The East Vancouver Fire and the Housing Crisis

A house fire on Pandora Street took three lives last Thursday. The event instigated the right-wing NPA to call for an inquiry. However, to ensure tragedies like this do no happen in the future, it is necessary to abandon anti-tenant rhetoric in favour of a more proactive approach that empowers tenants.

No one wants to live in poor housing conditions like those of the Pandora Street house. But in the absence of safe and affordable housing options, renters must choose between inadequate housing and homelessness. And in the absence of strong tenant protection by-laws, fear of eviction condemns tenants to an intolerable status quo.

Several media outlets have drawn attention to the requests for an independent inquiry. Some argue the lives would have been saved had the City shut down the home on account of the illegal living situation. But this would have led to eviction of the nine people living inside, and there were many opportunities for the City to take more proactive action to assist the tenants. Further, it is difficult to ignore that many of the proponents of this ‘eviction solution’ are inspired by intolerance rather than compassion for the tenants themselves (e.g. see the comments at the bottom of this Sun article.)

The tenants of the Pandora Street house had on numerous occasions sought to have maintenance issues addressed, often calling both the landlord and city hall. Instead of responding by performing necessary repairs and billing the landlord, the City attempted to have the house demolished. It is ironic that those calling for an inquiry are asking for more of the same reactive, anti-tenant approach.

City by-laws should exist to ensure that proactive measures are taken to preempt low-income housing stock from falling into disrepair in the first place, and should allow tenants’ complaints to be addressed before eviction is even contemplated. The scope of any such inquiry should, therefore, include: empowering tenants, holding landlords accountable, and taking aggressive action to protect, renovate, and replace Vancouver’s naturally aging low-income housing stock.

Overcrowding is a Symptom of Systemic Problem

Over-crowding like that in the Pandora Street house is becoming the norm in Vancouver. A 2008 study in Northern Mount Pleasant focused on immigrant and refugee renters found a large portion (over 40%) of the renters were living with an average of three people per bedroom. Low-income Vancouverites are frequently forced to fit many people into a single family home to make the rent.

The city has a history of asking for the bare minimum from landlords, merely hoping they will complete repairs that keep their residences up to code. These repairs can take years to be completed; meanwhile, tenants are forced to live in inhospitable housing conditions on account of their economic position.

When a house is demolished after years of neglect, it means eviction. There are insufficient mechanisms to ensure that the home is rebuilt or renovated for the existing low- and middle-income tenants.

Vancouver has the most unaffordable housing market in the world because of its municipal governments’ land-use policies. The deadweight loss of rental housing directly affects Vancouver’s poor, pushing people out the bottom. If more single family homes are allowed to fall into disrepair, and landlords let off the hook, more people will be forced into homelessness.