City of Vancouver proposes $1 billion acquisition of SROs for the homeless

Oct 7 2020, 9:39 am

The City of Vancouver says it has been engaged in discussions with the provincial and federal governments on a joint investment partnership to acquire single-room occupancy (SROs) properties for an estimated $1 billion.

According to a new city staff report, the SRO Revitalization Strategy aligns with the municipal government’s broader strategy of replacing outdated, if not dilapidated, SRO hotels with new self-contained social housing that rent at the shelter component of income assistance.

Due to the lack of investment from senior governments for shelter rate social housing, health, and social supports, city staff assert existing SROs “continue to play an important role for low-income residents and, as such, must be protected and retained to prevent continued increases in homelessness.” Many of the Downtown Eastside’s 7,000 residents live in SROs.

The partnership with senior governments would acquire and secure up to 105 privately owned SRO buildings. Under government ownership, they will be protected as social housing.

Other programs under the partnership would renovate or redevelop about 2,500 rooms into self-contained social housing, and provide private SRO owners with assistance to improve about 1,300 rooms and secure affordability.

“Deployment of a funding and investment strategy would be informed by a number of factors, including the size of the existing building, previous investments, existing affordability levels, heritage implications and building history,” reads the report.

City staff state privately owned SROs vary widely with rents, level of tenant needs, management practices, and physical conditions. SROs are tiny rooms usually with shared bathrooms and cooking facilities and are difficult to optimally maintain and manage with rents affordable to very low-income people without a government subsidy.

Many SROs are in 100-year-old heritage buildings, which may be cost prohibitive for private owners to upgrade. There has also been an increase in private investors who buy SROs in strategic locations on a speculative basis or to maximize revenue from the commercial or retail space.

This results in “disinvestment and unmet health needs in the most affordable SRO buildings, leading to deteriorating and unsafe conditions, and loss of affordability and displacement of low-income residents in the more well maintained buildings.”

“Generally, the worst SROs have lower rents, more frequent violations, and house lower-income and often more marginalized tenants. Where disinvestment is coupled with poor management practices, criminal activity, a lack of responsiveness by owners, and few to no tenant supports, the risk to both the buildings’ physical condition and the health and safety of its tenants is compounded,” continues the report.

There were about 6,680 open SRO rooms in downtown Vancouver in 2019, with 55% privately owned and the remaining 45% owned and operated by government or a non-profit. There are also 732 rooms across 10 buildings that are currently closed.

In recent years, investment by governments has secured the tenure and affordability of 58 SRO buildings with about 3,000 rooms. Furthermore, between 2007 and 2011, BC Housing purchased and substantially renovated 13 buildings with approximately 900 rooms.

The remaining 45 non-market buildings with about 2,100 rooms owned by government, non-profits, or Chinese Benevolent societies are in need of renovation or a complete redevelopment.

Another 99 buildings with nearly 3,700 rooms remain under private ownership, varying in condition.

Other SROs recommendations made by city staff in the report include monitoring the rent changes in the private and unsecured properties, advocating the provincial government to slow rent increases, and increasing renter protections.

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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