This project began with a question.
How has gentrification affected crime in the Downtown Eastside?
It is widely assumed that relatively wealthy people are moving into the western edges of the neighbourhood, displacing its traditionally lower-income residents and forcing them east. How are the two populations integrating and how have newcomers changed policing demands in the area?
Has this population influx pushed crime from the Downtown Eastside into the residential neighbourhood of Strathcona? Have more police street patrols followed new developments like the Woodward’s Building? If they have, is the deployment of police resources justified?
As people moved into the area around Gastown, did crime increase by way of the Downtown Eastside’s lower-income residents targeting those newcomers with robberies and thefts? Alternatively, have those relatively wealthy newcomers victimized the neighbourhood’s older, lower-income tenants with needless calls to police that have brought harassment to long-time residents of the Downtown Eastside?
The answers to questions like these are more than a matter of simple curiosity. They can have tangible effects on how resources are deployed by the city and the Vancouver Police Department. They can affect property values and the level of interest in new developments. And they can have profound impacts on the daily lives of the neighbourhood’s most vulnerable residents.
10 years of crime data
To answer these sorts of questions and to understand how gentrification has affected crime in the Downtown Eastside, the Georgia Straight analyzed Vancouver Police Department data covering a 10-year period, from 2005 to 2015.
The information was obtained via freedom-of-information requests—more than 30 in total for this story—and then organized in a variety ways. The final breakdown allows readers to explore a decade’s worth of select crime data for the Downtown Eastside by offence, chronology, and geography specific to each individual block analyzed.
The streets of focus are Hastings and Cordova. We begin on the western 100 blocks of both streets, at their intersections with Cambie Street. Landmarks at this start point include Victory Square park and the Woodward’s tower. From there, we move east, along Hastings and Cordova streets through the Downtown Eastside. The analysis ends six blocks from its start point, at Hastings and Cordova’s intersections with Jackson Avenue. The best-known landmark there is Oppenheimer Park.
The data is not comprehensive but is a selective sample of crime. It covers assaults, sexual offences, robberies, incidents of theft valued under $5,000, apprehensions under the B.C. Mental Health Act, and simple calls for service.
Interactive: Explore 10 years of data on crime in the Downtown Eastside
The numbers do not make judgements of guilt. They are based on how an incident was initially recorded into the VPD’s systems for tracking crime. A noteworthy shortcoming inherent in the data is that it does not differentiate between a call for assistance and an actual offence. That is, an increase in the numbers may represent a true increase in criminal activity or it may be based on an increase in the reporting of crime but where no additional incidents took place. The data does not differentiate between the two.
Readers can explore the Straight’s compilation of the VPD’s data on a block-by-block basis in the interactive graphic that appears near the top of this page.
Data open to interpretation
According to a social-impact assessment prepared for the city's Downtown Eastside local area plan, 60 percent of the neighbourhood’s 18,500 residents are low-income and 731 were homeless in 2013. That document also notes that Downtown Eastside property values more than tripled between 2001 and 2013.
One theory with which the Straight began exploring the data was that Vancouver police, combined with forces of gentrification, have pushed crime east, out of the downtown core, into Strathcona, within the larger area of what the VPD calls District 2.
If that suspicion was confirmed by the data, the issue of concern would be that while crime in the larger area of District 2 remained stable and crime in the stretch of the Downtown Eastside closest to downtown declined, crime in Strathcona increased. That is, that higher-income newcomers pushed crime onto lower-income residents who had called the neighbourhood home for many years.
This would all correspond with the widely held assertion that gentrification has displaced lower-income people east.
But that is not what the numbers suggest has occurred, at least not clearly.
Instead, the data reveals a complicated picture where a large number of real-world factors make matching cause and effect all but impossible.
A few points are, however, clear.
- Crime has increased on western blocks, but not by significant amounts
- Crime on eastern blocks has remained relatively stable in recent years
- Instead of a wave moving from east to west, the more accurate way to visualize crime on these 12 blocks is to imagine a game of Whac-A-Mole, where a decline in one area is followed by an increase popping up somewhere else
- The 12 blocks analyzed for this project account for an astounding percentage of the district’s total, ranging from 15 percent to more than 20 percent
- That has remained relatively unchanged for the decade analyzed
- From 2009 to 2012, a spike in crime appears on many of the blocks analyzed
Those observations are straightforward and a matter of fact. How one interprets those and other trends in the data are not.
For this project, the Straight shared a compiled version of the VPD’s crime data with more than two dozen members of the community, business operators, activists, and politicians. The conclusions they took from the information are as diverse as the people themselves.
Josh Paterson is executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), a Vancouver-based nonprofit with decades of experience working on social-justice issues related to the Downtown Eastside. In a telephone interview, he focused on blocks where crime has gone up and suggested that it is possible that what the data shows is not a picture of low-income people victimizing newer, wealthier residents but the opposite.
“It’s not clear to me this means there is any difference in crime,” he explained. “This could potentially be explained by an uptick in reporting of crime. Because if you have a different population moving into the neighbourhood, that population might be more likely to call police over things—maybe things that are not even crimes at all.”
Paterson noted that because the statistics concern interactions with police as opposed to charges or guilty verdicts, the data set could include many instances where someone was wrongly suspected of a crime, engaged by police, and then shortly later released. He suggested that if that is happening, it’s very likely the community’s lower-income residents that are feeling the brunt of it.
“As different groups of people and different types of businesses move into other parts of the neighbourhood, will the same effect be observed?” Paterson asked. “It will be something to watch for.”
Concentrating on the same few blocks on the western edge of the area analyzed, Neil Boyd, the director of SFU’s school of criminology, painted a much more optimistic picture. He argued that although the numbers for western blocks increased over the past 10 years, they didn’t increase by much.
Boyd, who coauthored a book about the Downtown Eastside called A Thousand Dreams, suggested that means—at least in terms of crime—that the impacts of gentrification on the Downtown Eastside have been minimal.
“It is particularly interesting to look at calls for service, because they are an index of the people who live in that area and the extent to which they perceive that there is a problem,” he said. “You’ve only got a two-percent increase on the western blocks over a 10-year period.”
Boyd said this could mean that as wealthier people have moved into the Woodward’s tower on the 100 block of West Cordova and as other developments followed it, the integration of those newcomers has actually been smoother than some would have expected.
He suggested the changes in crime rates show that the Downtown Eastside’s lower-income people did not rush to steal from people moving into the neighbourhood, and that those newcomers were, similarly, not harassing long-time residents with calls to police that were not justified.
“There is this perception that the Downtown Eastside is predatory,” Boyd continued. “If it were predatory, then you would expect to see negative impacts for those who are living in gentrified neighbourhoods….But the stats tell us—both in calls for service and in terms of reported crime—that is simply not true.”
Boyd argued that the data reveals great misconceptions about the neighbourhood’s lower-income residents.
“These are people with difficulties and disabilities,” he said. “These are not people who are, in any meaningful sense, predatory.”
Plotted on a graph, the data for many blocks of Hastings and Cordova climbs up beginning in 2009, peaks, and then falls again after 2012.
The same mountain-shaped pattern was observed in a project the Straight published as a four-part series through July 2015.
Those stories examined 11 social-housing sites on which the City of Vancouver partnered with the province. It examined calls the VPD received in relation to those 11 sites during the first 12 months following the time each building began housing tenants. The goal was to assess how much truth there is to the widely-held assumption that social-housing attracts crime.
Those VPD stats revealed that social-housing sites often do attract crime, but only for a time.
Eight of the 11 buildings recorded a steady increase in the number of calls to police for the first five to seven months of operation. But after that time, the number of calls began to decline. By the end of each building’s first year, VPD visits were substantially fewer than the number around the midyear peak.
In the crime data covering 2005 to 2015 for six blocks of Hastings and six blocks of Cordova, there exist many instances of the same pattern.
But instead of coinciding with the opening of a social-housing complex, these spikes roughly correspond with the year 2009, when the Woodward’s complex opened on the 100 block of West Cordova.
Like the social-housing phenomenon flipped on its head, the Woodward’s development brought 536 upscale condominiums onto what was for many years one of the most dilapidated stretches of pavement in all of Vancouver.
In a telephone interview, VPD Sgt. Randy Fincham recalled the Straight’s series on social housing from 2015. He reported that since its publication, calls to police related to the 11 sites analyzed continued to fall. Today, there’s little that separates them from any other housing complex in the community, he reported.
Fincham said he suspects the same phenomenon has played out in the Downtown Eastside since 2009.
He conceded that on some blocks, the increase in crime in the years following the 2009 opening of the Woodward’s complex was quite dramatic. But he noted that since then, the numbers are far below where they were during the 2009-to-2012 peak. In many areas, he continued, crime is even lower than it was before the Woodward’s redevelopment.
“It takes everybody some time to adapt, whether it’s the operators in the [residential] facility, whether it’s the policing response to a new premise, or a new entity that is brought into that community,” Fincham said. “When you introduce a new variable into that mix, then it’s going to take some time.”
Rejected the premise
Today, Mark Brand’s interests in the Downtown Eastside include Save on Meats on the unit block of West Hastings and the Diamond restaurant and lounge in Gastown. He opened his first business in the Downtown Eastside in 2006.
Depending on who you ask, that makes him either an early leader of the gentrification movement that began rolling through the neighbourhood about that time or a community leader who invested in the Downtown Eastside’s redevelopment long before other entrepreneurs felt the risk was worth it. Either way, he’s had a unique vantage point from where he’s watched the Downtown Eastside change during the past decade.
Brand said his anecdotal observations mostly match the numbers collected by the Straight. He said that although crime committed by low-income residents was a concern for businesses operating there 10 years ago, today a much greater threat is so-called pros or career criminals who are travelling from other areas of Metro Vancouver.
“The crime that we were seeing before was opportunity,” Brand said. “And, a lot of the time, remorseful opportunity. Like, ‘I’m dope-sick, I need cash, I need to figure something out, and you left your laptop on the seat of your car so I’m taking it’….Where now its pros, and not pros from the neighbourhood. They know what they are doing.”
He maintained that the community gets along pretty well these days.
“You can’t have a drug market of this size and mental-health issues of this magnitude without the things that come with them, so there will be crimes of desperation,” he said. “But it does seem more harmonious down here.”
Taking a different view on the entire project, the Carnegie Community Action Project’s Maria Wallstam rejected its premise.
“I wouldn't assume that it is only low-income residents who commit crimes,” she said. “Gentrification has also entailed the opening and expansion of bars in Gastown and around Woodward’s and, as such, it has meant more drunk people, violence, and sexual assaults.”
Where it is likely that a percentage of crime was committed by low-income residents—on eastern blocks known for drug use, for example—Wallstam said that much of the blame for that should fall on government neglect.
“The loss of low-income housing, stagnate welfare rates, the crackdown on survival street vending also means people have had to take more desperate measures to survive,” she said.
Holding the status quo
Pivot Legal Society’s Doug King made a similar observation to explain why on many blocks it appears that despite so much attention on the Downton Eastside for so many years, crime has stubbornly refused to go down.
“If you look back at it, especially at a provincial level, there is nothing you could really say has been a game-changer policy in terms of government resources or policies to combat poverty and the crime that is often associated with poverty,” he said. “So I wouldn’t necessarily expect to see any massive declines or changes, because in many ways we’ve been holding the status quo for the last 10 years.”
Asked how the city could allow so much crime to continue in such a small area for so long, Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer argued that the Downtown Eastside’s population increased significantly over the time period analyzed. She said that means that, adjusted for population, crime in the area has gone down.
“If you’re adding that many more people but your number of crimes only rises slightly, your crime rate is actually much lower,” she said.
At the same time, Reimer acknowledged that by obvious measures, life in the Downtown Eastside is not better than it was a decade ago.
“I can tell you what numbers haven’t changed: if you’ve got welfare rates essentially stagnant, rents and housing costs skyrocketing for everybody, the number of people who are in desperate circumstances will continue to rise,” she said. “If anything, I was a little bit surprised that it’s not a lot worse, given how dire the income-housing mismatch has become.”
With design work by Tina Luu and Jeff Li.