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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Vancouver groups to file complaint to United Nations over housing shortage

Stephanie Levitz, THE CANADIAN PRESS
VANCOUVER - Tourist dollars are trumping local needs, resulting in hundreds of evictions and violating international human rights, three Vancouver community groups are alleging in a complaint being filed to the United Nations.

The three groups say the ongoing evictions from single room-occupancy hotels in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside will only get worse as the city's real estate market continues to explode in the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.

More than 1,000 rooms have already been converted from low-income use or closed altogether since Vancouver won the bid for the Games in 2003, according to a tally being prepared by Pivot Legal Society, one of the groups filing the complaint.

"Looking at the amount of money that's being spent on the Olympics, looking at the public relations that's being done around the token efforts towards dealing with the homeless problem, we feel it's time for some international scrutiny to come to British Columbia and Vancouver about the Downtown Eastside," said David Eby, a lawyer with Pivot.

The complaint, which will officially be filed next week, alleges that the right to housing is being violated in part by a loophole that allows tenants to be evicted while landlords carry out renovations to buildings.

Since most of the people living in low-income rentals don't have the option to move somewhere else, it kickstarts a cycle of homelessness that's a clear violation of international protocols agreed to by Canada and dozens of other nations, said Am Johal, the founder of Impact on Communities Coalition, another one of the groups involved in the complaint.

With more than 200,000 people expected to converge on Vancouver for the Olympics in 2010, the situation is only going to get worse, he said.

"There are options for cruise ships and homestays, but this is going to place an incredible burden on the existing rental housing stock and without closing these loopholes, even for a temporary period of time, its our view that there will be thousands of evictions," he said.

In 2006, a U.N. committee described the state of homelessness and inadequate housing in Canada as a "national emergency," and in the fall of 2007, the U.N. special rapporteur on housing took a two-week tour of Canada and recommended a national large-scale project of social housing.

The complaint also alleges rights violations connected to the failure to provide safe housing, police protection, accountability to displaced people and the failure to involve the inner city in development plans for the neighbourhood.

The province, the city and Vancouver Olympic officials have all launched initiatives designed to mitigate the potential social impact of the 2010 Games on the city.

Olympic organizers committed to leaving a legacy of 250 beds for social housing and the city of Vancouver has bought up 17 single room-occupancy hotels, effectively placing them out of reach of private developers and promising to build social housing units on a dozen other sites.

But Eby said those 17 purchases represent only 20 per cent of the stock of homes in the community.

"We're concerned about the remaining 80 per cent," he said.

"That's full of about 5,000 people who are on social assistance, who are desperately afraid they are going to end up on the streets before the Olympic games come."

Once the complaint has been filed, it will be reviewed by the United Nations Human Rights Commission and, if judged valid, Canada and the province will have to answer to international community on the concerns raised, Eby said.

The process will likely take a year and a half to resolve, coming to a head just in time for the 2010 Winter Games.

© The Canadian Press, 2008

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