Push to increase costs for Vancouver developers who want to convert ORS



Councilor Jean Swanson proposes a bylaw change that would charge developers more than $500,000 for every social housing unit they convert, alter or demolish

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Single room rentals, which Vancouver uses to house people at risk of homelessness, are disappearing at what advocates say is an alarming rate as high demand for housing leads to the sale of more Downtown Eastside hotels for redevelopment.

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A city councilor is seeking to halt the trend by forcing developers of single-bedroom buildings, which house nearly 7,000 Vancouver residents, to pay more to replace the rooms they pull out of the low-income market.

In a motion presented to council on June 7, council. Jean Swanson is proposing a rule change that would charge developers more than $500,000 for each social housing unit they convert, alter or demolish, instead of the current fee of $230,000.

Replacement costs for city center social housing have “increased dramatically” above the current rate, says Swanson, which was implemented when the Single Room Bylaw came into effect in 2003.

Aging SRO buildings, which historically served as dormitory-style housing for loggers, fishermen and miners looking for a place in town to spend a few nights, are now ‘necessary housing of last resort’, report says of the city of 2020.

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The need for affordable housing was underscored by the April fire that displaced 71 residents of Gastown’s Winters Hotel, which Atira Property Management operated as supportive housing with funds from BC Housing.

Five-year resident Diana Dawkins was able to rent her first-floor room in Winters thanks to her $600-a-month Old Age Security pension allowance.

When fire swept through the century-old hotel on April 11, she lost all of her possessions and now lives at Sorella Housing for Women in Atira, paying rent of $675 a month.

“I feel helpless,” she said. “I have no furniture, nothing to show off for my 67th birthday. Not even a family photo or the jewelry I was planning to pass on to my children.

In addition to Winters’ tenants, 79 residents of the adjacent ORS, the Gastown Hotel, were displaced for weeks after the fire.

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Swanson’s motion asks city staff to clarify whether the bylaw’s conversion fee applies to hotels destroyed by fire. If not, she asks that it be included, to avoid further loss of ORS in cases similar to Winters’.

“We typically lose three to four SRO hotels in a year in the Downtown Eastside,” said housing advocate Wendy Pedersen. “However, in the past few months we have lost four alone.”

“Hundreds of people have been thrown into the streets with nowhere to go. The vacancy rate for single rooms is now close to zero.

Another SRO hotel, the Cobalt Hotel at 917 Main St., is being sold to a hotelier, according to Swanson’s petition. The purchase means that its current residents will need new homes once the conversion begins.

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After the city in November set limits on how much SRO hotel owners can raise monthly room rent, two other low-cost downtown hotels — the Lucky Lodge and the Vogue — collectively gutted hundreds of tenants in the streets.

The vacancy rate for SRO private hotels in downtown Vancouver has fallen from 14% in 1992 to 4% in 2015, according to the city’s latest survey of single rooms.

However, unit rent continues to rise. The number of SRO rooms rented for more than $450 tripled to 41% of all rooms in 2015 from 14% in 2009.

Swanson submitted a draft of the motion to the mayor and council last month, but has since amended it to recommend that city staff “review” the possibility of making changes to the single room accommodation bylaw at the instead of “implementing” it.

When asked why, the adviser told Postmedia, “One is possible, the other isn’t.”

— with files by Dan Fumano

[email protected]

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