Renewed urgency to improve DTES housing conditions

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. Justice demands that the City enforce building bylaws as rigourously in the DTES as in Shaughnessy. To this end, the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council (DNC) is calling for the creation of an “independent SRO conditions enforcement group,” and for inspection reports to be made public, especially to tenants.

In the case of the Wonder and Palace hotels, the 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 money to incentivize construction of 7,000 affordable units throughout the city.

Tenants themselves are also standing up for themselves. Today, June 29, tenants of the Palace and Wonder hotels launched a class-action lawsuit against the hotels owners. The suit, filed with the assistance of the DNC and PIVOT Legal Society, seeks damages for the debasing living conditions tenants have endured. There is also increasing talk in the community of organizing tenants unions.

In the medium term, it will be necessary for governments to purchase or expropriate the remaining 3,500 SRO units to improve their conditions, and in particular to secure the land to safeguard against speculation and gentrification. In the longer term, the City should build 800 new units of social housing per year throughout Vancouver, as outlined in its Homeless Action Plan. The DNC is calling for 10 sites to be bought each year in the DTES for the purpose of social housing.

As we hear delegations to City Council tomorrow about the unconscionable living conditions in the Wonder and Palace hotels, let us recognize that these are not exceptions, but the rule. And let us recall the larger goal: we need appropriate homes for all within the next ten years, if not sooner. And to do so, we must be moved by the fierce urgency of the situation.