“We’re trying to get rid of the welfare people” CCAP 2012 hotel survey & housing report

“We’re trying to get rid of the welfare people”2012_CCAP hotel report_COVER
Carnegie Community Action Project 2012 hotel survey and housing report

By Jean Swanson and Ivan Drury

Download the printable pdf of the report here. We have also posted the report to read online below.

– Hotel survey summary
– New construction
– Analysis
– Recommendations
– Appendix

The Downtown Eastside housing crisis got worse in 2012.  Not only were there about 850 homeless OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERApeople in the neighbourhood, up from about 700 last year, at least 426 rooms went from being affordable to being unaffordable to people on welfare, disability and basic pension.  Meanwhile, as the neighnbourhood gentrifies, more landlords are refusing to rent to “welfare people” and trying to get workers and students as tenants.

The city treats the SRO hotel stock as the city’s last low-income housing stock and has bylaws meant to protect these rooms from being lost to office, condo or tourist conversions but they do not track the rental prices of these rooms. Because cost determines low-income tenants access to these spaces above all else, every year the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) surveys the privately owned and run SRO hotels in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) to track the number of hotel rooms that are affordable to low-income people. In 2012 CCAP’s fifth annual survey of privately owned and run hotels found:

  • In the last year at least 426 more rooms went from being affordable to people on welfare to being very unaffordable; renting for $425 a month or more;
  • More hotels are excluding people on welfare as tenants, and seeking workers and students;
  • Only 5% of the rooms (159)* are in hotels where all the rents are $375 or lower, down from 7% last year;
  • Vacancies are minimal with only one vacant room found that rents for the welfare shelter rate of $375;
  • Some hotels are still charging between $200 and $375 extra when two people share a tiny room;

To offset these losses the government only opened 24 units of new welfare rate social housing this year. At this rate it will take 54 years for the city to accomplish its policy goal of replacing the SROs with self contained social housing.

Most hotels have rooms that rent at different rates.  Because CCAP cannot look at a hotel’s  books, it is not able to find out how many rooms rent at which rate.  So CCAP’s surveyors asked what the rent range was in each hotel.

For this report CCAP has conservatively grouped rents by the lowest rent in the rent range.  This means that many hundreds of people actually pay higher rents than it appears by looking at our data.  For example, where CCAP has classified a hotel as having rents that start at $425, some rooms in that hotel rent for $425 but others could be $450 or more.

CCAP surveyors found only 1 vacant room renting for $375 or less. There was one additional vacant room for $300 but it had no outside window and was only slightly bigger than a single bed.

  • Number of hotels with vacancies:  16
  • The other hotels with vacancies rented rooms in the $400 to $650 range.

hotel survey findings

Losing rooms
If we look only at the hotels where CCAP got rent information in both 2011 and 2012, there were 51 hotels with 1,953 rooms where the sample informationlowest rent was $425 or more in 2012.  In those same hotels only 1,527 rooms had rents at $425 or more in 2011.  In other words, in 2012 at least 426 rooms were lost to low-income people because of rent increases. 

Double bunking
Double bunking is when two people share a tiny SRO room.  This year CCAP found 18 hotels which allow two people to share a room.  Some expensive places like the Golden Crown, Metropole and Pender Place had the same rent for two people as for one.  But others charged hundreds more dollars a month for an extra person.  At least two hotels, charged the full welfare shelter allowance of $375 for each of two people sharing one room.

As we said in last year’s report, cramming two people into one tiny SRO room is a way of disguising homelessness, especially for

Metropole hotel is "trying to get rid of the welfare people"
Metropole hotel is “trying to get rid of the welfare people”

women.  It adds another level of danger to SRO life because it pushes two people into a very small space, adding tensions to relationships already strained by poverty and, in some cases, existing abusive dynamics, contributing to violence against women.

Daily/Weekly rentals
Renting SRO rooms on a daily or weekly basis is illegal unless the hotel has exemptions from the city to do this.  The Ivanhoe and Columbia are allowed to rent certain rooms daily or weekly.  This year CCAP found only one other hotel that says it rents on a daily or weekly basis, the Astoria.  Although the Shamrock Hotel desk clerk denied renting daily or weekly, it had tourist brochures in the lobby and is advertised on line as a tourist hotel (http://www.best4hostels.com/shamrock_hotel_canada.htm)

Discrimination against low-income tenants
This year CCAP’s surveyors found that the discrimination trend against low income tenants is getting stronger in the DTES.  The trend is fueled by gentrification and the high rents it produces, which automatically exclude low income people.  In addition, high rents in other parts of the city mean that people who have slightly more money than the welfare, basic pension or disability that many DTES

New Columbia hotel has a "student rate"
New Columbia hotel has a “student rate”

resident have, come to the area looking for a place they can afford. As a result CCAP researchers heard desk clerks saying:

  • Burns Block:  “You have to fill out a form on line and the office will contact you.”
  • York:   “We want to rent to students and people who work Downtown.”
  • Grand Trunk:  When the CCAP researcher said the room was for a social worker, the desk clerk said, “Good, it’s people like you here. We don’t have people sitting around drinking all day.”
  • Metropole:  “We’re trying to get rid of the welfare people.  We want working types.”
  • Columbia:  CCAP’s researcher, a young Aboriginal man, was asked for references from his employer and landlord.

Many more hotels are now renting to mostly students and workers.  These include the Laurel Apts, Pender Place, American, Creekside, Columbia, Metropole, Lotus, Grand Trunk, Danny’s Inn, Burns Block, and York plus the other hotels with high rents.
The Colonial, a huge 147 unit hotel, has 80 vacant rooms that are being renovated, signaling that it too will no longer be available to low income tenants in the future. Until last year it was leased and operated by the Portland Hotel Society and rented to low-income residents for $375 a month. The story of the Colonial is a warning of the false security of all privately owned and leased SROs.

New construction
2012 has been a terrible year for low income housing in the Downtown Eastside.  Only 24 units of new welfare rate housing have opened (Skwachàys Healing Lodge at 31 W. Pender), while a minimum of 426 more SRO units are now renting for $425 or more, beyond what people on welfare, disability, or basic pension can afford.  Plus, 80 rooms at the Colonial are now vacant and not available to the low income community. This means low income people have either been displaced or are having even less of their meagre incomes available for food and other necessities.

The 24 welfare rate units at the renovated Remand Centre haven’t opened yet.  Two social housing buildings announced in 2007 are still slated for construction (Marie Gomez site with 139 units and Drake Hotel site with 148 units) Action has not happened yet on the site of the new library, which is supposed to have 15 to 20 new units.

While the low income community has been begging the city to buy lots for social housing, none have been purchased for three years.
Meanwhile, this year 146 new market housing units have been opened, 524 were approved through 2012 condosrezoning or development permit application, and the application process was officially launched for 597 more.*

The measure of market condo developments compared to social housing developments is called the “rate of change.” The City’s 2005 DTES housing plan states that market and non-market housing should “proceed apace,” which means condos should not be built in the DTES more quickly or at a greater number than social housing; to align with city policy the rate of change should be 1:1. The rate of change in 2012 alone was 6 market units to 1 social housing unit.

RoC 2012Because the city does not count rent increases or vacancies as lost low-income SRO units their offical rate of change does not include these losses. But if we count the real rate of change low-income people experience (adding lost low-income units to new market units and comparing that to new social housing) then, in this year alone, it would be 27:1. And it promises to get much worse as very little new social housing is planned and many more condos are.

What does “Rate of Change” mean?

According to the City’s 2005 Downtown Eastside Housing Plan the City is supposed to track the overall rate of change; they have not done this since 2008.

Even without counting the growing losses of SRO hotel-rooms, the rate of change is holding fast at 3 market units for every 1 welfare-rate social housing unit. Plus, the post-2012 rate of change is an underestimate because it includes about half the “14-sites” the province promised in 2007. Once these are done (about  2014) there are no plans for government funded welfare-rate social housing.

RoC chart 2005-2014

Maps of hotel losses & gentrification
The maps of gentrified SRO hotels included in this report show that the great majority of SRO hotels are unaffordable and insecure for low-income people. However, most of these hotels are still homes to thousands of low-income people. Many of the buildings coded red (where the lowest rent is over $425) are still functionally low-income housing. But those coded red and crossed out are no longer functionally low-income peoples’ housing. Concentrated in condo-ified and gentrified areas of the DTES, these hotels are now housing students and workers with some housing choices and excluding low-income people on welfare and pension.

It is also important to notice the leased buildings coded purple. Some of these buildings (Wonder, Palace, Colonial) were leased and managed by non-profits when this survey was conducted and are now back in private hands. These are not secure low-income housing.

2012 DTES hotel gentrification_MAP_WEB_FULL(Download printable 11X17 pdf of the hotel gentrification map here)


A homeless camp in front of BC Housing’s Hastings St office during the first snow of 2012

Homelessness is a crisis in the DTES

850 homeless people in the DTES need homes.  Only 24 new units of social housing in the DTES opened this year.  While 4 other social housing promisesprojects are scheduled, they were announced years ago.*  It is taking over 7 or 8 years for projects from announcement to completion.  At this rate, projects that will open in 2017, 18, 19 and 20 need to be announced now.  But there is no program in place to fund them and they haven’t been announced.

It will take decades to replace the SROs
All the SROs should be replaced with good quality self-contained social housing.  This is city policy. With only 24 units of social housing opening up in the DTES in 2012, the replacement of SROs has ground to a virtual halt.  In 2005, the city’s DTES Housing Plan said 5000 SROs needed to be replaced.  To date, only 646 have been replaced, an average of 81 units per year through 2012.  At this rate it will take 54 years to replace the SROs and most of the people who need decent housing will be dead.

We need better laws
Rent control should be based on the unit, not the person. As it is now, if a person moves out of a unit, the landlord can raise the rent as much as possible.  This rule actually gives landlords an incentive to evict or buy-out low income tenants.

The city’s SRO taskforce did workshops with low-income tenants this year and found most did not know about their rights or how to make complaints. To overcome this rights-gap SRO tenants need legal rights and supports to organize tenants unions to communicate their needs to the government bodies that are supposed to protect them.

Perfect storm of gentrification and hotel losses
The SRA (Single Rental Accommodation) bylaw was passed by city council in 1997 to stop residential hotels from being converted to budget tourist and backpacker hotels. The bylaw protects the tenancy-type, the use and size of thousands of privately owned SRO hotel rooms. It does not define or protect the most important quality that determines whether a room is low-income housing or not: the price.

In the last five years the gentrification spree started by the Woodward’s condo project has brought about a perfect storm of conditions that is pricing low-income people out of SRO hotels.

First, cultural gentrifiers marketed the DTES as an exciting, hip place. Higher income people came to the DTES for foodie restaurants, boutiques and galleries. The areas replete with high end developments and shops felt comfortable to higher income people as places to live.

Second, pressure on the apartment and housing rental stock in the most unaffordable city in the world pushed lower-wage workers out of expensive 1-bedroom apartments in other parts of Vancouver. For the first time there are renters willing to pay $800 for a tiny SRO hotel room.

Third, old SRO hotel landlords who have held the buildings as low-income tenements for years, are selling their buildings to a new breed of landlords.  The new breed are investors who ask more for rooms than seems possible and often get those high rents.
These three factors make the old protections offered by the SRA bylaw ineffective as conversions happen in the loopholes of the bylaw. The new upscaling trend demands new regulatory measures: rent controls on SRO hotel units as a whole, to ensure the low-income housing stock remains low-income.

Social mix has displaced low-income people at Woodward’sBefore Woodward’s and accompanying condos were built the western section of the Downtown Eastside was a majority-low-income area. In the 2006 census the highest percentage low-income population area of the Downtown Eastside was Victory Square; with over 70% low-income residents.

When Woodward’s condos were built the City called them the “social mix” future of development for the Downtown Eastside. “Social mix” is a euphemism for diluting the low-income community in the Downtown Eastside with more higher-income people. Woodward’s was the city’s model social-mix project because the plan included expensive condos, family housing with some subsidies, and welfare-rate social housing. It was also planned to have both higher-end retail shops and low-income community space too.

What has social mix meant for the low-income community?
The redeveloped Woodward’s building was opened in 2009 and after three-years there is some evidence available about the real effects of this project and what social mix means for the Downtown Eastside low-income community.

  1. Social mix is welfare for the rich. To incentivize London Drugs and Nester’s Market to open in Woodward’s the City gifted them ten-year tax holidays. Council also awarded the condo developers an unprecedented height increase to build a tower for condo buyers separate from the social housing.
  2. Social mix is a poor-bashing philosophy. New residences exclude the poor with separate entrances and amenities. New businesses exclude low-income residents by price and culture. Security guards and higher-income shoppers and residents treat them with scorn. The unique sense of belonging low-income DTES residents have has been eroded in the Woodward’s area.
  3. Social mix covers for tax cuts. As the Federal and Provincial government have cut taxes and social housing programs City Hall seeks to use Community Benefit Agreements in the name of social mix to squeeze some social housing crumbs out of condo developments, but:
  4. Social mix destroys more low-income housing than it creates. Although Woodward’s includes 125 units of welfare-rate social housing the climate of investment and gentrification it produced destroyed at least 404 privately owned SRO hotel rooms.

woodward's housing losses


The DTES low-income housing stock is being squeezed by condo development from the West, South, North, and now the East. The losses of hotel rooms and shrinkage of low-income majority spaces must be stopped with emergency action now. All three levels of government are responsible to support the low-income community to push back against the forces of gentrification and stop the coming mass displacement crisis.

CCAP wants to the city to declare the DTES Oppenheimer Districtand Hastings Corridor a “Social Justice Zone” where people come before profit, homes come before condo sales, and the unique low-income community can survive and thrive. There is more to a Social Justice Zone than housing alone, but without protecting the housing first the low-income community will be displaced. The first step is for the three levels of government to do the following to allow DTES residents to gain their basic right to decent housing.

City Government
1. Stop renovictions & upscaling: Amend the SRA bylaw to define SRO hotel “conversion” to mean raising rents above welfare and Inclusionary zoning heart mappension level shelter rates. Include zero-eviction conditions in all renovation and building permits.

2. Buy 10 sites a year for the each of the next 5 years for social housing in the DTES: Fulfill the city policy and promise to replace the SRO hotels with safe, secure, self-contained and resident-controlled social housing. Fulfill the city policy and promise to end homelessness. Allocate funds now for low-income housing.

3. Declare a moratorium on condo development in the DTES: Act to keep property values low and preserved for social housing until SRO hotels have been replaced with safe, secure, self-contained and resident-controlled low-income affordable social housing and no-one needs to sleep on the streets or in shelters.

4. Safe, secure, and healthy conditions in SRO hotels: Develop an SRO resident organizer structure to educate, support and liaise between tenants and bylaw and Residential Tenancy Act enforcement bodies. Embrace a women-centred philosophy in hotels with policies and practices that ensure women’s access and safety in all spaces.

Provincial Government
1. Raise the rates: Raise welfare, disability and minimum wage rates substantially. No-one in BC should live in poverty.

2. Tenant rights for all: Reform the Residential Tenancy Act  to enact effective rent control by rental unit rather than tenant in order to stop incentivizing landlords to evict low-income people and end renovictions. Legislate the right of all tenants to organize tenant unions. Ensure that residents of all non-profit social housing, including hotel rooms, supportive housing projects, and emergency shelters have full tenant rights under the Residential Tenancy Act.

3. Build social housing now: Provide funds to build 10,000 units a year of low-income affordable social housing throughout the province. Every year for five years in the Downtown Eastside replace 1,000 SRO units with self-contained, resident directed and controlled social housing. Immediately spend the $250 million housing endowment fund on low-income social housing.

4. End discrimination against low-income people: The BC Human Rights code and Residential Tenancy Act should be amended to make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of social condition; including class, poverty, and drug-use.

Federal Government
Enact a national housing program: Provide funds to build low-income social housing in the DTES to replace 1,000 SRO units per year for the next five years.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Argyle Hotel, closed since 2009, was rumored to be reopening this year for low-income residents. There was a proud announcement from city councilor Kerry Jang that the city was supporting the owner with $125,000 to help their renovation and the lease of the building to Atira to operate it as non-market housing for low-income women. City Hall was less public when that deal fell apart. When the building renovations started the owners tore up their contract with Atira and continued renovations for market rate (non-low-income) rentals. The Argyle is still not open but its gentrification will nearly complete the transformation of the Woodward’s area from a low-income community home to a gentrified strip, the west coming east.

Appendix 1
Which hotels were surveyed?
CCAP started with the city’s 2009 SRO list for the DTES.  We deleted buildings run by non profits because they are generally cleaner and cheaper:  Kye7e, Sereena’s Place, Cosmopolitan, Dodson, Hampton Hotel, Jubilee Rooms, Powell Rooms, Palace Hotel, Wonder Rooms, Heatley Apartments, International Inn, The London, Holborn, Lion and Princess Rooms.  Even though we did not survey these buildings, CCAP recognizes that these buildings are not secure units of low income housing because their leases with non profits can expire.

We added the Seaview, 358 Powell, the Golden Crown, the American, and Burns Block to our list for investigation because they are all open now.  We also added the Shamrock (on the city’s closed list) because it is not closed.  That left us with 81 open buildings that we visited.  We got rent information from 61 buildings with 3135 rooms.  Usually, the information was provided by a manager or desk clerk but sometimes we had to rely on a tenant because managers or desk clerks were not available after several tries.

Appendix 2
How CCAP did the hotel survey
For the hotel survey part of this study CCAP went door to door to privately owned and run hotels within the DTES boundaries. CCAP approached each hotel like a prospective tenant looking for a room. The CCAP surveyor usually spoke to the desk clerk or manager and asked about vacancies, rent levels, daily/weekly rentals, and student only rentals. The surveyor looked to see if there was a sign asking for guests to pay fees to visit residents and asked if there were any vacant rooms that were not being rented.  Sometimes hotels were surveyed more than once by different people to test the data.

CCAP does not have the resources or the authority, like the City does, to actually inspect buildings, so this survey does not include maintenance aspects of the hotels. This information is as good as what was told to CCAP surveyors by desk clerks, managers, and in a few cases, tenants, as CCAP has no way of looking at hotel records. CCAP also analyzed city and provincial statistics about new housing being built and provincially owned hotels.

Appendix 3
Why it’s important for rents to be lower than $375 a month  
About 7000 DTES residents rely on welfare and disability income.  Since 2007, $375 a month is all single people have to pay for their rent, utilities and phone.  If people on income assistance have to pay more than $375, this money must come out of their support allowance of $235, leaving them with not enough money to eat and pay for other necessities. The DTES also has about 3000 seniors.  Many of them rely on a basic pension of only about $1200 a month.  For these seniors, rents at or below $360 a month (30% of their income) are considered affordable.

Appendix 4
Residential hotel rooms are not healthy or adequate accommodation
The city’s DTES Housing Plan (p. 5) recognizes that the SROs are not good quality housing and calls for them to be replaced “with new self-contained social housing for singles,” with supports for some residents. CCAP believes that DTES hotel rooms are not proper housing because they are tiny, about 10 by 10 feet. Residents usually have to share bathrooms with everyone on their floor and people don’t have kitchens. How can low-income people eat cheaply without the means to cook? In addition, the buildings are old and don’t meet current earthquake standards. Many are poorly managed, filthy, and pest- ridden. Although not all DTES residents have health issues, many have told CCAP that living in a decent self-contained apartment is part of feeling respected and can be an important part of managing health issues.

In addition, SRO hotels are fundamentally unsafe spaces for women. A woman resident of the Regent Hotel explained, “When women leave their rooms at night to take a leak in the common bathroom we wonder if there is a man behind our door. We wonder if there is a man in the bathroom. And when we come back we wonder if there is a man waiting for us in our rooms. We feel locked up in our own rooms.”

Appendix 5
SROs must be retained as an affordable last resort
While hotel rooms are not proper places to live, they are the housing of last resort for low-income people. Even though CCAP wants all the rooms replaced, it is crucial that they remain open and available at $375 per month until replacement housing is available and until the homeless people in the DTES have homes. If the hotel rooms don’t stay open and available to low-income residents, homelessness will increase as it has been increasing since City stats show street and sheltered homelessness has from 628 in 2002 to 1,602 in 2012.

Appendix 6
What can current DTES residents afford to pay for rent?
The vast majority of current DTES residents are low-income people according to the Statistics Canada definition of the Low Income Cut Off (2006) line where a single person is considered low income if they have less than $21,199 a year. Of course, many people who have less than $21,199 a year, really do have a lot less. A person on welfare gets only about $7300 a year; on disability, $10,800; on old age pension and guaranteed income supplement, about $14,000, on full-time minimum wage of $10.25, about $21,320 gross. Shelter costs are not supposed to take up more than 30% of income, according to federal and provincial governments. This means that the amounts people in these categories have for rent are as follows:

income sources and rents

expensive hotels

Thanks for your help!
Thanks to Abi Bond and Dan Garrison the City of Vancouver Housing Centre.
Thanks to James Pao, Herb Varley and Ben Smith for surveying the hotels.
Thanks to Karen Ward for the “3 Circles of Care” zoning heart painting.
Thanks to Phoenix Winter for copy editing this report.