For nearly three years, fires have been ripping through the century-old dorm-style apartment buildings in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside at an increasingly frequent clip, destroying 188 units this year and displacing scores of the city’s hardest-to-house people.
Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services data show firefighters responded to just over 100 fires at these single-room occupancy (SRO) occupancy hotels in 2017 and the following year, before rising to 169 in 2019.
During the first year British Columbians lived with COVID-19, there were 202 fires at SROs and then, last year, 254 incidents. The latest official data, contained in a city report last November, shows these units were renting for an average of $561 per month before the pandemic and just 77 rooms were being offered at the provincial welfare rate of $375 per month.
Local housing activists say these fires are adding to the disorder and despair in the Downtown Eastside as people displaced by a blaze are prioritized for new accommodation, leaving those who are homeless to wait longer for housing.
Captain Matthew Trudeau, spokesperson for the fire department, said he expects the number of fires his agency has put out at SROs this year – 170 as of earlier this month – will increase to meet or exceed last year’s tally as more people flock inside to avoid wet winter weather. So far this year, the Downtown Eastside fire hall has responded to 592 indoor and outdoor fires – which means the tiny patch it patrols has seen nearly a quarter of all the 2,669 fires across the city, he added.
“Fires on a whole throughout the City of Vancouver are slightly down, but they’re so much higher on the Downtown Eastside that it drove our whole average up,” said Capt. Trudeau, who also tours SRO buildings each week with the department’s overdose prevention team. “We’re seeing the effects of what happens when you take [an SRO] building combined with mental health and substance abuse challenges.”
More than half of the blazes were started this year with “smoking materials” such as lighters. Capt. Trudeau said residents often use these devices while consuming illicit drugs alone inside these tiny rooms. A concerning new trend is the arrival of mini $15 butane torches sold everywhere which have a setting that continuously shoots out flames even after the ignition button is released or the device is dropped, Capt. Trudeau added.
BC Housing says larger fires at six buildings have displaced 343 people this year, starting with the blaze that destroyed the Winters Hotel fire in April and killed two residents. Only 155 of those evacuees have returned to their rooms, the provincial agency said this month. The other 188 who lost their homes in three of the buildings were offered long-term units elsewhere, but the agency could not say how many people accepted its offers.
The destruction of these units is a huge problem that is landing more people on the street, according to city councillor Jean Swanson who, along with other community activists, pushed the city to mandate sprinkler systems be put into the SRO buildings in the 1970s when roughly seven people a year were dying from fires.
In March, 2020, the city’s official count tallied roughly 2,095 people experiencing homelessness, according to the single-day canvass of different areas of Vancouver. The count has not been done since the pandemic and Ms. Swanson said there are surely many more people without homes because of these fires. Another factor, she said, is the practice – flagged in last year’s city staff report – whereby landlords offer tenants with mental health or substance use issues a cash buy-out to end their tenancy so that new higher-income earners can move in and pay more rent.
“We have shelter spaces for about 1,500 and I’m hearing shelters are turning folks away now,” said Ms. Swanson, who was not re-elected in the Oct. 15 municipal election.
Wendy Pedersen, who leads the non-profit SRO Collaborative that organizes tenants to push for better conditions in these buildings owned and run by private landlords, said there doesn’t appear to be one cause behind all the most devastating fires, despite conspiratorial rumours to the contrary among people living in the Downtown Eastside.
“I don’t think there’s a suspicious connection to any of them, I just think each of them started in a different way,” said Ms. Pedersen, who recalled her grandfather accidentally started a fire in one of these rooms at the Hotel Europe nearly a century ago after falling asleep with a lit cigarette.
Involving residents is the “secret sauce” to stopping more fires from damaging these important units, which are typically less than 320 square feet, she said. The city could pay small honorariums to a cadre of tenants willing to inspect their own floors for deficiencies such as whether the alarm is functioning or the fire hose is folded correctly, Ms. Pedersen said. Or, she added, residents could be drawn into participating in regular fire drills with a small stipend and a meal being provided at the marshalling area.
Ultimately, Downtown Eastside residents and politicians of all stripes agree the outdated rental units need to be replaced with modern apartments. Two years ago, the city council voted to push Ottawa and the provincial government to help Vancouver buy up more than a hundred of these privately-owned buildings, but a funding agreement has not yet been reached.
Until that happens, Ms. Pedersen says she and her fellow activists are focused on improving the safety of the 2,000 or so SRO units that are needed to provide crucial housing for the next decade and a half.
A further 1,000 SRO units have been upgraded by their landlords and rented to students and other tenants for upward of $1,200, and about as many units are in complete disrepair and owned by people who put no money into them, Ms. Pedersen said.
“There’s a shrinking supply of low-income housing and what’s left is renting for $600 per month,” she said. “The people who are not using drugs and alcohol every day, who don’t have that expense, are managing to cling on to the $600-per-month rooms and everybody else is getting squeezed out on to the street.
“That’s what happens when you don’t house people and you don’t have good drug policy.”