By Lama Mugabo
For more than a decade, residents of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) have been fighting for housing justice to ensure that low-income residents are not displaced by constant rental hikes and gentrification. Uniting as the Our Homes Can’t Wait Coalition (OHCW), DTES residents and over 20 grassroots organizations have campaigned to raise public awareness on the impact of the housing crisis in their community.
The Coalition calls on the three levels of government to build housing that low-income residents can afford. Constructing and operating 100 percent welfare and pension rate housing projects across the DTES is a concrete step toward meeting Canada’s international-treaty obligation to respect the right to adequate housing and to respect the spirit of section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
On August 2016, Mayor Gregor Robertson capitulated to the demands of DTES residents and the mounting political pressure of tent cities that were springing up across the city. He conceded to build 58 West Hastings as a 100 percent welfare and pension rate, community-controlled residence. Shortly after the signing, representatives of OHCW began meeting with the mayor to figure out how the community vision for 58 West Hastings could be made into a reality.
The city offered the land and invited the provincial and federal governments to put money on the table. The Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency (VAHA) estimated that the project will require $65 million to build. The city brought in the Chinatown Foundation as a partner. The Chinatown Foundation promised to raise $30 million to build and operate the facility.
At that time, the B.C. Liberal government in Victoria did not want to have anything to do with the project. After the NDP came into power, ministers responsible for housing and poverty reduction came to visit the area. The housing minister put on the table the $30 million required to develop the residential building with two floors for Vancouver Coastal Health. OHCW would like to see Vancouver Coastal Health provide a cash contribution to deepen the affordability.
On January 16, when the provincial government announced its contribution to the project, OHCW learned that the construction cost has gone up. The gap was not $30 million, but a whopping $60-million deficit. We were told that instead of building the facility to house 100 percent of residents at welfare and pension rates, it will only house 30 percent of the tenants. The remaining 70 percent will pay higher rates up, to $1,200 a month.
How on earth can someone earning $710 on welfare afford to pay $1,200 a month for rent? People feel that the city is dangling housing like a carrot before their eyes, and every time they try to grab it, it’s out of reach.
Social mix and gentrification
The call for 100 percent community-controlled, social housing at welfare and pension rate raises a red flag among some who experienced growing up in a "ghettoized" housing project in the '50s, '60s, and '70s. They fear that housing poor people under one roof might be a magnet for crime and chaos.
To the contrary, OHCW organizers argue that in addition to housing, the three levels of government should provide a package that includes: employment opportunities, community support services, and meeting space for community groups. They see stable, dignified, and rent-controlled housing as fundamental, especially for people who have been homeless for an extended period of time. When people’s housing needs are stable, their mental health remarkably improves, they are able to take back their lives, find work, and live again.
The rejection of the "social-mix" model is a reaction to the fact that since the 2010 Olympic Games, developers have been buying single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels and flipping them to replace low-income renters with yuppies who want to live closer to where they work and play. The 2005 DTES Housing Plan called for “revitalization without displacement” by proposing to keeping the rate of market housing development to social housing development to 1:1.
Ten years later, the city dropped the rate-of-change model and opened the gates for gentrification to spread like a bushfire, causing massive rental hikes. In the 2017 SRO housing study report, the average rental for a SRO unit rose to $687/month, leaving tenants on welfare with only $23 to spend on food, transport, hygiene, and sanitation.
When Vancouverites talk about the housing crisis, residents of the DTES see their neighborhood as being at the epicentre. The solution to this problem requires all three levels of government to work together and restore housing as a human right.
If the city of Vienna can reserve 60 percent of its housing stock as social housing with a strong rent control where people regardless of class live together in harmony, there is no reason that Vancouver cannot do it. It all begins with the political will to act.