photos: Members of the SRO Collaborative speak to media at a June rally. Photo: Sid Tan.

Tenant organizing heats up

New SRO advocacy group takes on private hotel hell

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When the bathtub taps went missing and the hot water stopped working in the winter, Jack Gates complained to staff at The Regent hotel.

“They say they’re going to fix it, they'll have it fixed by tomorrow,” says Gates, who has lived at the Regent, a Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotel in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, for a year now. But tomorrow comes and goes without any repairs.

“I’m not the kind of person [who] wants to put someone out on the street or take their job away from them,” he says of Regent staff and his infamous Sahota family landlords, “but they’re not doing anything.”

Three months ago, Gates saw a poster calling for people to participate in Vancouver’s SRO Collaborative. Motivated by the group’s mission to improve SRO habitability using legal advocacy and training tenants to fight for their rights, Gates got involved.

“People in jail have more rights than we do,” he says of his experience at The Regent.

Modeled after similar tenant-run advocacy organizations in San Francisco, the SRO Collaborative is focusing on stemming the tide of Vancouver’s private SRO rooms left to rot or lost to renovictions.

Coordinator Wendy Pedersen, a DTES housing activist since 2006, says the Collaborative aims to educate tenants about their rights and how to enforce them. They’re working to ensure that governments replace SROs with more permanent—and safe—affordable housing in the neighbourhood.

“Tenants will gain a stronger voice,” says Pedersen. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

Success, failure with B.C. Residential Tenancy Branch

A project of Atira Development Society, the Collaborative officially launched in January with one year of funding to focus on five Downtown Eastside SROs: The Regent, The Lion, The Clifton,The Balmoral, and one that remains nameless while the Collaborative gathers evidence for “the largest joint complaint for compensation” in the history of British Columbia’s Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB), according to Pedersen.

So far they’ve succeeded in winning every case brought to the RTB’s dispute-resolution hearings, an estimated 30 to 40 cases in all.

“It’s difficult. It has some big glitches,” Pedersen says about the dispute resolution process. “Tenants have to work 10 times harder than landlords to get a victory. But if you follow the rules and you can use that process, we’ve won every single complaint.”

That’s no small feat, considering the RTB’s poor reputation when it comes to landlord compliance. Stephen Portman, interim executive director for Victoria’s legal advocacy organization the Together Against Poverty Society (TAPS), says his organization has put in a lot of work with little return from the RTB.

“The time that it takes, the amount of energy and effort to get a landlord to comply,” he says, can be more demanding for a vulnerable renter than the victory they’re seeking seems worth. “And at the end of the day, the tenant ends up, say, maybe getting their sink fixed and a couple hundred dollars. But is that really a win when you’ve got a building with 50 other suites that are dealing with the same issue?”

If the landlord refuses to obey the ruling, the next step is BC Supreme Court, which TAPS’ has neither the money nor time to bring cases to.

But the Collaborative does. In early June they were victorious at BC Supreme Court when the Clifton Hotel’s sole remaining tenant and former night manager, Mohammad Valayati, won an order of possession for his room.

All Clifton tenants received proper eviction notices last March after the landlord announced his decision to renovate the building. Except Valayati. The landlord, he alleges, didn’t give him proper notice because he argued Valayati’s an employee, not a tenant.

When Valayati met Pedersen last March, he lived in such fear of the landlord potentially changing the locks that he wasn’t leaving his room. But “I wanted to file an RTB complaint,” he told Megaphone. Pedersen did his paper work for the RTB complaint, which he won, and for the BC Supreme Court case, too.

Valayati now stays with a friend because The Clifton has been declared unsafe. He can’t retrieve his stuff, nor can the landlord touch it. Despite his success, Valayati believes the city is on the landlord’s side: “They find every possible avenue to say this building is not safe.”

SRO protections lack teeth

The City of Vancouver is proposing more protections for SRO tenants.

A report released by city staff last month called for expanding the definition of room “conversion” to any reason a tenant has to be relocated, and increasing the conversion fine from $15,000 to $125,000 per room.

Other recommendations include letting tenants return to renovated buildings at their previous rent; creating a grant or loan program to encourage landlords to keep up building condition and maintain low rents; and asking the B.C. government to add a section on SROs to the Residential Tenancy Act.

But Pedersen says most SRO renovictions don’t happen by the book: “The landlord spends month harassing the tenants until they are evicted either through the [Residential Tenancy Act] or bullying methods, or they’re being paid out to leave after lots of harassment,” she says. “So it’s not like he or she is evicting people directly tied to the renovations on paper, and then the renovation happens and the room sometimes doubles in rent.”

Council will hear arguments for and against the recommendations on July 22, after Megaphone goes to print.

Pedersen will be there to say her piece, alongside current and former SRO tenants. The Collaborative has already started an SRO school—classes to empower tenants to become leaders in their building for tenant rights, in hopes the work the Collaborative starts will continue without them.

Pedersen hopes their success so far leads to another year of funding and an expansion to more hotels. But ultimately she wants the city and the government to end the problem by building more social housing to replace the hotels.

This summer the provincial government will finish construction on the 14th and final social housing building promised to advocates like Pedersen in the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Games.But when it takes at least seven years to erect 14 new social housing buildings, permanent housing to replace over 4,000 SRO units with self-contained units with their own bathrooms and kitchens will take more time and energy on the part of both advocates and tenants to achieve.

While RTB victories might mean housing justice for individual tenants, the Collaborative knows fighting for safe, sustainable, government-funded social housing is playing the long game.

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