04/30/2014 05:40 EDT | Updated 06/30/2014 05:59 EDT

Renovated Downtown Eastside hotels go upmarket

A private company has begun buying up and renovating single room occupancy (SRO) hotels in Vancouver's impoverished Downtown Eastside, then marketing them to a new kind of tenant young students and artists.

But poverty advocates say the company is evicting original tenants and raising rents beyond what the city's poorest can afford.

Living Balance creative director Anah Teele says the firm now owns 14 SRO hotels, including the York Rooms at 259 Powell Street. 

"It was crazy, it was known as the worst SRO in Vancouver. Huge drug trade happening in the building, organized crime, prostitution," she said.

"Everyone thought that the investors were crazy, thought that we were crazy for taking it on as a challenge. But there's so much potential in all of these buildings, and there's a lot of people who need housing."

SRO rooms posted on Craigslist

Living Balance advertises its SRO rooms on Tumblr, Kijiji and Craigslist, which is where 23-year-old Dustin Everett LaRosse found his unit at the York Rooms.

LaRosse moved to Vancouver from Calgary last fall, to pursue his dream of becoming an actor.

He's from a middle-class background and didn't know anything about the Downtown Eastside before he hit town.

LaRosse pays $525 a month for his 120-square-foot room, which has a sink, hot plate and small fridge. It's cramped but clean, and he says he's happy with his home.

"I've heard horror stories coming into Vancouver about how expensive it is," LaRosse said.

"So finding an affordable place to get grounded and figure out things, it's huge."

Original tenants fear evictions

Some SRO tenants are concerned that they are being pushed out by the changes.

Frederick Sherman Vander Bos has lived at the York Rooms for four years. He pays $425 a month. 

Vander Bos likes the improvements at the hotel, but says he feels pressured to leave.

"They want to renovate my room so bad. I don't know where we're supposed to move after that," said Vander Bos. 

"I used to be homeless for a couple of months but it's no fun."

D.J. Larkin, a lawyer with the Pivot Legal Society, says they get frequent complaints from tenants at Living Balance hotels worried about being pushed out.

Teele says since Living Balance took possession of the York Rooms in 2011, they've evicted 35 people, or about one person per month.

She says evictions are always for reasonable grounds, such as pest issues, violence, drug dealing or use.

Teele estimates that about a third of the original York Rooms tenants remain.

Advocates alarmed at rising rents

Larkin is also concerned that as rents go up, SROs are becoming unaffordable for people on income assistance.

"They rely on these SRO rooms as their last stop before homelessness," she said.

"The mayor acknowledged last week that it's these rent increases that are, in part, feeding the increase in the number of people that we're seeing sleeping on our streets."

Teele says it's fair to raise rents by a couple of hundred dollars, after doing thousands of dollars worth of renovations.

"We bring buildings back on line that have been sitting boarded up for 15 years to 40 years," she said.

"So the question is, do they sit empty or do they sit in disrepair, or do we start to create housing for the $500 to $600 bracket?"