“Losing More Housing Than We Gain”: An Interview with Jean Swanson


Mainlander editor Nate Crompton sits down with Jean Swanson to discuss the loss of affordable housing in the Downtown Eastside and across Vancouver. Jean Swanson has been an anti-poverty and housing activist for almost 50 years, starting with her work with the Downtown Eastside Residents Association (DERA). From 2005-2017, Jean worked with Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) to protect low-income housing and improve conditions. As a COPE city councillor elected for one term in 2018, Jean introduced motions for increased tenant protections, social housing, decriminalizing poverty, and more.

NC: You have recently been drawing attention to the loss of modular housing units across Vancouver. These modulars seem to be closing rapidly, most recently at Larwill Place. What is happening at Larwill?

JS: First, a bit about the Temporary Modular Housing. Temporary applies to the land lease, not the buildings which can last up to 60 years. When we first got modular housing, the theory was that the units could be moved around when landowners wanted to do something else with the land. But now that’s considered “too expensive,” so BC Housing only wants to move them to permanent sites. In theory this could be good for the tenants if it actually happens, which is a big question mark. Second, back when I was on council the city signed an MOU with the province that said the city would provide land for housing for folks who are homeless. But that’s all being thrown into question with the new council, who seems to be preparing the argument that Vancouver has too much low-income housing. This was the gist of the recent City Council meeting on April 26 and it was disturbing to watch.

Where does Larwill fit into this?

Larwill is two buildings with a total of 98 units, and tenants have been given until July 31 to get out. It’s the site of the new Vancouver Art Gallery, and the city wants to put two office high-rises at one end of the huge lot. The big problem in my mind is that there doesn’t seem to be a plan to relocate the modules to another site in Vancouver. These are units with bathrooms and kitchenettes, way nicer than SRO’s. Lots of folks say they’ve won the lottery when they move in to a modular. Why am I scared that we’re losing this housing in the middle of a homelessness crisis. We already lost the 46 units at Little Mountain. Those units are apparently in storage! While people are sleeping on the street! It’s all so cruel and avoidable, because there are plenty of city-owned sites that could be used. The city also owns all the Easy Park parking lots, including a huge one at Renfrew and Hastings that is empty most of the time.

You estimate that 700 modulars are similarly at risk across Vancouver, is that correct?

Yes, more or less 700. There’s a list of them on the city website here. Most of them are on city-owned land and have an option to extend 5 more years. So at the end of that 5 years, that’s when the real loss could begin if there is no plan to relocate; many of them are already getting to the end of the 5 years. I mentioned the city council meeting of April 26. It seems to me like both staff and councillors are trying to make the argument, directed at the province, that land is too expensive in Vancouver for any more supportive housing and that Vancouver is already doing more than its share of taking care of people who are homeless compared to Burnaby, Surrey, etc. I hope this doesn’t lead to the city refusing to find land for the modulars but I fear that the council is setting up the framing for this type of argument.

There is also the announced closure of Aneki modular housing at Powell and Jackson streets, which will eventually be redeveloped. The site’s current 46 units will be replaced with yet another “social mix” project of so-called below market social housing, which means very expensive rental housing that a person making minimum wage would never be able to afford – in total, only 38 shelter rate units will be built. So another net loss! Atira has said they are “welcoming” this project. Why?

The city website says there are currently 39 units at Aneki. A city memo here says that site is being redeveloped into social housing with 114 “non market” units, 38 of which will be at shelter rate. To me the fact that it’s being redeveloped as social housing is good. I think we need to fight to increase the percent that rent at shelter rate and to find another site for the modules. In this sub-area of the DTES there’s at least a requirement that 30% of new social housing be at shelter rate, that’s something we fought for and won with the LAPP (Local Area Planning Process). It’s more than the zero percent required for the rest of the city. 

Are there any guarantees that Aneki won’t be like Little Mountain? They recently shut down the modular housing at Little Mountain, with still no plan to get the social housing built. Almost 15 years later and the Little Mountain site sits empty. 

From all my inquiries to the city and BC Housing, I would say there are no guarantees and the likelihood of us getting a new site for the modulars will depend on our community’s fight for a new site.

Let’s leave aside the issue of modulars and talk about the wider situation. The BCNDP has promised to keep corporate and income taxes way down at their historic lows, which means business as usual on the budget side – no big change to overall housing spending, with some marginal extra help from the feds. Can you talk about the new “social housing” that BCNDP is planning to build?

I’m disturbed that the NDP seems to have swallowed the “supply, supply, supply” Koolaid. Their idea is that if cities allow developers to build expensive apartment buildings in single family areas, rents will magically come down. I can’t imagine why developers who are always complaining about costs would build if they know rents will come down. They wouldn’t be able to get financing. It doesn’t make sense to me. And people who are renting and have low incomes can’t wait 30-40 years for rents to become reasonable, if that would actually happen. The key, in my mind, is to tax the rich and build thousands of units of social housing that very low-income people can afford, also people in the under $80K/year income range.

Another thing the government could do that would help a lot is bring in vacancy control so landlords wouldn’t be able to raise rents as much as they like when a tenant leaves. Every year the CMHC does a study of rents in purpose built rentals and last year they found that the average rent in occupied Vancouver apartments was about $800 a month less than in vacant apartments! This is huge! They surveyed just over 60,000 apartments and said there was a turnover rate of about 10.8% so that means we’re losing an average of $800 a month (almost $10,000 a year!) in affordability in about 6,000 apartments a year. This doesn’t count the affordability we’re losing in rented condos or basement suites. If this affordability was maintained by vacancy control, there wouldn’t be so many customers for gentrifying SROs.  It would cost governments literally billions every year to replace that amount of lost affordability with new social housing.

Meanwhile the SROs are closing at an alarming rate through fires, conversions, and mass evictions. You used to help track the loss of SROs through the annual CCAP (Carnegie Community Action Project) surveys, but that invaluable initiative was discontinued a few years ago. Can you give us a picture of the current rate of SRO loss?

It’s hard to get an exact number. The city says there are about 3,700 open units in privately owned SROs. They also say that whenever a new owner buys a building the rents go up 6 times faster than if the building is not sold. Whenever an SRO tenant leaves or dies, the rent in that unit, in my experience, goes up dramatically. The city says about a third of the privately owned hotels were sold between 2010 and 2019, that’s 39 buildings lost for low income folks. I’m sure more have been sold since then with corresponding rent increases. This is why we need vacancy control in the SROs. The city was all ready to implement it when the landlords took the city to court and won. So now the case is being appealed and is supposed to go to court this spring.  So the city could win and in that case we’d still have to find out if this current council would implement vacancy control. Or the city could lose. Maybe the province would implement it if this happened. 

The journalist Dan Fumano has recently reported that there are at least three buildings currently undergoing mass evictions in the DTES, totalling 167 units. The evictions are all illegal and the City is apparently “aware” of the situation. What’s tragi-comic is that among the “social housing” planned for completion by 2028 in Vancouver, only 210 of these will be at shelter rate. So in a matter of a few months, we’re losing what will take five years to replace. Obviously homelessness will just keep getting worse. 

We are losing a lot of low-income units to fires, to rent increases, to demolitions for redevelopment, to scuzzy landlords who take advantage of vulnerable tenants to just lock them out (like at the Melville Rooms just recently), and because leases on the temporary modulars aren’t being renewed (unless we can stop this). BC Housing told me that there are 1,100 units of shelter rate housing in the works for Vancouver at some point in the future. When I add up all the shelter rate units in the city memo it’s close to that, 1,068. That’s until about 2030! Some may never get the rezoning or the financing they need. And the province just announced that it bought Chalmers Lodge on 12th for shelter rate housing and that’s not included in those tallies. But by 2030 we’ll have probably lost all the privately owned SROs to rent increases if we don’t get rent control, as well as the modulars, if the city doesn’t provide land, so that means we’ll have fewer shelter rate units than now and won’t be making a dent in homelessness.  

It seems like the gentrification of the SROs is the de facto government policy. Eby recently said he wants to “get rid of the SROs,” he made a similar statement in 2021. It’s of a piece with his attack on tent cities. You can call tent cities “unsafe” in some abstract way, but what alternative is the province offering? What glorious “safe” alternative is awaiting these people caught up in the VPD’s street sweeps? Absolutely nothing.

One easy way to increase the number of units available for people who are homeless would be for the province to fund and require non-profit housing providers to increase the percentage of shelter rate units in their buildings. For example, in the DTES only one third of units have to be at shelter rate. In the rest of the city you can have “social housing” with zero shelter rate units. So if that percentage was increased in the DTES and the rest of the city, we could get a lot more units for folks who are homeless. The SRO Collaborative has a great plan to create a Community Land Trust to buy up some of the privately owned hotels, get grants to upgrade them and use a tenant-led organizing model to run them. If governments would fund this, that could help save some.

There is news that the provincial government is going to finally increase the shelter rate portion of social assistance, bringing it up to $500/month. Average monthly rents in Vancouver are four times that so it’s obviously insufficient, but perhaps the bigger problem is that Vancouver has no vacancy control, which means no genuine rent control. In other words, slumlords and SRO owners can just claw back the shelter rate increase through more rent increases – I’ve seen this happen myself, during the last cycle of shelter allowance increases. This is exactly what the development industry has asked for. Why does the provincial government keep catering to their needs?

I was at a town hall hosted by Dave Eby a couple weeks ago and someone asked why he didn’t bring in vacancy control and he said, this is a paraphrase, because the landlords said they won’t build any housing if we do. To which Kari Michaels of the BCGEU said, and this isn’t a paraphrase, “Call their bluff.” She got a huge cheer. Maybe the government is so absorbed by the supply supply supply theory that they believe what the landlords say. I remember back in the 70’s when DERA was fighting to get sprinklers in the hotels to save lives from fires. An average of 7 people a year in SROs were dying from fires. The hotel owners said oh we can’t possibly afford sprinklers, we’d have to close. The city called their bluff. They didn’t close and lives were saved.

That said, I don’t know of any private rents that are below $500 now so I don’t think the increase to the shelter rate will result in rent increases and might give folks in privately owned SROs who are paying rent out of their support portion a bit more spending money. It does depend on tenants knowing their rights though and being able to fight a landlord who may take advantage of vulnerability to raise rents.