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A homeless man walks through a back lane in the West End neighbourhood in Vancouver, British Columbia, Saturday, November 16, 2013.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver is pouring more money into efforts to create low-cost housing in the next four years than it has at any time in recent memory. And city officials say that money is going to be spent in a new way, with most of it going to units targeted toward low- or middle-income people.

That's a change in direction from the past decade, where most new subsidized housing in Vancouver has been targeted to people with serious mental-health and addiction problems.

But no one can say whether the new housing will make up for the loss of cheap apartments throughout the city, as older buildings are demolished, basement suites are renovated and former rooming houses are upgraded.

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"What we're doing in Vancouver is without parallel in the region," Councillor Geoff Meggs said. But, he acknowledges, "on the loss of housing, we're really in the dark. It's really a problem."

In fact, it's not just the losses that are unclear. Even the gains are a little fuzzy.

In the budget about to be passed this week, the city plans to spend $60-million from its capital budget on housing projects this year. Another $65-million – also from its capital budget – is forecast to be spent for the remaining three years of this council's term.

In addition, tens of millions will come from other sources.

In its past three-year term, for example, the Vision Vancouver-dominated council generated $275-million worth of rental housing, largely through money from its property endowment fund ($31-million), capital ($88-million) and units leveraged from rezonings ($148-million).

The city's chief housing officer, Mukhtar Latif, now also in charge of the newly created Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency, says the aim for the next four years is to create 2,550 lower-cost units using similar sources of money.

To that end, the city announced Monday that it had paid $11-million for land on Southwest Marine Drive, using money generated from rezonings along Cambie Street, to build 125 units of low-cost housing.

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But there are no firm targets yet on what rents will be charged for those units, says Mr. Latif. "The 2,550 will be delivered at a range of rents. But the deepest subsidies will depend on what other agencies can contribute."

The city will be looking to groups such as the private charity Streetohome and government agencies such as BC Housing to help bring down the rents for some of those units so that they're deemed "affordable" to people in the $30,000- to $80,000-a-year income bracket.

With housing affordability defined by most groups as 30 per cent of income, that would mean rents of $750 to $2,000 a month for that group. However, the city is also losing low-cost apartments at a steady clip, sometimes through its own rezonings, sometimes as landlords decide to renovate and then charge more for their condos, basement suites or dedicated rental buildings.

Mr. Latif and Mr. Meggs say they don't know how many of those units are disappearing.

"The city doesn't have a comprehensive inventory," said Mr. Meggs, adding that it would be a Herculean task to create one.

While council is routinely hearing protests from people complaining about the loss of cheap units in the city, Mr. Meggs said some of that housing is in such bad shape, it has to be replaced.

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That's why he and his Vision colleagues voted to allow the rezoning of Marine Gardens, a townhouse complex on Southeast Marine whose 70 rental units will be demolished to make way for a project with 70 new rental units and 514 condos.

But, says Mr. Meggs, the city is going to work to increase the supply at that lower end, using its land, money and ability to leverage contributions from other groups. While that may be welcome news to some, it isn't to everyone.

Non-Partisan Association Councillor George Affleck said other community services are suffering – the community centres, parks and libraries that make the city livable – because the Vision council is spending so much on housing. "I know we have a problem, but this is a B.C. issue, a Canadian issue, not just a Vancouver issue."

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