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Saving the Shitholes

By Sean Condon

Tuesday April 24, 2007

Hotels are cheap on Baltic Avenue

You can almost hear Gordon Campbell and the BC Liberals celebrating during a late-night game of soggy biscuit, “We saved the shitholes! We bought 10 of the worst hotels in the Downtown Eastside! More tax cuts for the rich! Who’s going to eat the cracker? Mayencourt? Again? It’s almost like he’s trying to lose!”

Earlier this month, the BC Liberals surprised everyone when they announced they had spent roughly $45 million secretly buying 10 Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels in the Downtown Eastside (roughly $4 million each). The deal was part of an $80 million investment into affordable housing in Vancouver, Victoria and Burnaby, and will protect 595 of the smallest, most drug-riddled, insect-infested rooms in Canada’s poorest postal code.

Over the past two years, SROs have been falling like dominos as slumlords realise it’s prime time to cash in on the neighbourhood’s gentrification. Following a wave of evictions, more than 800 units of low-income housing have been lost as a string of SROs have been converted into student housing, closed so they can be developed into condominiums and boutique hotels, or shut down by the city under suspect circumstances.

While SROs are shitholes, they are a crucial stopgap in preventing homelessness. In a city where the average one-bedroom is almost $1,000 a month, a cheap SRO room is the only option for some. With well over 1,200 homeless in Vancouver and 5,000 SRO rooms in the Downtown Eastside, the more of these rooms that get closed, the worse the city’s homeless crisis gets.

At this month’s circle jerk (press conference), the Liberals let the city know what a wonderful thing they had done. But the most glowing ball suck (comment) came from Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan who incredulously said: “We have the largest commitment to social housing in history. I think today is the day we begin to turn the tide on homelessness. This is a wonderful day.”

Considering Sullivan has failed to uphold the city’s commitment to create 800 units of social housing and buy one SRO every year, and considering he had voted down a proposed moratorium on SRO conversions, yes, it was a wonderful day‚Ķ for him. Let’s call it Campbell Saved Sullivan’s Pale White Ass Day. Giddy with excitement, Sullivan offered to give the province $5 million to help pay with upgrades to the hotels. Rich Coleman, the province’s housing minister, said they had already allocated the cash for the project.

But the announcement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. While housing advocates have been holding protests and squats and getting arrested and going crazy to get governments to stop SRO closures, they have consistently said SROs are not suitable housing. It’s just that a 100-square-foot room with no bathroom or kitchen is better than no square feet, bathroom or kitchen on the street. Building new social housing is the solution. But the Liberals’ $80 million investment only creates 287 new units of housing in Vancouver, Burnaby and Victoria. That’s not turning the tide against homelessness, it’s a spit. What’s even more worrisome is that the province has decided to turn its newly acquired shitholes into “transitional housing.”

“Under the legislation, supportive housing is not included in the Residential Tenancy Act,” says Kim Kerr, executive director of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association. “It means you have no rights. It means that the landlord can kick you out at his or her whim.”

So instead of being able to appeal an eviction or a rent increase more than four per cent at the Residential Tenancy office the resident automatically gets the boot. Incidentally, the province recently increased the rent subsidy on welfare cheques from $325 to $375 a month. Hotels like the Carl Rooms, which was one of the 10 bought by the province, charge as low as $305 a month for room. And while the hotel should now be in better condition, it will also be able to bump up their rent to $375 without any challenge.

Good on the Liberals for buying the hotels. But it was the province and the city that put them at risk in the first place by setting off a wave of gentrification in the neighbourhood without creating a plan to house the low-income residents that got in the way. The provincial and federal governments need to make serious investments in social housing if they really want to decrease homelessness instead of simply slowing down the blood flow. Otherwise, buying 10 hotels in the Downtown Eastside is about as effective as feeding a starving man some (strangely) salty crackers.