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DTES tenants being squeezed by gentrification, says new report

Low-income residents of the Downtown Eastside are being squeezed out of affordable housing by "rapacious" real-estate development, a Vancouver anti-poverty group warns in a report released today.

At a press conference held outside the York Hotel at the corner of Powell and Gore, Jean Swanson, coordinator of the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP), announced the release of the group's fourth annual hotel survey.

According to the group's findings, over half of the hotel rooms in the Downtown Eastside are part of hotels where the lowest available rent is over $425.

At the same time, only seven per cent of hotel rooms in the Downtown Eastside are part of hotels that rent strictly at or below the provincial welfare assistance rate of $375 a month. That's down from 29 per cent in 2009.

While the report heralds 2011 as "the best year in at least a decade" for new social housing in the neighbourhood, with 328 new units this year, Swanson says that recent progress has been dwarfed by the decline in private affordable rental stock resulting from the upscaling of hotels.

"If the city wants to stop homelessness, they have to put the stop on gentrification," says Swanson.

The report concludes by offering six policy recommendations each to the city and province. At the city level, the report says, City Council should amend the SRA Bylaw so that the official hotel rental stock is tied to welfare and pension rates. The city should also more vigorously enforce basic safety, sanitation, and maintenance standards in SROs and declare a moratorium on condo development.

CCAP is also calling upon the province to raise welfare rates, to provide funding for 1,000 social housing units per year for the next five years, and to tie rent control regulations to rooms rather than tenants.

Under current rent control laws, a property owner can raise rents on a room after a tenant has moved out.

"This gives landlords the incentive to evict people," says Jean Swanson. It is illegal to evict people for the purposes of raising rent, though property owners routinely offer tenants a monetary award in exchange for moving out.

The report also calls upon the federal government to enact a national housing program.

CCAP collected the hotel room data by sending volunteers to 90 hotels in the area. Posing as interested tenants, the volunteers inquired about prices and room availability. When possible, volunteers also asked desk clerks and managers whether they tolerated practices that are either prohibited by law or considered by the CCAP to be exploitative, which include double bunking tenants or charging rent by the day or week.

Ivan Drury, co-author of the report and coordinator of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council (DNC), explained the difficulty in collecting data from hotel clerks and managers would give only limited information to the inquiring volunteers. Of the 90 hotels surveyed, the report was only able to collect data on 69 of them.

"We would ask how much the cheapest room is and how much many room are available at that price, but clerks and managers tended to shut up once it started to seem like were conducting a survey," he told The Tyee. "That's why we're erring on the side of caution and giving the most conservative estimates. We're giving the lowest prices available, but there could be only one or two rooms that actually rent at that price."

For example, the report finds that 15 per cent of hotel rooms are inside hotels where the lowest rent is over $500 per month.

The report also alleges that while low-income residents are being squeezed out by prohibitively high rental prices, many SRO tenants are also the subject of discrimination based on their apparent race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or lifestyle.

Robert Bonner, one of the data collectors for the survey, also spoke at the press conference. A middle aged Aboriginal man, Bonner told the small cluster of reporters and onlookers that when he visited the Lotus Hotel, he was quoted a price of $800. Minutes later, Ivan Drury, who is not Aboriginal, was quoted a price of $675.

"A lot of these hotel managers see an Aboriginal, and they just see another eviction problem," says Robert Bonner. "But the Downtown Eastside is the last place for the poor, marginalized, and Aboriginal people in this city to go. We live in one of the most beautiful and one of the richest places in the world, but you wouldn't know it walking around the Downtown Eastside."

Neither the manager nor the owner of the Lotus Hotel could be reached for this story. However, in a profile of Steven Lippman published last month in Megaphone magazine, the owner of the Lotus denied any and all accusations of racism, but explained that managers and clerks will regularly profile prospective tenants based on appearance of financial stability and certain behavioral characteristics.

After the press conference, Ivan Drury and DTES volunteer Herb Varley invited a group of reporters across the street to the York Hotel, where both men rent rooms for $425. The York Hotel is currently under renovation and, as tenants move out, says Varley, young workers and students are likely to replace them in these 10-by-18 foot rooms.

"I have no issue with housing for student and young workers," says Varley. "If I go back to school, I will be a student. But this shouldn't be done at the expense of poor people living in the Downtown Eastside."

"The City has to protect housing stock," Drury chimes in. "It's that, or we're going to have an explosion of homelessness a year from now."

Ben Christopher reports for The Tyee.

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