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Cindy Bell, who is part of Atira's peer support program, conducts her weekly rounds at the Astoria Hotel, a single-room occupancy residency in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Cindy Bell, who is part of Atira’s peer support program, conducts her weekly rounds at the Astoria Hotel, a single-room occupancy residency in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Rafal Gerszak/For The Globe and Mail

'It's nearly impossible to find anything'

Renters living on social assistance or low incomes are often forced to choose between shelter and food — particularly in Vancouver's tight market, writes Wendy Stueck

For the past year, Cindy Bell has been living in the Budzey Building, a ten-storey apartment complex that opened in July, 2015, and is one of 14 social housing projects being built through a partnership between the City of Vancouver and the provincial government.

In that year, Ms. Bell has flourished. Settled in a home with her own washroom, a kitchen and a window that looks out onto the mountains and her "million-dollar view," Ms. Bell has wrestled a long-time drug habit to its knees and picked up not one, but three, part-time jobs.

NO VACANCY

The rapidly rising cost of rental units in Canada’s largest cities, along with vacancy rates near zero, mean it’s increasingly difficult for people who rely on rental units to find – and keep – their housing. Like the real estate market, rental prices have become detached from incomes and are forcing people to live in cramped apartments, find roommates well into adulthood or simply move away.

The Globe and Mail is spending the summer examining how those factors have shaped the lives of renters, landlords and their cities.

"It's totally changed my life," Ms. Bell said recently while making rounds for one of her part-time positions: peer support housing worker with Atira Women's Resource Society. Through a program called SheRoes, Ms. Bell visits women who live in single-room occupancy hotels to provide housing and other advice.

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She also volunteers at Insite, Vancouver's supervised injection centre, and is a dishwasher at a nearby cafe.

"I'm way more healthy, I'm able to do stuff I wasn't able to even think about before," she adds.

RELATED: Vancouver has little room for renter families

Ms. Bell pays $375 a month – the provincial shelter rate for a single person – for her studio apartment.

That makes her a rarity: a low-income person with secure, high-quality and affordable housing.

A few blocks away, Dianne Cooper – one of the people on Ms. Bell's list of people to visit – pays $450 a month for a room in the Astoria Hotel. It is one of dozens of single-room occupancy hotels in the Downtown Eastside that provide housing of last resort for people who are on social assistance and, frequently, coping with multiple physical and mental-health challenges.

In the Astoria Hotel, Ms. Cooper uses a shared bathroom and worries about her safety. She would like to move.

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"I'm looking for a one-bedroom under $550," Ms. Cooper said in a recent interview in her room. Asked how she would afford that when social assistance only covers $375 for shelter, Ms. Cooper said she would likely have to cut down on other costs, including food.

Similar calculations are likely taking place across the country, particularly in cities like Vancouver, where rapidly increasing rents and low vacancy rates hit vulnerable, low-income tenants especially hard. And even the affordable housing that does exist is quickly evaporating largely due to redevelopment in the region's housing market.

Cindy Bell, left, speaks with Dianne Cooper during her weekly rounds at the Astoria Hotel.

Cindy Bell, left, speaks with Dianne Cooper during her weekly rounds at the Astoria Hotel.

Rafal Gerszak/For The Globe and Mail

According to the Canadian Mortgage Housing Corp., 26.4 per cent of renter households in Canada were in "core housing need" in 2011 – the most recent year available – because of housing that was in poor condition, overcrowded or that cost more than 30 per cent of pre-tax income. For Metro Vancouver, 31.7 per cent were in core need – only slightly lower than Toronto's 32.9 per cent – while in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, the figure was 50.3 per cent.

Low-income renters – including refugees, people on social assistance and seniors – are being squeezed by several factors, including redevelopment. In Burnaby, residents have rallied over "demovictions" – forced evictions resulting from older, low-rise apartment buildings being demolished to make room for new, taller buildings.

RELATED: Critics say B.C. laws don't offer renters enough protection

In Coquitlam, people are scrambling to find new homes for 50 Syrian refugees who were displaced by an apartment fire in July, with the mayor calling on the public to provide basement suites or empty rooms as stopgap measures.

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A tent city in Victoria popped up near the city's courthouse last year and is currently in the process of being dismantled, after months of legal wrangling and provincial commitments for more social housing.

In Vancouver, this year's homeless count hit a 10-year high, a tally many linked to low vacancy rates: 0.6 per cent in the city in October 2015, according to CMHC's most recent statistics. Across the greater Vancouver region, the vacancy rate was 0.8 per cent.

In July, some people set up tents at 58 West Hastings St., a vacant lot in the Downtown Eastside that was home to a housing-related protest encampment during the 2010 Olympic games, and called for more social housing in the neighbourhood. This month, following a meeting with community groups, Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson agreed to work toward building social housing on the site – a process that could take several years.

Meanwhile, people like Ms. Cooper, and non-profit groups that help find housing for low-income people, are scouring the market and finding the pickings less than slim.

RELATED: Airbnb blamed for increase pressure on rental markets

The Kettle Society, for example, helps find housing for clients enrolled in Supported Independent Living, or SIL – a Vancouver Coastal Health program that provides a housing subsidy and support services for people with mental illness.

Between social assistance and the SIL subsidy, such clients would typically have about $750 a month to spend on housing.

"In the past, finding apartments in that price range has been okay," said Kettle Society executive director Nancy Keough.

"But the last few years, my housing staff are saying it's nearly impossible to find anything."

Some landlords who have long been amenable to renting to SIL clients – knowing clients' rent was subsidized and support workers were involved – have hiked their rents or sold their buildings.

The Hamilton Bank Building – a three-storey mixed-use building on Powell Street – changed hands last year. Its 43 studio units, ranging from 150 to 375 square feet, used to be among the lower-cost rental units that the Kettle and other non-profit agencies would canvass when trying to find housing for clients.

Now, renovated studio apartments in the building are advertised at $800 per month, with shared bathroom facilities featured as "spa-inspired communal washrooms." That pattern is playing out in other cities.

Anne Babcock is executive director of WoodGreen Community Services, a Toronto agency that owns and operates housing units and also helps hunt for rental housing for single mothers, refugees and other low-income tenants.

RELATED: Priced out of rental market, Simon Fraser students sleeping on campus

A rental crunch has pushed monthly rents higher and added hurdles, in the form of credit checks and hefty deposits, she said. It is a landlord's market.

"When the vacancies are so low, the competition for units is great. And if you [the landlord] can rent to someone with a job, you're going to go for it," Ms. Babcock said.

As in Vancouver, properties once known as low-income rental stock are changing hands.

"In Toronto, where we once had clients in rooming houses and old hotels, those are now being purchased by developers," she said. "And the rent that [our clients] are able to pay and what the new owners are going to charge doesn't match."

Cindy Bell outside the Astoria Hotel.

Cindy Bell outside the Astoria Hotel.

Rafal Gerszak/For The Globe and Mail

Ms. Babcock hopes Toronto will consider regulations along the lines of rules in Vancouver – in place since 2003 – that require owners to retain SRO rooms or pay a fine. While critics say those regulations have not done enough to protect affordable housing, the restrictions are a buffer against wholesale redevelopment.

Like many others involved in housing, Ms. Babcock wants to see a national housing strategy that includes plans to build new rental stock and repair crumbling older units.

The demand is high. Before Ms. Bell got her apartment in Vancouver, she went through several interviews as B.C. Housing chose tenants from the hundreds who had applied.

"I know people who have been on that list for years," she said. "And sometimes, it's hard to know what to tell them."

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