The last stop before homelessness: SRO stock rapidly under threat

CCAP Report
CCAP 2013 Hotel Survey and Housing Report. Alexander Court is a gentrified hotel that is in the process of renovating and charging higher rents that people on welfare can’t afford.

The Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) has completed its yearly update on affordable housing in the Downtown Eastside. The sixth annual report, No Place To Go: Losing Affordable Housing & Community, written by Rory Sutherland, Jean Swanson and Tamara Herman, was released this week.

The study paints a bleak picture, pointing out that in addition to the hundreds left homeless in the Downtown Eastside (DTES), another 5,000 are on the brink of homelessness, living in cramped Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotel rooms. If the conditions weren’t bad enough – “no private kitchen or bathroom, and often poor management, mice, rats, cockroaches and bedbugs,” notes the report – its residents are increasingly at risk of being displaced.

Owners of these hotels are in the process of renovicting residents, looking to raise rents and profit from gentrification which is “driving up property values and property taxes” in the neighborhood. Increasingly too expensive for those on welfare, disability and basic pension, these buildings are gradually geared towards “students and workers, advertise online only, and have intensive screening processes designed to filter out low-income individuals.” Some owners have even begun asking for potential tenants’ LinkedIn profiles – one clear effort, among many, to weed out certain potential tenants.

One company, called Living Balance, has played a role in this process of making SRO’s primarily available for a different group of people. “Living Balance buys hotels, gets rid of tenants on welfare, upgrades slightly, then rents the rooms for higher rents,” says the report. “In fact, the Pivot Legal Society reported that a Living Balance Building manager used bribes and intimidation to force low-income residents out of their building. This allows the company to then raise the rents as much as it wants between occupancies.”

Despite frozen welfare rates, with provincial income-assistance rates remaining the same (at $610 per month) since 2007, rents are continuing to increase. The average rent increase has meant a climb from 61% to 73% of a person’s overall income going to rent. The percentage of hotel rooms where all rooms rent for $375 or less has quickly dropped from 29% in 2009 to 4% in 2013. In that time, the average lowest rents went up from $398 to $469. The authors point out that the growing number of rooms going for $500 could be a sign of more such things to come. “[T]he hotels that now have some high-rent rooms,” they write, “could be converting so that soon all rooms in these buildings will be renting for over $500.”

And now with the Local Area Plan (LAP), which the City expects to pass in March, the authors see little indication that things will improve for hotel room residents. The LAP, for instance, calls for combining SROs without kitchens and bathrooms with those that have them, ultimately reducing the number of units. It also fails to ensure that these “upgraded” units will be protected from further rent increases; and, as previously reported in The Mainlander, the LAP advocates the weakening and deregulation of existing SRO by-law.

This is all unfolding in the context of the City touting its inadequate efforts to build social housing while “over 200 SRO rooms were lost to higher rents this year”. The “rate of change”, or the rate of market housing development to social housing development, accelerates in favour of the former.

Making matters worse, even social housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable. Because the LAP defines social housing in a way that includes “affordable market rents” (over $1400 for a bachelor unit – essentially unaffordable to many current residents), of the 4,400 new social housing units the draft plan proposes to build, only 1,467 will be affordable to current SRO residents. Meanwhile, the draft plan proposes the construction of 11,850 market units in 30 years – making the rate of change nowhere near the City’s own Downtown Eastside Housing Plan’s call for a rate of one unit of market housing for every unit of social housing.

The draft plan also disingenuously promotes the arguments in favour of “social mix”. But, rather than the intrusion of higher-income people benefiting all residents with their supposed investments, an assumption which appeals to the discredited notions of trickle-down economics, the reality is this does little more than displace and further marginalize residents. And rather than being a sincere effort to mix disparate people, the authors of the CCAP report remind us that “Social mix is an approach that facilitates private profit for business owners, developers, homeowners and other wealthier residents.”

 In the face of all this, the hotel report concludes on a hopeful note, providing concrete recommendations. On the City level, this includes implementing the draft LAP’s proposal – which hasn’t been passed yet – for 60% social housing and 40% rental housing in the Oppenheimer District. CCAP’s report writers say the LAP should ensure there’s enough land to build 5,000 social housing units in the DTES. There should be a redefinition of social housing in a way that makes the units built more accessible to the most vulnerable. The landlords of these hotels should also be held accountable for the conditions of their hotels; and the profit-motive that’s compelled so many to upgrade units for the purpose of gaining higher rents should be curbed.