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Thanks for the Support... Not (The problem with supportive housing)

By Douglas King, TAPS Executive Director

It’s time we talked about supportive housing. Different than social housing or subsidized housing, where the government provides below market rent to low-income tenants, supportive housing was designed to create an environment where some of our most marginalized residents, those experiencing chronic or episodic homelessness, could finally find a home.

The first big push to create supportive housing came when the provincial government announced their intention to buy up SRO hotels in Vancouver in the late 2000s in an effort to preserve low-income housing stock. Handed over to non-profit societies like the Portland Hotel Society to manage, the announcement came with a guarantee that these buildings would remain covered by the Residential Tenancy Act, with residents of supportive housing given all the same rights as those in privately run SRO buildings.

But over the last two years we have witnessed a disturbing trend at TAPS when it comes to supportive housing. Slowly but surely the non-profit housing providers that are contracted by BC Housing to run supportive housing buildings have begun to take away those rights. Now, some providers are taking the position that supportive housing is not actually covered by the Residential Tenancy Act at all, meaning that the people who move into supportive housing buildings have virtually no rights, even though they may have been paying rent and living in these buildings for years. They tell us these buildings are now actually a form of transitional housing, because the goal, at some point in the unknown future, is for a tenant to move into a different home.

The results of this change have been staggering. Without any rights under the Residential Tenancy Act residents no longer have a way to challenge an eviction or assert their rights. Residents are now given “program agreements” instead of tenancy agreements to sign when they move in, which state that their housing is now completely controlled by the non-profit provider, who can remove it from them at a moments notice. Without other viable options in an increasingly tight housing maket, those desperate to move indoors are given little choice but to sign away those rights.

The problem is, despite their best intentions, housing providers sometimes get it wrong, even the non-profit kind. We have seen a housing provider throw out one of their tenants on the spot because they suspected them of lighting a fire, only to sheepishly admit a week later that it turns out they were mistaken and the tenant had done no such thing. By then it was too late, and the person who had spent over a year in a homeless shelter waiting for a spot in a supportive housing building was two steps backward, sleeping in a tent on Pandora Avenue. We have seen a tenant summarily locked out of his housing and into homelessness because ironically according to the housing provider he apparently was not using his housing enough, spending too many nights at his girlfriend’s place. The fact that his girlfriend wasn’t allowed to visit his building because residents of supportive housing aren’t allowed guests was of no consequence in their decision making. One person made homeless so another can be moved in from the shelter.

This Spring the province hired a consulting firm to hear from residents, housing providers, and tenant advocates like ourselves to hear how they think supportive housing should be regulated. In that process we made it clear that residents in supportive housing need basic rights, either under the Residential Tenancy Act or through some other system that puts a reasonable check on the immense power we have now given their housing providers. We are still waiting to hear the results of that consultation and what, if anything, the province will do to address a system that has become dysfunctional at best.

Housing providers have voiced legitimate concerns about how the Residential Tenancy Act applies to their buildings when it comes to providing a safe environment, especially when BC Housing seems intent to provide the least amount of resources possible in order to run them, but giving housing providers the ability to evict tenants without due process will never be the solution. If we really want to provide a working system of support for residents in these buildings there must be a trust relationship between the housing provider and its residents. Removing someone’s rights is a great way to destroy that trust.

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