Vancouver city councillor Kerry Jang says the city is doing all it can to help people living in single room occupancy hotels for months on end, without heat or other basic needs.
"It's a vexing problem," said Jang. "These buildings are privately owned. They're over 100 years old. They're at the end of their life ... and it costs a great deal of money to make any repairs."
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Jang said items like a new boiler for heat can cost $50,000 for the aged buildings, and the amount of rent the owners are collecting isn't enough to cover such big expenses, on top of paying for ongoing maintenance issues.
"The real problem here is that the welfare rates have not increased for eight years, so they can't charge more rent," said Jang.
Wade Shapley, a tenant at the Murray Hotel in downtown Vancouver, told CBC he pays almost $800 in rent for his mouldy, cockroach-infested home owned by Kenstone Properties — a company known for its luxurious developments on Vancouver's west side.
But Jang said he found that "a little difficult to believe," and Shapley is likely living in one of the hotel's larger suites.
He said his own research shows the average room at the Murray costs $447 for a one-bedroom and that most accommodations on the Downtown Eastside cost less than $500, on average.
Jang said the city wants the province to help with the costs of maintaining the buildings, possibly by offering landlords a loan program so they could pay back large expenses over time.
In the meantime, he admits repairs to the century-old buildings often only act as a stop-gap measure.
"Sometimes the repairs last longer; sometimes they don't. They're very old buildings," he said.
By law, the city has to give building owners 60 days to complete repairs, he said, and if they aren't completed city staff can do the repairs themselves and charge the owners or issue a fine.
Jang said, at times, the city has threatened landlords if city staff deems then to be deliberately negligent.
New housing the solution
But Jang isn't an apologist for SROs, which he said he "hates."
"What really needs to happen is that these SROs need to be shut and new housing needs to be built. And this is what the city is doing," said Jang. "That way we can take people out of those SROs once and for all, because they're not the greatest housing."
Jang emphasized that the city has created 1,400 new social housing units and identified other plots of land for it to build on, in partnership with the province — and hopefully the new federal government.
He also underlined that the city doesn't leave any of the SRO tenants in immediate danger. Instead, city staff assess their needs and will bring in blankets and heaters, or even temporarily relocate tenants until repairs are completed.
"We are very conscious of these folks and how they're living," said Jang. "We work with the landlords. They're businesses. This is their stuff. There's only so much we can do as a city."