It appears Vancouver’s first upscale SRO may be a real thing after all.
406 Union street raised eyebrows in March, after it posted advertisements marketing itself as the “Hip-O,” with 12 “trendy” rooms, along with shared kitchen and bathroom, for between $795-$1095 per month.
But the landlords pulled the plug after it emerged the property had an agreement with the city: Two of those 12 rooms were to be held for people at the welfare rate of $375 a month, with a further six held for people on housing subsidies.
But two months later, just three of those rooms have gone to people in need.
The fine print
But of the other six? Just one went to someone on a rental supplement.
Abigail Bond, Vancouver’s Director of Housing Policy and Projects, says it wasn’t for lack of trying.
“The agreement we have with them is that we would have access to those units, but we wouldn’t restrict those rents. And so we worked really hard with our Carnegie outreach team to match the rent subsidies that come through the provincial government with the rents in that building, but unfortunately the rent supplements weren’t sufficient in order for those tenants to afford the rents.”
She says rental supplements rarely top $400 a month. The units at the “Hip-O” were rented in the $900 range.
Those rooms have now been filled by non-subsidy tenants paying market rates.
Bond says the city still has the right of first refusal to fill those rooms with people on assistance, but only when they turn over.
She says under the Vancouver Charter, the city doesn’t have the power to cap market rents, and that the agreement is meant to encourage landlords to improve buildings.
“We’re trying to balance the need to bring units back into operation with the level of investment that private landlords are trying to make in these buildings.”
She says the best answer would be for the province to up supplement payments, along with welfare rates.
Click to see the now-shuttered Hip-O.ca website
Housing advocates livid
But Jean Swanson with the Carnegie Community Action Project says it shows the system is broken.
“So it shows two things. One the rent supplements aren’t adequate to solve the housing problem. And two, that the city’s housing agreements aren’t helping low income people.”
She says there’s not enough subsidy money to go around. And she says with rents at this rate, people who do get one are still forced to choose between the bare necessities.
“It means that the low income people have virtually nothing left to eat, or that they’re out on the street. And we’re predicting that homelessness is going to go up a lot because of it.”
Bond says given the marketing that preceded the occupancy, it looks like the landlords were gunning for higher-income tenants all along – and she says it’s a model she thinks is being replicated around the city.
“At the Metropole people are being given $1000 to move out so that the owner can raise the rent to $900 or $1000 a month. At the Lotus, people are being given $2500 to move out so that the landlord can raise the rent. The Glory hotel was just bought, and we’re all just petrified the same thing is going to happen there. They’ll get rid of the tenants, do some minor rennos, and jack the rents way way up.”
Swanson says she wants to see rent controls applied by the unit, not the tenant, more social housing built, and government to step in and buy hotels to prevent landlords from repeating the 406 Union experience.
Mayor Gregor Robertson says case shows housing supplements “aren’t enough.”
He says it demonstrates that supplements fall short, and says the province and the feds for not pulling their weight.
“They don’t go far enough. In Vancouver, obviously the rents are much higher, the cost of land is much higher, so we need more rental supplements and we need more supply we don’t have enough buildings, homes to get people into.”
The mayor was speaking at the launch of a modular housing pilot program to make housing more affordable to Vancouver’s low income earners.