'These buildings aren't fit for people': Advocate sounds alarm on Vancouver SRO challenges

The devastating fire at Gastown’s Winters Hotel has brought more attention to the issues plaguing Vancouver's single-room occupancy residences.

Stephanie Smith, an SRO advocate and city council candidate, said the tragedy --in which two people were killed – laid bare the conditions in which some of the city's most vulnerable residents are living.

“It's been very, very hard for everyone to sort of process and deal with what happened at the Winters.I think what this highlights is that these buildings aren't fit for people,” Smith said.

There are hundreds of SROs in the neighbourhood, and maintaining them can be difficult.

“We make sure that things are being maintained and in appropriate condition. What we're finding often in the SROs is that they're not really being maintained in top form and often in unsafe conditions – and that's where we really need to enforce more,” explained Coun. Pete Fry.

“It's a bit of a challenge though because we don't want to jeopardize that stock. So, for our staff, it's a bit of a balance.”

It isn’t just city staff struggling to find that balance.

Smith said many tenants do not feel like they can safely voice their concerns.

“It's very challenging for the tenants to try to assert their rights because they are marginalized. They don't have any place else to go, you know, and if they are evicted from their buildings they will end up in the street,” Smith said.

Fry said the city recognizes the current SRO options are not ideal and the municipality is working with the province on solutions.

“How can we house people in a dignified way that will stabilize them as well? A lot of stuff we're working with the province on is complex care, different kinds of approaches to housing different populations,” Fry said.

Smith agrees there need to be more options.

“It's very important for us to start building adequate, safe, dignified housing (where) people have their own bath and a place to cook -- and we don't have to worry about the building burning to the ground when someone lights a candle in their room,” Smith said.

For others, watching the heritage building burn stoked fears about how easily something similar might happen to others in the historic neighbourhood.

“I seen that building burned down just, you know, shivers down my spine,” Eddie Emerman, building manager of the nearby Blarney Stone, told Vancouver city council at a special meeting earlier this week.

He revealed the apartment units in the upper levels of the building do not have any sprinklers because the building is deemed a non-conforming building and renovations must be done first.

“Sprinklers save lives – period. Having sprinklers in the building with the current existing non-conforming building structures is better than the status quo, which we will keep rather than spending millions of dollars trying to bring the building up to the modern ‘code’ in order to have sprinklers approved. We simply cannot afford to do so,” Emerman said.

The Winters Hotel did have working sprinklers, but they were turned off because there had been another fire there just three days before.