British Columbia

Residents and advocates rally, pack court for Vancouver's appeal of struck-down SRO housing rules

The City of Vancouver is appealing an August 2022 ruling that struck down its bylaw limiting how much property owners could increase the rents of single-room occupancy (SRO) housing between tenancies.

Lawyers argue for and against the quashed rules, highlighting jurisdictional issues and human costs

A number of protesters rally on the sidewalk of a busy city street.
About 50 people rallied at the Vancouver Law Courts Tuesday in support of the city's bid to overturn the a ruling that tore up new SRO vacancy rules. (Liam Britten/CBC)

About 50 people chanted "Vacancy control, now!" outside the Vancouver Law Courts Tuesday on a day the B.C. Appeals Court heard legal arguments over Vancouver's quashed single-room occupancy (SRO) vacancy rules.

The City of Vancouver is appealing an August 2022 ruling that struck down its bylaw limiting how much property owners could increase the rents of single-room occupancy (SRO) housing between tenancies.

A B.C. Supreme Court judge found that the city did not have the authority to decide how a property owner changes rent when a tenant moves out because of conflicts with the provincial Residential Tenancy Act.

On Tuesday, at least a half dozen lawyers for the city, landlords and tenants' rights groups made arguments for and against those rules before a trio of judges on B.C.'s highest court.

WATCH | Advocates say the outcome of the appeal will impact vulnerable people, one way or another:

Advocate says much is at stake in court fight over Vancouver's SRO vacancy bylaw

7 months ago
Duration 0:46
Advocates and tenants of single-room occupancy (SRO) units gathered at the B.C. Court of Appeal Tuesday as the court heard arguments about a quashed bylaw that would limit how much property owners could increase the rents of SROs between tenancies.

And just like the counsel tables were at capacity, with three or more attorneys — sometimes on opposing sides of the issue — sharing them, the gallery was also packed.

Mostly, the seats were filled by SRO residents and advocates who say the appeal's outcome will mean the difference between housing and homelessness for some of the city's most vulnerable.

'We got it and we want to keep it'

During Tuesday's lunch break, SRO residents and advocates joined a rally led by the Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative Society to express their support for the city's appeal. The collaborative and other groups were granted intervenor status and lawyers representing them addressed the judges.

Wendy Pedersen with the collaborative said the bylaw would protect low-income renters by preventing landlords from raising the rent "two or three times" from one tenancy to the next, as is allowed under provincial rules.

A woman sits on a set of stairs with a banner from the Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative Society.
Intervening in the case in favour of the City of Vancouver's appeal are the Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative Society, the Together Against Poverty Society B.C., Community Legal Assistance Society and the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre. (Liam Britten/CBC)

She said Downtown Eastside residents have been pushing for such a bylaw for almost 20 years.

"We got it and we want to keep it," Pedersen said. "In our view, local people should have the right to make local decisions about local issues.

"If we don't have SRO vacancy control, there's going to be more and more homelessness. If you think homelessness is bad right now in Vancouver, it's going to get way worse."

SRO resident Gilles Cyrenne said without vacancy control, low-income people will come second to profits for private-sector landlords.

"Homelessness, to me, is an indication of colossal market failure," Cyrenne said. 

"It's obvious it doesn't work when you look at the streets of Downtown Vancouver … so we need vacancy control and we also need more government-built housing at all levels, but especially for the most vulnerable."

Vancouver's Downtown Eastside along Hastings Street with its SROs lining the road.
A photo of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside taken in 2020. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Jurisdiction issues in arguments

In the much-quieter courtroom, lawyers representing individual private-sector landlords and industry group Landlord B.C. argued against the appeal.

They said the lower-court judge got it right by throwing out the bylaw. The province already has a complete set of tenancy laws, they said, also arguing the Vancouver Charter does not give the city rent-control powers and the bylaw was leading to conflicts and complexities for landlords navigating the two sets of rules.

They also said it's reasonable for provincewide rules to apply because there's nothing unique about Vancouver's homelessness situation and the province is in a better position to support SROs with policies and funding than cities.

City lawyer Grant Murray said Vancouver, thanks to the charter, has broad powers over licensed businesses within its jurisdiction and since the bylaw was about vacancies, not established tenancies, there should be no conflict between its rules and the province's.

Lawyers for the collaborative and other intervening groups echoed Murray's arguments in part adding that provincial rules don't consider the unique nature of SRO housing in Vancouver, centralized largely in the Downtown Eastside.

They also highlighted the scope and impact of homelessness, "a profound experience of human suffering," as Julia Riddle, arguing for multiple intervening advocacy groups, described it.

The judges reserved their decision and lawyers said they couldn't speculate when they would make a ruling.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Liam Britten

Digital journalist

Liam Britten is an award-winning journalist for CBC Vancouver. You can contact him at liam.britten@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter: @liam_britten.

With files from Chad Pawson