It seemed like a good fit. Living near some of Vancouver’s most interesting neighbourhoods, Parker would be a short walk from the Sunrise Market, Bean Brothers, Big Lou’s Butcher, Crab Park and a number of other spots that she now frequents. Not to mention the rent: $550 per month.
What she did not know was that the York Rooms traditionally housed some of Vancouver’s poorest, and she now worries that her presence is displacing them.
“My neighbours are changing,” said Parker. “I’ve been hearing some troubling things since I moved in. That the owner of this place is some guy moving in young yuppies and kicking out the grandfathered tenants. I didn’t know this until I moved in, and I don’t think I would have moved in if I did.”
Parker represents a new kind of tenant that is being lured into Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside: young, educated, indebted—and looking for affordable rent. As developers renovate their buildings to suit these new clients, community activists worry that the neighbourhood’s poorest will lose vital housing options.
The York Rooms is known in planner-speak as a single-room accommodation, or an SRA, building. SRAs (sometimes called SROs, for single-room occupancy) rent units 320 square feet or less — the size of a small hotel room. There are 172 such buildings in Vancouver, all in the downtown core. Most have shared bathrooms.
SRAs were once considered Vancouver’s most squalid housing options, only suitable for those who would otherwise be homeless. However, over the last few years, many SRAs have been renovated for a new kind of clientele.
Parker discovered the building through a Craigslist advertisement, which marketed the room as a micro-suite perfect for an artist. The building also has a Tumblr page, featuring pictures of stylish clothing pinned down the side bar, including a page with instructions for creating “DIY boot socks.”
These advertisements fit a broader trend of SRA buildings marketing to hip Vancouverites who want to live in the city’s trendiest neighbourhoods.
A Craigslist page for a SRA room on Main Street promises one month free rent to tenants who can “help us change the vibe,” and it encourages “musicians, artists, and students” to apply. Another listing, for a room in a “trendy Gastown building,” describes itself as “New York or Paris Style,” with “hand selected guests” so that tenants can have “classy neighbours.”
The owner of the York Rooms is a corporation called Living Balance, run by controversial developer Steven Lippman. Lippman’s SRA purchases have been met with demonstrations from anti-gentrification activists.
Living Balance offers a new vision of urban living for an underserved population, says the group’s creative director, Anah Teele.
“There’s a new poverty that is unrecognized,” says Teele. “It’s only been 15 years since everyone has been getting talked into getting a university degree, and coming out with little more than huge debt loads.”
“When they move in, they are making decisions contrary to the mainstream—the ‘grownup vision’ of getting a job, getting married, and having a big house. Our tenants are intentionally choosing a new lifestyle,” she says, “and they are being measured by what is an old playbook.”
“We understand there are challenges to this lifestyle that we offer—and we really do describe it as a lifestyle, but I am hearing a lot of feedback from tenants saying: ‘It feels like a real home here.’”
One Living Balance building is experimenting with a weekly music hour, where tenants can bring instruments and play with their neighbours. Teele hopes to expand this project, and other communal activities, to more Living Balance buildings.
“This isn’t a normal apartment building. We thrive on community. The more we can create community engagement, the more we can thrive,” she added.
But Rory Sutherland of the Carnegie Community Action Project disagrees with the premise.
“That ignores the point that there is already a very vibrant community that exists in the DTES,” he says. “And what they’re doing is breaking up that community.”
The Carnegie Community Action Project is an advocacy organization that works on housing and homelessness in the neighbourhood.
“It’s marketing,” claims Sutherland, “They’re renting places in what used to be considered a low-income slum by the rest of the city. They’re trying to rebrand them, so that they can take a room that was $400 and turn around and rent it for $700.”
According to Carnagie’s recent survey, the average rents have jumped in each of the five years since they began the survey. Over the past year, the average rose from $452 to $469.
“When we started doing this survey in 2009,” said Sutherland, “we found 777 rooms at the $375 welfare shelter allowance. This year, we found there were only 126.”
Sutherland says the $375 benchmark is important for Vancouver’s poorest. For those on the basic social assistance of $610 per month, a $469 rent would only leave them with $141 each month. In some of the recently renovated buildings — like the Lotus Rooms, the York Rooms, the West, and others — room rent for new tenants ranges from $550 to $800 per month.
In 2009, the report claims, 29 per cent of SRA buildings rented all their rooms at the shelter allowance of $375. Today, that number has shrunk to four per cent, or 126 rooms. None of those rooms are currently vacant.
The City of Vancouver has identified SRA affordability and SRA improvement as two key issue in the recently-approved Local Area Plan for the Downtown Eastside. Two additional bylaws — one to encourage the creation of micro dwellings, and one to encourage the renovation of all Vancouver SRAs — were approved on April 1st.
Local activists have been very critical of the Living Balance, arguing that their pattern of renovating SRAs and developing high-end retail in the space below gentrifies the neighbourhood. Last summer, seven tenants of the York rooms claimed that they were threatened with eviction over trivial reasons like using the wrong exit.
At a press conference organized by Pivot legal Society, some alleged that they were offered bribes to leave. However, the allegations of unfair evictions are unproven. Living Balance has denied them. They maintain that the only people who were evicted were drug dealers.
Tenants that pre-date Living Balance have the right to remain in their rooms at the grandfathered rent of around $400, with minor annual increases.
However, Living Balance can charge new tenants as much as the market will bear. According to Carnagie, that ranges from $550 to $800 in their various properties.
The city’s SRA improvement bylaw (#8733) does not stipulate that rents must remain at the pre-renovation levels. However, the council or the chief housing officer may ask for a housing agreement that could include an arrangement to secure a particular rental rate.
The plan’s affordability targets is to keep one-third of the upgraded rooms at the welfare shelter component, 1/3rd at the average rent of all SRAs, and one third at anywhere above the average rent.
Parker is happy with her room. It is economically organized to fit a single bed, narrow desk, and small kitchenette. “I’m not that into things,” she says, describing herself as a transient person who lived out of a suitcase prior to the York Rooms.
However, she still worries what effect her landlord is having on the neighbourhood. “I think he tries his best to kick people out,” says Parker.
Over the last month, she saw two notices of eviction on her floor, and she believes that they are likely grandfathered tenants.
“Shit, now I’m one of the bad guys?,” she added. Parker says she would consider moving out, if her worst fears were confirmed. “I do and will continue to feel guilty; I don’t like the idea of being a cog in an evil machine, if that’s what it turns out to be.”