Could a crackdown on some building owners in the Downtown Eastside result in more homelessness?
There are times when the best of intentions can lead to unintended consequences. I think we may be witnessing some of those consequences in Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside as the City of Vancouver rolls out its new “tough love” approach regarding delinquent landlords in the area.
It only takes a cursory glance to realize that many of the private building owners in the Downtown Eastside have let the conditions of their buildings deteriorate to the point where they are barely fit for human habitation. Whether it is through simple neglect or persistent tenant damage, the conditions in many of these single occupant hotels (SRO’s) rivals what you would find in some Third World nations. One can only imagine how the international media will report on this in a few months when they arrive to cover the Olympic Games.
Despite the conditions, many of these dilapidated edifices remain home to some of Vancouver's most vulnerable people. If these places shut down, the residents would likely have no place to go other than the street. That's because many of them are not only on social assistance, but they also suffer from chronic alcohol or drug addiction.
I recall one landlord recounting a story to me about the condition of his building when I worked at City Hall. He said he had put in tens of thousands of dollars to upgrade his units, only to find them trashed again within months by drug-addicted tenants.
That’s why the recent admission by Mayor Robertson that he has abandoned the Four Pillars strategy in Vancouver in favour of focusing solely on homelessness is so disheartening. No matter how much housing is built in Vancouver, unless tenants can find a way to control or eliminate their drug addiction, we won’t see conditions improving anytime soon in the Downtown Eastside. Tackling drug addiction must be done in tandem with locating new housing, otherwise both efforts are doomed to fail.
The deplorable conditions in the Downtown Eastside has resulted in Vancouver's new Vision council ordering staff to begin a systematic "crackdown" on building owners. Vision rightly argues that these private landlords have a legal responsibility to keep their buildings in some sort of decent shape.
In their zest to get a few positive headlines, what Vision seems to conveniently ignore is that these buildings are not part of the public housing stock, they are someone's business. They are privately owned buildings that the owner hopes will turn a monthly profit. As such, the private owner is under no legal obligation to keep the building operating as a quasi public housing project. That's why Vancouver's recent crackdown on "slumlords" may well have more negative impacts than Vision would like to admit.
If the city suddenly swoops in and targets a slumlord, there is little stopping that business owner from simply shutting down their operation and kicking out all the tenants. For many landlords the prospect of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in city-ordered improvements to their property is enough to have them think twice. For some owners, they'd be just as happy to have the building sit vacant without “troublesome” tenants and wait for property values to rise.
What is happening at the Golden Crown Hotel in Vancouver appears to provide us with some insight into the tenuous relationship between private landlords and the city. The owner has served notice to all of its tenants that they must move out by the end of September in order that he can begin a pest control program. The building is currently infested with rats, cockroaches and bedbugs.
The Golden Crown's owner Daniel Jun wrote to the tenants and stated:
We have no choice but to close the doors in order to improve the hotel.
According the Vancouver Sun who first covered this story:
Jun said the eviction became necessary after the City of Vancouver ordered him to clean up the hotel.
Barb Windsor, chief license inspector for the City of Vancouver, told the Sun she isn't sure if Jun is kicking out the tenants in order to fix up his building in time for the 2010 Olympics. She apparently doesn't believe the City’s request asking him to make serious improvements to the living conditions of his building has anything to do with the current spate of evictions.
As fellow blogger and journalist Frances Bula points out, it is hard to believe that any landlord would go to the trouble of kicking out their tenants to make a few bucks for a 17 day event. Even if it is the Olympics, the business model for doing so just doesn't make dollars and sense.
Staff at the City of Vancouver have always been hesitant about going down the "crackdown" route as they were unsure what might happen if some building owners decided to throw up their hands and walk away from the business. If this were to happen in only a few buildings, it could have serious implications for not only the tenants, but for the Downtown Eastside as a whole.
If you listen to some landlords they'll argue they make almost no money running their single room occupancy hotels which are regularly damaged by drug addicted tenants. They fix the hotels then crack addicted tenants destroy the place. Then the cycle repeats itself all over again.
If you listen to housing advocates, the landlords are greedy entrepreneurs who are only out to make a buck at the expense of Vancouver's most vulnerable. Somewhere in the midst of all that rhetoric lies the truth.
All I know is when the Riverview mental institution scaled back its operations over a decade ago, the patients were promised care in the communities throughout British Columbia. Those beds never arrived, but in there place stepped in a bunch of SRO hotels that provided much needed accommodation for the most marginalized in our society. As a community, we have relied on these private SROs to backfill a need for housing that was promised a long time ago.
Thanks to recent investments by the Province of British Columbia, some of the most notorious SROs are now being purchased and converted into the type of social housing promised when Riverview closed down. This surely must offer hope to a community in desperate need of some good news.
Now that the city has gone down the path of using the courts to force landlords to improve the living conditions of their buildings, we may well find there are some unintended consequences to this action. Either landlords will invest millions more to upgrade all of their facilities, or we may well be facing a deepening housing crisis in Canada's poorest postal code.