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Organizing very low-income tenants in the Downtown Eastside

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On this week's episode of Talking Radical Radio, I speak with Wendy Pederson. She is an organizer with the Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative, a group that is organizing tenants in single-room occupancy (or SRO) hotels in Vancouver.

The Downtown Eastside neighbourhood of Vancouver is the poorest urban neighbourhood in Canada. It has a very high proportion of residents living on low and extremely low incomes. Given that governments in this country have done next to nothing to address housing issues in the last two decades, many residents of the Downtown Eastside have only one option other than living on the streets: renting a room in an SRO hotel. These buildings contain small, individual rooms for rent, often with no kitchen facilities whatsoever and a shared bathroom down the hall. Many of the hundred or so buildings that house the 5,000+ SRO units in the Downtown Eastside are old, some surpassing the century mark, and many landlords are unwilling to invest the money necessary to maintain them. This means that living conditions in many of them span the range from poor to utterly appalling. At the same time, rents are going up: the average SRO rent in the neighbourhood is already well above the shelter allowance portion of welfare payments in British Columbia. And the entire neighbourhood is under threat from gentrification, as investors seek to buy SRO hotels and other properties so they can change how they're used, displace existing residents, re-make the neighbourhood, and profit extensively from the fact that urban Vancouver is one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country.

The Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative is a relatively new organization based on a model that is used extensively in San Francisco -- one of the few places in North America where low-income tenants are under even more severe threat than in Vancouver. The idea is to work with tenants of a given SRO hotel to set up a tenant committee in the building, to help them develop knowledge about their rights and about the system as well as skills for community organizing and leadership, and to focus on using a combination of political pressure and legal mechanisms to force landlords to improve the living conditions in the building. This organizing (with its focus on habitability) improves the lives of tenants, builds their collective power in one building, and creates a basis for broader political campaigns spanning multiple buildings or even the entire neighbourhood.

The Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative got initial funding from a local non-profit housing provider and has had success in organizing tenants in six SRO hotels, including four of the worst in the neighbourhood. They have won some significant victories already, despite the relatively early stage of the work, and the backlash they have faced from landlords has been intense. They are scrambling to make sure they have funding in place for the coming year, and are hopeful they'll be able to expand their reach to ten buildings. Whether it is through expanding their own capacity or helping other collaboratives form independently, they are keen to see this approach to organizing spread -- and spread quickly -- to improve the lives of low-income tenants, to defend and improve the low-income housing that currently exists, to act against gentrification, and in the longer term to win the massive new investment in social housing that tenants in the Downtown Eastside so desperately need.

To learn more about the work of the Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative, click here.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada. We give you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show in general, visit its website here. You can learn about suggesting topics for future shows here.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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