City officials say that despite a doubling in Vancouver's street homeless count this year, 150 low-cost units are sitting vacant because private owners would rather leave them empty than rent to the city's poor. The vacancies have angered city council.
Vancouver's 4,500 single-room-occupancy units are the city's housing of last resort. Dirty, cramped and often poorly maintained, the privately owned SROs are an assortment of old apartments and hotels that have housed the city's poorest for generations.
The lingering vacancies are a sign of changes that have swept through Vancouver's approach to homelessness. Over the past year the city has launched a database of bylaw violations to shame owners into fixing decrepit units. The repairs have added upward pressure to rents that are already being squeezed by the city's tight housing market.
The city's contention that 150 units are vacant is not uncontested. Geoffrey Howes denies that any units operated by one of the city's largest SRO networks, Living Balance, where he is a director, are vacant. Many of the units are advertised for rent online.
"The landlords just won't rent to low-income people," says Kerry Jang, the city councillor in charge of homelessness issues. According to Dr. Jang, renovations are partly to blame, as is a concern that mentally ill tenants will destroy the newly refurbished units.
"The argument is that they are trying to change the makeup of the building. The more you push out the poor, the more attractive it is to other people," he says.
Online listings show many newly renovated SROs are being offered as housing to students and hipsters. Once homes for the homeless, these units are now listed as artist studios or New York-style microapartments. The rents are far in excess of the $375 housing allowance provided by the province, often fetching more than $600.
Blair Hewitt, 61, has lived in an SRO for the past year and a half. Describing his 120-square-foot unit as a "firetrap and hellhole," he fought an eviction notice earlier this year. In January, new owners sent a crew to videotape his apartment and filed for his eviction, alleging messiness. His building is under heavy renovations from dawn to dusk daily.
"There's a kernel of good to SROs," he says. "But it's abusive to live there."
Local activists say they've heard rumours of the empty rooms and have asked the city to stop the evictions.
The Carnegie Community Action Project surveyed Vancouver housing in 2013 and found limited vacancies throughout the city. They found one vacant room being rented at the welfare rate – the room was the size of a single bed and had no windows.
Dr. Jang is the driving force behind the city's pledge to end street homelessness by 2015. While the number of street homeless counted during a one-day census in March increased to 538, double the previous year's tally, he blames the increase on snags in a municipal and provincial program to replace private SROs with new public housing.
The program's scope and budget are huge. In 2014, the city budgeted $209-million for housing meant to reduce homelessness. Split between the operating budget, the capital budget and large donations from the municipal land bank, the amount dwarfs nearly every line in the city's finances.
By the end of this year the city expects that 14 housing projects will be finished. Among those projects will be 586 units in new supportive housing.
One of the new buildings is the Kettle on Burrard Street, a 16-storey tower with 141 units ready to accept tenants by the end of May. Unlike the private SRO rooms housing people such as Mr. Hewitt, the colourful and airy apartments in the Kettle are 350 square feet.
The downtown building has community gardens, lounges, six terraces and a library equipped with an electric fireplace. Residents will have access to cooked meals, a clinic and full-time support staff.
"The SROs aren't safe and a lot of people just won't live in them. From the stories I hear, it's scary just to go into them. It isn't a long-term solution for most people," said Nancy Keough, executive director of the Kettle society. "This is what works."