“Canada’s poorest postal code” is a label that Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has worn for a very long time.
“A man sits cross-legged on the sidewalk at the corner of Hastings and Main in Vancouver, a blue baseball cap in front of him,” reads a July 1991 article in the Province newspaper. “Huddled in a faded blue shirt, dirty jeans and grimy white sneakers with no socks, he stares at the cap, holding his only other visible possession—a cigarette. Welcome to Canada's poorest postal-code neighborhood—V6A.”
According to Statistics Canada data presented in that article, the “poorest postal code” label was correct when applied to the Downtown Eastside in the early 1990s. Since then, it’s stuck, appearing in international headlines, for example, alongside descriptions of the same scene on a different day.
“At the corner of Main and Hastings, residents of the poorest postal code in Canada passed a recent Tuesday afternoon,” reads a February 2010 article in the New York Times. “One man lighted a crack pipe, inhaling deeply. Another urinated on a wall.”
The label persists, but is it still accurate?
The short answer is no, the Downtown Eastside’s “forward sortation area” (FSA) code of V6A is very poor, to be sure. But, according to Statistics Canada data from 2016, it is not the “poorest postal code in Canada”.
The long answer is, it depends on exactly how one defines the word “poorest”, on how urban areas are separated from rural ones, and on several other technical questions. (Former Vancouver Sun journalist Chad Skelton examined this issue in 2010. His article includes a more in-depth discussion of measurements and terminology.)
To determine if Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is in fact the poorest postal code, the Straight looked at two measurements for poverty applied only to FSAs that include more than 3,000 tax filers and dependents. (We excluded very small towns.) And, on Statistics Canada’s suggestion, we also excluded FSAs that primarily consist of postsecondary student populations.
Here are the results:
|Measured by 2016 individual after-tax median income|
|Measured by percentage of people earning low incomes|
In addition to definitions and exceptions, there are yet more caveats. The most significant is that V6A includes Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, but also the larger area around the Downtown Eastside. V6A includes part of Gastown, for example, an increasingly wealthy neighbourhood where in 2019 some studio apartments rent for more than $2,000 a month. And so the area covered by V6A is likely wealthier than the area to which one usually applies the label “Downtown Eastside”.
All that said, using these definitions of “poor”. the Downtown Eastside’s FSA of V6A is not Canada’s poorest postal code, or even the country’s poorest urban postal code. But it is close.
Measured by after-tax income, V6A ranks second poorest in the country, and measured by percent of people earning low incomes, it ranks third poorest. (With no restrictions on population size and no exceptions for student populations, the Downtown Eastside’s postal code of V6A ranks 20th poorest and 16th poorest, respectively.)
“Overall it may be difficult to affirm that V6A is or is not the poorest neighbourhood in urban Canada, but this data still points that it is at least still ‘one of the poorest’,” Statistics Canada spokesperson Fabrice Mosseray wrote in an email explaining the data.
In a telephone interview, Vancouver city councilor Jean Swanson dismissed the premise of the question.
“The point is, it’s really poor,” she told the Straight.
Swanson has worked on housing issues in the Downtown Eastside for more than 40 years. She argued that since the 1970s, the situation there has only gotten worse.
“We didn’t have nearly this amount of homelessness back then,” Swanson said. “In 1972, I was on welfare and I saved $100 one month. Welfare was high enough to eat and pay the rent. What’s happened is austerity.”
Melanie Mark is the NDP MLA for Vancouver-Mount Pleasant, a provincial constituency that includes the Downtown Eastside. In an interview, she told the Straight that the neighbourood’s long-standing reputation for urban poverty is one of the reasons she entered politics.
“I felt like people had a lot to say but never delivered on the change that was needed in the Downtown Eastside,” Mark explained.
“Fundamentally, it is systemic change that needs to happen,” she said. “I’m a parent of two children, and when I have to explain to my children why people sleep on the street, it breaks my heart….If we pull back the layers and understand what brought that individual to the streets in the first place, that’s systemic change.”
Mark discussed the complicated issue of gentrification, and the challenges inherent in improving an area’s earning potential and livability without making it unaffordable for long-time residents who remain on fixed incomes.
“The needs of marginalized people are different,” she said. “We have to support access to health care, access to housing, access to the arts.
“The idea of ‘Lift as you climb’ is a really important one.”