‘They still house people’: Renovated SROs are welcomed as part of the DTES plan, but advocates call for more – BC

Some tenants and housing advocates are welcoming news of renovated single-room occupancy suites as part of a plan to address the Downtown Eastside’s housing crisis, but are calling for a more sustainable long-term approach.

According to the Ministry of Housing, 241 newly-renovated SRO units are set to become available by the end of June. The units will be funded by BC Housing and operated by non-profit partners.

“These places may be 100 years old, but they still house people, they house a whole community,” said Richard Schwab, a longtime resident of DTES SROs, in a statement to Global News.

“You can’t invest in it, we aren’t able to make enough housing at the time it is needed for people on income assistance.”

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Single-room occupancy hotels are notorious in Vancouver, with tenants having repeatedly complained about poor living conditions and a failure on the part of owners and operators to make much-needed repairs. Global News has previously reported on buildings that have had no heat in the winter, or a number of other “deplorable” health and safety issues.

There were also multiple fatal SRO fires in 2022.

“It is without question that it is not an ideal form of housing,” the Vancouver Coun. Rebecca Bligh said in an interview.

“We are keeping our minds to the fact that there have been some very disruptive SRO activations over the last couple of years for communities, and we know that that cannot be something that is a result of this announcement,” he added.

“But I believe that the province is very tuned in to what those issues and concerns are.”

Click to play video: 'BC Housing forensic audit'

BC Housing forensic audit

In January, Premier David Eby said SROs must be “phased out” and replaced with “dignified housing.” Asked by Global News how the province will prevent disaster and disrepair in the newly-renovated SROs, Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon acknowledged the challenges.

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“I’ve been meeting with advocates who tell me that folks who are struggling are not hard to house, but they can be hard on housing. That’s what I’ve heard over and over again,” he said Tuesday.

“So it’s critically important for us to ensure that the units are in good condition, and then when they have challenges, when they have issues, find ways to support the not-for-profits … to renovate, fix those units up. We’ve actually got significant dollars where we are doing that work.”

Kahlon said the province is tearing down buildings that need to be torn down and only renovating those buildings in a decent shape. The ultimate goal, he added, is to get people into more sustainable, supportive long-term housing.

Bligh said she’s pleased to see the province take a “fairly assertive and accountable role.”

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Tom de Grey, who has lived in SROs for more than 18 years, said he supported the renovation of existing SRO units, but agreed they must be phased out.

“We live in an absolutely rich country with a very small population. Seeing someone lying on the sidewalk in the rain shocks me,” he said.

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“Though the SRO housing stock should be phased out, a new proper building took five or seven years to plan and construct, and we did not have that kind of time. We must renovate the stock we have, and then slowly work to convert it to a modern standard over time.”

Click to play video: 'Province pushing Vancouver to speed up housing'

Province pushing Vancouver to speed up housing

The SRO announcement came as part of a commitment to bring 330 new units of supportive housing to DTES residents by the end of June. Eighty-nine units will be supportive housing in a pair of temporary modular housing buildings opening this spring on Western and Ash streets.

Jean Swanson, a former Vancouver councilor and social justice activist, said the announcement was “better than nothing,” adding SROs “don’t have to be awful.” She acknowledged the providers who run them have a “tough job.”

“If they have good management, they can be better than nothing,” she said. “What we really need is nice apartments with bathrooms and kitchens that everyone can afford.”

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According to the Ministry of Housing, BC Housing “isn’t on a stage yet where they can announce operators” of the SROs.

“No matter who is responsible for operations and management of SROs, allowing tenants to have control over their own units and buildings not only ensures that investments are sustainable, but that people can find a sense of home and community in their buildings,” said Daniela Aiello, Right to Remain collective member and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Victoria School of Public Health and Social Policy.

“Any investment must be an investment in tenants – the people – not the bricks and mortar. We have seen first hand the difference it makes to improve the habitability of SROs for the people in them, but only when tenants have a meaningful say in where and how those funds are directed.”

Schwab agreed.

“Buildings need tenant-led advisory committees. We can manage our own buildings, in fact, we are already doing it,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Tracking Eby's promise to transform Vancouver's Downtown Eastside'

Tracking Eby’s promise to transform Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

Kahlon said the province works with partners, including the SRO Collaborative, to ensure tenants “have a voice” and an opportunity to be part of decision-making in the buildings.

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“Certainly those who are connected to BC Housing have more opportunities. Those that are on the private side often have additional challenges and that’s something that we’ve been hearing often,” he explained. “We, right now, are actually doing a review of some of those SRO roles through BC Housing.”

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SRO’s house thousands of people in Vancouver.

In its DTES Provincial Partnership Plan published this month, the ministry said BC Housing, the City of Vancouver, and Vancouver Fire Rescue Services will be tracking fire data, addressing fire code violations, providing fire prevention support and education, training peer captains and increasing safety inspections in the coming months to improve overall health and safety.

The plan recognizes that for many, “self-contained modular units with supports are preferable to SROs or shelter options.”

Click to play video: 'Open House: Modular home construction'

Open House: Modular home construction

While the province is working to bring the newly-promised units online, Swanson and Aiello expressed concern about a number of modular units that are slated to disappear in Vancouver this summer. Ninety-eight units with bathrooms at kitchenettes at Larwill Place on Cambie Street will be closing after July 31 due to the lease on site expiring and plans for redevelopment.

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Swanson wrote about the upcoming lease expiration in an article for The Tyee, and said it is an issue that needs to be addressed urgently.

“I think it’s really, really important that we find other sites for that good housing so that we can maintain a net increase in housing, and not always be losing housing while we’re having to build new,” she said.

“The (units) have to be moved, and that costs money, but it probably costs a tenth as much as building new, and the units could last for 40 to 60 years.”

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In an emailed statement, BC Housing said all residents of Larwill Place were notified of the closure last year and will be notified again at the end of the month. Individual relocation plans are in the works, it added.

“We are also committed to making sure that all current residents have a place, or at least the option to move to a new place when these units are closed,” BC Housing wrote Wednesday.

It said work is underway to develop the “best use” of the modular units at Larwill Place once they are moved and “further information on future plans will be made public once they have been finalized.”

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“We are developing long-term plans for all the temporary modular sites in Vancouver and are committed to ensuring people in supportive housing remain in their units, without disruption, wherever possible.”

Asked whether there is an acceptable amount of time for those modular units to sit vacant while their future plans are finalized, Kahlon said the province does not leave “units empty as we have them.” He said his focus remains on “the people in the units” and ensuring they have somewhere to live.

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