Apr. 26, 2016 – Check Your Head (with Video)
Vancouver’s landscape is changing as glassy towers rise from the rubble of what was once affordable housing. People are being displaced at astounding rates as housing costs in parts of the city have increased by 300 per cent in the last twelve years. Local activists say that low-income people in Vancouver are experiencing a “housing crisis.” As of March 2016 the average rental cost for a one bedroom apartment in Vancouver is $1079 dollars, while folks living on welfare receive as little at $610 a month. To make matters worse, Vancouver’s housing vacancy rate has been plummeting, making it even harder for low-income people to find affordable units in the city. Vancouver’s low-income neighborhoods, the Downtown Eastside (DTES), Chinatown and Strathcona, have become the epicenter of the city’s housing crisis; where ramshackle hotels sit beside shiny minimalist condominiums and trendy cafes. Once a haven for low-income residents, the neighborhood is now seeing a decline in “welfare rate” housing coinciding with a marked increase in upscale developments. This is happening alongside a pattern of gentrification in Vancouver, wherein middle to upper-class people move into low-income neighbourhoods subsequently increasing property values. The process is essentially carving up “zones of exclusion” in the neighborhood, as longtime low-income residents can not afford to enter these newly gentrified spaces.
The growing trend of gentrification is especially worrying when one considers the scale of poverty and homelessness in BC. The Alliance Against Displacement Research Committee of Social Housing Coalitionestimates that at least 116,000 people are experiencing a housing crisis. Of those, approximately 11,000 people are visibly homeless, 40,000 are “hidden” homeless (sleeping with friends, in cars etc.) and 65,000 are at risk of homelessness, spending more than 50 per cent of their income on rent, many living in substandard housing conditions. According to this study, BC’s homeless population includes “aboriginal people, seniors, people who work, immigrants and people without citizenship status, single parents, couples with children, people with mental and physical disabilities,” among others. Research indicates that people of color are at greater risk of homelessness than white folks. Aboriginal people face homelessness more than any other group. Migrants, whether they are living with or without citizenship status, and LGBT2QI people also experience a heightened risk of homelessness.
The Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) has been conducting research and advocacy work in the DTES for over nineteen years. It uses a participatory action research model conducted by and for low-income residents of the DTES. Jean Swanson, a coordinator for the CCAP, explains that “[residents] decide what the questions are, they conduct it and they decide what to do with the results.” According to Jean there are 836 visibly homeless people in the DTES, with thousands more experiencing substandard housing in single resident occupancy (SRO) hotels. And the present climate is causing these numbers to increase.
The CCAP releases yearly reports on the state of SROs, and in 2010 it released a comprehensive survey of community needs and demands. “We did this two year project of community visioning, where we came up with our community vision for change. We talked to about 1200 low-income people in the neighborhood and we came up with what they wanted to see in the neighborhood which was basically, more social housing, higher welfare rates, and stopping gentrification, which is what our goals are now,” says Jean.
Longtime DTES resident and activist, Wendy Pedersen, agrees that a lack of government-built social housing is to blame for the current crisis. “Right now our three levels of government just build supportive housing and not very much of it and they aren’t building purpose built public housing for people who are very low income or low income anymore” she says. The Alliance Against Displacement, another organization leading the fight for more social housing, defines such housing as “non-institutional housing that is owned by the government, a non-profit group or a co-op.” Under the Alliance’s definition, social housing cannot be run for profit and must be available for folks with a very low income. Furthermore, the Alliance believes rent costs should not exceed 30 per cent of a resident’s income or the “welfare/shelter” rate for those with no income.
According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), BC’s Liberal government has responded to the crisis by enhancing rental assistance supplements, creating new emergency shelter beds, and purchasing existing SRO hotels. Additionally, the provincial government has recently changed its definition of social housing to include measures which incentivize the development of “affordable” market social housing. However, affordability in these social housing developments is questionable with rents being capped at an astounding rate of $1,443 per month for a studio. In fact, between 2005 and 2010, only 280 government funded social housing units were built. A further study conducted by the CCPA found that 13,400 people were placed on a waiting list for social housing in BC in 2008 alone, indicating a clear need for more social housing in the province as these numbers are likely to increase with population growth.
Meanwhile, welfare rates have not budged in over eight years, despite skyrocketing rent prices. According to Jean, welfare rates today have significantly less purchasing power than they did in the 1970s and 80s: “Back then welfare was high enough that you could rent a place, if you were on welfare. Now you can’t unless its social housing.” To protest low welfare rates, residents and allies will be gathering for a march on April 1st, the ninth anniversary without an increase in welfare rates.
Due to the of the overwhelming lack of affordable non-market social housing in Vancouver, many low-income residents are forced to seek refuge in SRO units of old hotels. SRO units are usually ten by ten foot rooms without kitchens or private bathrooms. They are constantly in the headlines due to some hotels’ deplorable conditions. Rodent and cockroach infestations, unusable washrooms, fire safety hazards, and a lack of heating during the winter months are just some of the issues SRO residents encounter. Residents living with disabilities encounter additional barriers and risks due to broken elevators. “Nobody should have to live in an SRO. There’s no kitchen, there’s no bathroom, there are bugs etc.,” says Jean.
She notes that SROs are often unsafe for women: “You have to leave your room to go to the washroom, and there are strangers using the same washroom.” She also indicates that management of SROs may racially discriminate against potential tenants. Referring to research conducted for past hotel reports using a “mystery shopper” method, Jean remarks that “In some years we’ve gone back twice once with a person of color and once with a white person to see if we get different rents or different vacancies. We do sometimes.”
Hotel landlords, often referred to as “slumlords,“ are accused of severely neglecting maintenance responsibilities and even harassing tenants to deter them from filing complaints. When much needed renovations do occur, they bring with them the risk of “renoviction,” wherein developers buy up SRO hotels, renovate them, and increase rents beyond what is affordable to low-income people, evicting tenants in the process. “They use various excuses to get rid of them. People don’t know what their rights are so they are afraid and they think they have to go. They get evicted, legally or illegally, and some of them get paid off,” says Jean. However, even the most dilapidated of SROs are becoming unaffordable for current residents because market driven rent prices have been increasing in order to keep up with inflated rent prices throughout the city. In 2014, only four per cent of SROs in Vancouver rented all of their rooms at or below the “welfare/shelter” rate of $375 per month. This marks a five per cent decrease from the previous year. Jean says these increases are linked to city-wide trends of gentrification, remarking that “If the housing situation wasn’t so bad in the rest of Vancouver, landlords wouldn’t be able to get a thousand dollars a month for a ten by ten room with no kitchen and a bathroom down the hall.”
One group mobilizing to improve affordability and habitability in SROs is the DTES SRO Collaborative. Wendy Pedersen organized the collaborative with other DTES activists after being inspired by a similar initiative in San Francisco. “I have a friend from San Francisco, Richard Marquet, who started something called a collaborative, in the mission district of San Francisco,” she says. “He told me that we needed to have this model of organizing here, and so it took me a few years to figure it out, investigate and then realize that it’s a great model for the Downtown Eastside.” Pedersen believes the best solution to the housing crisis is more non-market social housing, but she stresses the continuing need for SROs which she calls “the last stop before homelessness.” “If we lose this housing stock,” she says, “there’s no other place for people to go other than shelters and the street, because our governments don’t build social housing for people who are poor anymore in any great numbers, so unfortunately we have to hold onto these hotels.”
The SRO Collaborative focuses on empowering SRO tenants with the tools to organize within SROs on their own behalf. “Our focus is on leadership development–teaching tenants how to legally make complaints and preparing them for inevitable landlord backlash,” says Wendy. So far the Collaborative has supported campaigns in four SROs: the West Hotel, the Lion, the Regent and the Balmoral. When asked how residents feel about the Collaborative’s presence, Wendy remarks “We’ve helped tenants win thousands of dollars in compensation for poor maintenance conditions or maintenance violations so they’re pretty happy. We’ve also improved habitability in several SROs.”
So how can young people from around Vancouver get involved with this issue? Anyone can volunteer for organizations like the DTES SRO Collaborative and Youth CCAP. Although, Wendy notes the housing crisis is not limited to the DTES and that mobilization is needed throughout the Vancouver area.
Wendy posits that organizing around “cultural identities,” as we have seen in other cities, can help create a stronger renters’ movement in Vancouver. She encourages young people to create new projects and initiatives by seeking inspiration from other successful efforts in cities across North America.