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Low-cost Downtown Eastside hotel rooms disappearing

The American Hotel in Vancouver on May 16.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Redevelopment and rent hikes are eating in to the supply of low-cost hotel rooms in the Downtown Eastside, according to a report prepared by a community group.

The report, prepared by the Carnegie Community Action Project, found fewer rooms available for rents of $375 or less (the monthly shelter allowance for people with disabilities), more rooms renting for $600 or more per month and some hotels charging an extra $200 to $375 a month when two people share a room.

The survey was prepared with information gathered by volunteers who posed as would-be renters at neighbourhood single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels, which have long served as the housing of last resort in the neighbourhood.

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The group said it approached 90 privately owned and operated hotels and obtained information for 69 buildings that account for 3,321 rooms.

"The number of expensive hotel rooms are increasing," Jean Swanson, who co-authored the report, told reporters outside a SRO hotel that is undergoing renovations.

The report found that seven per cent, or 235 rooms, were in hotels where rents were $375 or less, compared with 12 per cent of rooms in a similar survey last year.

The City of Vancouver has a bylaw designed to protect SRO rooms, but that bylaw doesn't prevent hotel owners – including developers that have moved into the changing neighbourhood – from boosting rents and squeezing out poor tenants, the group says.

The province has purchased and renovated dozens of SROs since 2007, as well as partnering with the city on social-housing projects that have added hundreds of units to the Downtown Eastside.

The city has to balance affordability concerns with realities of aging, run-down buildings that in many cases require significant upgrades to meet city standards.

"It's always a concern when rents go up," Councillor Kerry Jang said Wednesday. "But in some cases, the buildings are so dilapidated that the landlords have to spend a significant amount of money to meet city guidelines.

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"And the only way they can recover that is through rent [increases]"

In some cases where a hotel has been purchased and is being renovated, the city is working with new owners to try to retain some rooms as low-rent units, Mr. Jang said.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson announced a housing affordability task force when he was sworn in for his second term as earlier this month. The panel, to be co-chaired by Mr. Robertson and former B.C. Liberal cabinet minister Olga Ilich, is expected to make its final report in June of 2012.

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