Vision Vancouver’s proposal for an online apartment database is intended to pressure negligent landlords to clean up their act.
But Downtown Eastside housing activists are worried that forced renovations in single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels could result in higher rents, evictions and a loss of low-income housing units.
The proposed database is based on a successful model from New York, said Vision incumbent candidate Kerry Jang.
It will compile information about landlord-operated buildings, including inspection reports and work orders, and map them online building by building.
The database is a key facet of Vision’s plan to strengthen renters’ rights. Jang said it will allow prospective renters to “find a bad landlord” and “avoid them.”
Andrea Reimer, another Vision incumbent candidate, said the database will also aid renters since “public shame is a very powerful motivator.” If people are aware of how poorly cared for a building is, it might “prompt [landlords] to action they might not otherwise have taken.”
Database’s potential role in the DTES
Housing advocates see both potential and drawbacks in the database.
Ivan Drury, an elected member of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council, acknowledges that the database could be a useful tool.
Drury frequently meets with, and advocates on behalf of, DTES SRO tenants. He compared an online landlord database to making restaurant inspection reports public, since they are both matters of “public interest.”
However, he believes the database has the ability to empower SRO tenants as they “are people who have almost no agency as far as choosing their housing is concerned.”
Being able to have easy access to inspection report means tenants could use the information as evidence when making claims of negligence against their landlords, he said.
Listen: Drury describes the worst conditions he’s seen in an SRO (0:53)
[audio:https://thethunderbird.ca/files/2011/11/Ivan-Drury-database.mp3|titles=Ivan Drury talks about his worst SRO experience]
Jamie Richardson, who has lived in DTES SROs for almost 15 years, frequently finds himself battling with landlords for better housing conditions.
He likes the idea of a database, because he believes “we need more transparency when it comes to SRO hotels and what orders the landlords and owners of SROs are under. That way, it can be a little easier to [enforce] compliance with city bylaws.”
Although Richardson supports the database, he’s not optimistic about it being implemented.
It’s “still a lot of talk, and it’s not any action,” he said. “If we don’t have the right parties elected at city hall, who knows if it could ever come to fruition.”
Joe Carangi, an NPA candidate for city council who has represented SRO tenants as a lawyer, is skeptical about the database’s viability.
“You’re telling me someone who’s living in the Downtown Eastside will be able to access computer records?” he asked. “You need someone who can advocate on their behalf. Without that, all this stuff is useless.”
Unintended consequences of forced renovations
Despite seeing the database as a potentially useful legal tool, Drury and Richardson are concerned that forcing landlords to improve SRO conditions may result in higher rents.
Richardson said that has already happened at the American Hotel and the Lotus Hotel.
The landlord shut them down “on the auspices of upgrading the rooms, and then re-rented (them) at rates that we cannot afford,” he said. Rooms that were previously rented at “$400 a month or less, were now renting out … for $800 and up.”
“The city has not developed the mechanisms they need to ensure that upgrades do not equal up scaling,” said Drury. He is trying to pressure city council to change the definition of “conversion” – how a room or building becomes a different type of residence – in the Single Room Accommodation bylaw.
Right now, the definition does not include rent hikes. Drury said specifying that conversion also means raising the monthly rent above $375 a month – the current welfare rate – would force landlords to go through an application process to justify the increase.
“Neither of the mayoral candidates have agreed to do this,” he said, even though “it will cost the taxpayers nothing and it will go a long way towards protecting the low-income housing stock in this city.”
“I’m happy that Vision’s doing [the database], but … will they support tenant rights and security against evictions?” he asked. “If they [don’t], all of the work they’re doing to improve conditions in the hotels is going to be for people who are not currently residents of those hotels.”
Vision’s Reimer said that numerous challenges, including mental health and addiction, “complicate” the fight for improved SRO conditions.
She was unwilling to say what she believes the solution is, but hopes that the SRO task force set up by this council will figure out how to provide both housing security and livable conditions for DTES residents.