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British Columbia Activists in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside challenge latest attempt to gentrify neighbourhood

Evictions from the York Rooms hotel, middle, has Downtown Eastside residents fuming over building manager Living Balance’s tactics.

Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak

Recent evictions at a Vancouver Downtown Eastside hotel are the latest effort by a real estate investment firm to gentrify the low-income neighbourhood, insist area residents and advocates, who faced down a company spokesman in a heated exchange on Thursday.

The group was speaking at a news conference organized by the Pivot Legal Society on what it says is the escalating harassment, intimidation and threats of eviction facing tenants of the York Rooms single-room occupancy building at 259 Powell St.

The 36-room hotel sits above Cuchillo, a new Latin American restaurant some activists have picketed since early July for being what they view as a gentrifying force in the heart of the low-income community.

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According to the Pivot Legal Society, numerous people have either been evicted from the building or driven out by way of bribes and intimidation over the past few months. This is the first step Living Balance takes before "renovicting" – renovating and raising the rents – and pricing out the poor, they allege.

Living Balance, which has managed York Rooms since November, 2011, has renovated many such buildings in Vancouver over the years, including the Piccadilly, American and Lotus hotels.

Sherman VanderBos, who has lived at York Rooms for about four years, says that one year ago managers offered him his month's rent back, and an additional $400, if he would leave. He declined.

"I got no other place to go," he said on Thursday. "Four-hundred dollars, that's going to last me for, what, maybe a week? Then I'll be sleeping in the park. I'll lose all my possessions. It's not worth it to me."

Long-time Downtown Eastside activist Wendy Pedersen said such offers are being made to vulnerable, low-income residents in efforts to drive them from the area. "This is the systematic evacuation of low-income people from our neighbourhood," she said.

But Geoffrey Howes, a spokesman for Living Balance, said the company is "not in the business of throwing people out." No one has ever been offered money to leave, he insisted.

Mr. Howes, who attended Thursday's media event to hand out fact sheets, was met with angry Downtown Eastside advocates, who waved middle fingers and shouted in his face.

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"We're trying to create an environment where it's safe and secure for the tenants that are there at reasonable market rents for SROs, which, in our case, are anywhere between $475 and $575 [per month]," he said later. "We find there is a significantly different individual that rents in that range because the people that are renting in that range are low-income individuals who show much more respect toward the property. The respect that is shown for the buildings at the welfare rate [of $375 per month] makes those rooms almost impossible to manage."

The rent at York Rooms ranges from $370 to $600, with the majority falling between $425 and $475. Twelve units currently sit empty because some tenants left because of concerns over safety and open drug activity, Mr. Howes said, adding that the company is "desperately" trying to rent them out.

There has only been one eviction in the past few months, he said, and that was for a drug dealer who had dozens of clients visiting his suite each night. When Living Balance took over, it installed cameras and lights and instituted a zero-drug policy, resulting in calls for service to police dropping by nearly 70 per cent, Mr. Howes said.

Vancouver City Councillor Kerry Jang said increasing rents is necessary to ensure the viability of buildings and that "when you have entirely welfare rates in a building, they fall down." The real issue, he said, is that low-income residents have only had one increase in provincial housing allowance – of $50 – since 1992.

"The cost of just keeping a building up is outpacing government rates for low-income folks, and that is the problem," he said. "We've done everything within our powers as a city – we've created a rent bank, rent subsidies – but we cannot mandate rents, which is what Pivot wants."

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