The City of Vancouver is working with various groups and agencies to implement strategies to decrease the risks from summer heat, poisoned drugs and fire on an estimated 7,000 tenants living in single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels.
The efforts involve several city departments, Vancouver Fire Rescue Services, BC Housing, Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) and the SRO Collaborative, a community group that formed in 2015 to act on behalf of tenants in the buildings.
“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the heat dome in the summer of 2021 and the ongoing overdose crisis from the poisoned drug supply demonstrate the intersection of vulnerabilities many SRO tenants and operators face in trying to provide safe, livable housing,” said Sandra Singh, the city’s general manager of arts, culture and community services, in an Aug. 3 memo now posted to the city’s website.
Firefighters have already responded to 198 fires this year at SROs, including the Winters Hotel in Gastown in April where Mary Garlow, 68, and Dennis Guay, 53, died. Unattended candles in a suite caused the fire, according to investigators.
Firefighters said they responded to 103 overdoses last week — the number of calls to SROs wasn’t immediately available — and the BC Coroners Service was expected to reveal new data Tuesday on the number of illicit drug deaths in the province.
Overdose deaths in SROs are not uncommon.
Data collected by Vancouver police over a four-year period showed 50 per cent of suspected overdose deaths in the city have occurred in the hotels and in other low-income housing.
From February 2017 to Sept. 5, 2021, police recorded 1,578 overdose deaths, with 33 per cent in SROs and 17 per cent in supportive housing, which is a type of accommodation where tenants have access to health care and other social services.
'Multiple compounding health challenges'
In last summer’s heat dome, 117 of the 619 heat-related deaths in British Columbia occurred in Vancouver. Almost all deaths occurred in a residence, with 10 per cent in social housing, an SRO or supportive housing, according to Singh’s memo.
“People living in socially and materially deprived neighbourhoods [similar to where most SRO hotels are] were more likely to die due to a heat-related incident than the general population, with 33 per cent and 28 per cent of decedents reported to have lived in these neighbourhoods respectively,” she said.
Added Singh: “The majority of residents living in SROs are on limited or fixed incomes and face multiple compounding health challenges, including mental health and substance use challenges, physical disabilities and compromised immune systems, making them much more susceptible to illness.”
In her memo, Singh outlined some of the actions underway or in development to better conditions in the hotels, which are often the most affordable housing available for people on low incomes and a last resort for many before homelessness.
The city’s heat response this summer:
• In June, city council approved a $100,000 grant to the SRO Collaborative to mobilize tenants to provide education, support and services to 2,300 “at-risk tenants” in 43 private SROs.
• The Collaborative’s plan includes the purchase of materials, preparation and distribution of cool packs and resources, as well as a comprehensive first-aid training of 100 tenant volunteers, including multilingual training.
• The city also secured funds through the Vancouver Emergency Management Agency to acquire and distribute approximately 500 “cool kits” to vulnerable SRO tenants. The kits contain an indoor thermometer, a foot bath, cooling towel, spray bottle, cold packs and a reusable water bottle.
• Non-market housing operators are funding the purchase and distribution of another 480 kits for the most vulnerable living in city-owned housing stock. BC Housing is distributing the kit to tenants in their housing portfolio.
• Vancouver Coastal Health developed a three-stage plan to support Indigenous and “priority populations” (which includes people living in SROs and supportive housing) in the event of a heat emergency.
• Every summer, the city activates cooling centres, misting stations and outdoor shaded spaces in the Downtown Eastside and downtown core.
Overdose prevention in the SROs:
• The city and VCH continue to provide funds to the Collaborative to hire tenant workers for the Tenant Overdose Response Organizers program, which aims to prevent overdose deaths in private SROs.
• The program is currently active in 39 SRO buildings and workers maintain and distribute harm reduction supplies, organize naloxone training and communicate with VCH and city staff on issues related to overdoses in the hotels.
Many hotels already have overdose prevention rooms and supplies for tenants who use drugs.
Fire prevention in SROs:
• City staff have met with BC Housing to share information on fires in SROs and identify opportunities to increase fire and life safety standards and training in BC Housing-funded SROs.
• Firefighters planned to attend BC Housing’s “non-profit supportive housing leadership table” this month to share information and identify opportunities for collaboration with housing providers regarding fire prevention.
• Similarly, city staff planned to convene a workshop with large non-profit SRO housing providers such as Atira, PHS and Lookout to identify training and other measures to improve fire and life safety in SROs.
• As part of a two-year pilot program, the city would support the Collaborative to conduct a fire safety training and education pilot in private SROs that would include multilingual training for Chinatown SRO tenants.
“The pilot would also support a fire and heat preparedness multilingual survey,” Singh said. “This survey would help identify the most vulnerable tenants in the stock who would require additional supports and give a better understanding of the level of fire safety awareness of SRO tenants.”
The total number of fires in SRO hotels has almost tripled on an annual basis from 2016 to 2021, with cigarette smoke — at 56 per cent — the leading cause of alarms in 2021 and 2022. Fires in SRO hotels as a percentage of total fires across the city has also increased from seven per cent in 2016 to 11 per cent in 2022.
$1-billion plan to buy private SROs
The city’s long-range ambitious plan is to buy up to 105 privately owned hotels and renovate them for safe, secure and affordable social housing.
A city staff report that went before council in October 2020 said discussions were taking place with senior governments to create a joint investment fund to buy hotels, which would be expensive.
“Staff analysis suggests that the long-term vision of Housing Vancouver to replace all [single-room-occupancy hotels] with shelter-rate social housing would require government investment of approximately $1 billion,” the report said.
That report included data on how average rents at privately owned hotels had jumped by 16 per cent in four years, with the number of rooms available at the shelter rate of $375 per month plummeting from 1,700 in 2003 to 77 last year.
The majority of SROs are older heritage buildings that contain 10 by 10 feet single rooms, typically with shared bathrooms and cooking facilities. The majority of Vancouver’s SROs are located in the Downtown Eastside and downtown core.
The type of housing provides homes for an estimated 7,000 citizens.
About 60 per cent of SROs are owned by non-profit organizations or private owners, and the remainder are publicly owned, with the East Hastings Street corridor dominated by BC Housing properties.