Tenants in a Downtown Eastside SRO who have criticized guest restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic say they’re concerned about police actions enforcing the rules.
Erica Grant and David Mendes live in the Savoy, a single-room occupancy hotel building on East Hastings Street operated by Atira Property Management, which manages several buildings in the neighbourhood.
Grant was warned she could be evicted after police were called to the building on Jan. 2 to arrest her 29-year-old son, who had been banned from the Savoy at the end of December.
Mendes said he was visited the next day by police officers looking for a guest of another tenant. Officers pulled him out of his apartment and went in to search for that guest, he said.
“I was like, ‘What? What are you doing? Do you have a warrant? Like, why are you coming in here?’” Mendes said. “And the one popped his head back out, and he pointed at me and said, ‘Suspected COVID violation.’”
Atira and most other housing operators in the Downtown Eastside have restricted guests at their buildings since pandemic restrictions started in March. Atira now allows residents to designate two guests who must be identified to building staff.
Current provincial health orders state that there can be no social gatherings of any size inside people’s homes, “other than your household or core bubble.”
B.C.’s public health officer strongly recommends that people wear masks in common areas of rental buildings (for instance, hallways, stairwells and shared laundry rooms).
B.C.’s Residential Tenancy Branch published guidance for COVID-19 that said landlords have the power to “schedule or restrict the use of common shared areas” like lobbies and laundry rooms — but they don’t have the power to stop visitors from coming to someone’s apartment.
The guest restrictions put in place by supportive housing operators in the Downtown Eastside are not supported by B.C.’s tenancy laws. But housing providers say the rules are necessary to protect vulnerable residents in the century-old hotels.
SRO hotels often have narrow hallways, tiny 100-square foot rooms and shared bathrooms and kitchens. The people who live in them frequently have existing health conditions, and people who have contracted COVID-19 in the Downtown Eastside are more likely to be hospitalized.
Grant said she had been told that her partner, Grant Houle, and her adult son were both on her guest list. On the night of Jan. 2, she said police came to her door and entered her room, looking for her son. Grant said she tried to tell them they couldn’t come in and that she would send him out.
Grant said she tried to keep her door shut but police officers pushed it open, and her foot and arm were painfully scraped. A female officer pulled her hair and twisted her thumb, she said. Grant said she is still in pain from the incident.
The Vancouver Police Department says officers were called to the building by staff who were concerned for their safety “after a man who was known to be violent toward them entered the building and went up to a room. The man had a B.C.-wide warrant for assault.”
“The officers found the door to the room ajar and tried to convince the man to come into the hallway so he could be taken into custody,” media liaison officer Steve Addison wrote to The Tyee in an email. “While speaking with him, another occupant of the room became agitated and hostile towards one of the officers, and the officer did physically control the person to avoid being assaulted.”
Grant said her son was co-operating with police during the incident. The officers said they were there because he had been banned from the building, she added, and didn’t mention anything about him being violent.
Grant said she wasn’t aware on Jan. 2 that her son had been banned from the building days earlier. She said she later learned that building staff had told Houle of the ban, but he hadn’t passed the information on to her.
And Grant said she also later learned her son had shoved the building manager on Dec. 30 when she was trying to take away a key to the building staff had given him. The incident was overblown, Grant maintains.
Her son is now homeless, Grant said.
Janice Abbott, CEO of Atira, declined to comment on the incident.
Two days after police came to her door, Grant received a letter from her building manager warning she could be evicted if she violates the guest policy again.
The letter makes no mention of her son being violent, but says he was barred from the building after “being seen on camera letting others in the building as well as wandering in common areas, which is prohibited during the current lockdown because of the Global Coronavirus Pandemic, COVID-19.”
The letter goes on to say that “guests may use the washrooms in a timely manner but are not to access any other common areas or visit other units to which they are not registered on the restricted guest list.”
The letter states that Grant is in breach of her residential tenancy agreement with Atira “because you continue to seriously jeopardize the safety of tenants and staff by putting them at significant risk by allowing your guest… into the building after being barred for breaching the COVID-19 guest protocol and the landlord does have cause to end tenancy.”
Abbott said Atira often sends tenants letters warning them they could be evicted because they are breaking the rules, and the letters rarely lead to actual evictions.
Robert Patterson, a legal advocate with the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre, said it’s common for supportive housing landlords who house high-needs tenants to be much more directly involved in managing tenancies.
That includes enforcing rules like when and how guests can visit buildings — rules that aren’t in place at other rental buildings. In some buildings, those restrictions were in place long before COVID-19 but are now stricter.
“People who live in supportive housing are very usually a very volatile population anyways, and while many of these policies are very well meaning, it has resulted in cutting many of them off from supports,” Patterson said.
Several supportive housing tenants in B.C. have challenged guest restrictions in court and won, Patterson said.
And yet, the restrictions continue to be applied by housing providers, including Atira, who say they are needed to keep their buildings safe.
Patterson said it’s also very common for tenants in supportive housing buildings to get letters like the one Grant received. He said it’s good for landlords to give tenants a warning first so they can correct the situation, “but on the flip side, a lot of times these letters are used kind of as cudgels to get people to behave better or more like the landlord wants to see.”
This October, the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre hired a new legal advocate to focus solely on helping tenants who live in supportive housing, Patterson said.
Tenants and staff from Vancouver Coastal Health have raised concerns that restricting guests led to more overdose deaths in the spring of 2020, although housing providers have disputed that.
In early April, Grant’s son Duncan died in his room at the London, another Atira-operated SRO building in Vancouver. Grant still wonders if things would have been different if she had been allowed in the buildings to look for him when he stopped answering his phone.
Savoy resident Mendes said staff at his building try to do a good job, and he said Atira has been receptive to hearing his concerns about the current guest rules.
But he said it was frightening and upsetting to have police officers pound on his door, to be pulled physically out of his apartment and to be held in the hallway while police searched his home.
The Vancouver Police Department says it does not have a record of the incident Mendes described.
There have been several media stories about police breaking up large parties in other parts of Metro Vancouver, but Mendes believes the situation he experienced would have been handled differently outside of the Downtown Eastside.
“In any other neighbourhood, they would send the bylaw officer if the neighbours complained that there are too many people. An officer would come there, ring the doorbell and ask the tenant or the homeowner if there’s somebody in there that was breaking the provincial policy,” he said.
“As opposed to pulling you out and having three cops come barrelling into your place and the other one holding you outside.”
Grant, who has herself experienced homelessness, said it’s very difficult to not be able to invite your loved ones inside when they’re suffering outside in the winter.
“There’s a lot of parents down here, a lot of mothers, a lot of grandmothers,” she said. “They’re not going to let their kids stay out in the cold.”
Jen St. Denis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee