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Vancouver’s housing crisis a form of 'apartheid:' former UN housing rapporteur

'The number of homeless people has grown, 30 per cent over three years. The welfare rates — shockingly — are exactly the same as when I was here in 2007.'

Miloon Kothari, the former United Nations special rapporteur on housing, speaks with reporters outside a homeless tent city at 950 Main St. on June 5, 2017.

Jen St. Denis/Metro

Miloon Kothari, the former United Nations special rapporteur on housing, speaks with reporters outside a homeless tent city at 950 Main St. on June 5, 2017.

Ten years after visiting a protest squat at 950 Main St., Miloon Kothari is back — and not much has changed.

“My initial impressions are ones of disbelief and shock,” said Kothari, the former United Nations special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing. “When I came here in 2007, my observation was that there was a major housing crisis in Canada, in Vancouver as well.

“The number of homeless people has grown, 30 per cent over three years. The welfare rates — shockingly — are exactly the same as when I was here in 2007.”

There’s still no social housing at 950 Main St. (although a 26-unit building is planned), and the city-owned vacant lot is once again filled with homeless people living in tents who say they don’t want to live in shelters or poorly-run single room occupancy hotels.

Kothari lives in New Delhi but is in Vancouver to give a talk at Simon Fraser University and to meet with City of Vancouver officials. He spent his morning touring the Downtown Eastside and the Balmoral Hotel, an SRO the city ordered tenants to evacuate on June 2 with just 10 days notice because of serious structural issues.

Miloon Kothari (left), the former United Nations special rapporteur on housing, talks with Keya Archambolt, who lives in the tent city at 950 Main St. in Vancouver.

Jen St. Denis/Metro

Miloon Kothari (left), the former United Nations special rapporteur on housing, talks with Keya Archambolt, who lives in the tent city at 950 Main St. in Vancouver.

Kothari called what he saw “hyper-gentrification.” Under new area plans adopted in 2011 and 2014, new condominiums have since been built in both the Downtown Eastside and Chinatown. That’s squeezing out low-income people, Kothari said.

“When I came here in 2007 the area with the SROs and where there were shelters for low-income people was bigger,” Kothari said. “When you study the situation you can see there’s a direct impact of that kind of high-end condominium on the loss of SRO rooms for lower-income people, on commercial enterprises 

Kothari called on government to build housing for the poorest people: while more social housing has been added to the Downtown Eastside, housing that can be rented at the welfare shelter rate of $375 has been disappearing. He said the policy of requiring developers to include some social housing units within condo buildings hasn’t worked.

“That’s a good concept, but when you see it put into practice, as we see in Woodwards, that doesn’t really pan out,” he said. “You provide a certain number of units for lower-income people, but there is upward pressure. Unless you have a certain number of units saved for lower-income people, what generally happens is that the general gentrification pushes lower income people out.”

Vancouver’s housing situation now amounts to a kind of “apartheid,” Kothari said, where governments have enacted policies that ensure segregation, in Vancouver’s case between the wealthy and the poor.

“It’s a form of discrimination,” he said.

The Balmoral Hotel at E. Hastings and Main in the Downtown Eastside. Tenants have been ordered to vacate the building by June 12 because of major structural problems with the building.

Jen St. Denis/Metro

The Balmoral Hotel at E. Hastings and Main in the Downtown Eastside. Tenants have been ordered to vacate the building by June 12 because of major structural problems with the building.

Kothari called on all three levels of government in Canada to build more social housing to house the poorest people and to try solutions from other jurisdictions. He also warned against the cult of homeownership and the unbridled speculation that has pushed Vancouver home prices into the stratosphere and completely disconnected real estate prices from local incomes.

On the state of the Balmoral, which houses 143 tenants, he questioned how the city could let the situation go on for so long. The owners of the Balmoral, the Sahota family, have failed to do city-ordered repairs for decades.

After facing pressure from housing activists, the city recently stepped up enforcement of its own standards of maintenance bylaw. A May 30 structural review found the building was at risk of collapse.

“Why do we have a situation where, knowingly, a place like the Balmoral is allowed to become what it is today? Why? What is the rationale?” Kothari asked. “It’s a life and health threatening situation. Somebody could die there tomorrow, and who’s going to be responsible for that?”

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