve for those in SRO hotels, several things should happen. First, pressure should be brought to bear on the owners. The City must enforce building bylaws as rigourously in the DTES as in Shaughnessy. In the case of the Wonder and Palace hotels, the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council (DNC) is calling for maximum fines to be applied. The Wonder Rooms alone incurred so many violations that if maximum fines are sought, the owner could face $30,000,000 in fines since the Mar 31 2011 repair deadline! That is enough to incentivize construction of 7,000 affordable units throughout the city.