By Hannah Mang-Wooley, Vacancy Control and Tenant Legal Advocate
As any renter knows, low-cost rental housing in the private market is almost impossible to find, especially in Victoria and Vancouver. More and more, renters are feeling the affordability crisis in our communities, and tenant activists are taking a stand. One significant step towards defending the interests of low-income renters can be seen in Vancouver, in the form of activism to protect the interests of tenants who live in SRO (Single Room Occupancy) housing.
Single Room Occupancy (SRO) housing is a type of rental that many people rely on. This term refers to housing where someone rents a room, often in a converted hotel, and shares a bathroom (and sometimes kitchen) with other tenants. Typically, an SRO room is around 10 ft x 10 ft and rents for $600 or less per month. The Downtown Eastside in Vancouver is a place that has a high percentage of SRO housing, most often rented by people who have limited incomes. Victoria also has SRO housing - the Fairfield Hotel on Cormorant Street was an SRO and there are other SROs around town.
SRO housing in Vancouver and other cities is increasingly attractive to developers and investors because they are often buildings on prime pieces of real estate that are being rented for rates far below what they could be rented for if they were renovated. Many SRO buildings in Vancouver are being rebranded as "luxury microsuites" and rented for much higher rents to people that have a lot more money.
Activists in the Downtown Eastside, including the Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative Society, have been working hard to preserve affordable housing in their community for a long time. This has included getting Vancouver city council to introduce a bylaw in 2003 which limits SRO landlords’ ability to convert or demolish their buildings. This protects renters from being displaced because of a landlord deciding to convert their building into larger, more profitable rental units, or demolishing the building and selling the land.
Most recently, this activism has taken the form of lobbying Vancouver City Council to enact a bylaw for SROs that would limit a landlord from raising the rent in between tenancies. This form of rent control is known as vacancy control.
In November 2021, Vancouver City Council passed a bylaw that implemented vacancy control in SROs. This means that landlords cannot increase the rent beyond the rate of inflation, even if a tenant moves out. This increases housing security and eliminates the economic incentive for landlords to evict SRO tenants, many of whom are very vulnerable and would not be able to find anywhere else to live.
Predictably, SRO owners don’t like this bylaw, as it makes it much harder for them to make money. This bylaw was challenged in court by two SRO landlords, one operating a typical Downtown Eastside SRO and one operating a “luxury micro suite” complex. This court case was heard in April, and I was able to go to Vancouver to observe the proceeding.
There were two main arguments presented by the SRO owners’ lawyers: 1) it was outside the city’s powers to introduce a form of rent control and 2) it was enacted in bad faith because the city was intentionally trying to decrease the value of these buildings, and this decision was based on city council having a hostile attitude towards SRO owners. In response, the lawyer defending Vancouver City Council made the point that the bylaw and provincial rent control laws do not contradict each other, and that it is within the city’s powers to enact bylaws that they see as being in the best interest of their citizens. Vancouver City Council sees that this housing stock is at risk of becoming unaffordable to the people who need it. The lawyer made the case that the motivation of City Council was to protect tenants, not to punish landlords.
It may be a number of months until we find out the judge’s decision in this case. Regardless of the outcome, it is likely that the decision will be appealed by the unsuccessful side. I hope that the decision is ultimately decided in favour of the City of Vancouver, as this vacancy control bylaw is major step toward housing justice for low income tenants in Vancouver. If the bylaw is successful, this sets a road map for other cities in BC, Victoria included, to follow to work in the best interest of tenants.