Downtown Eastside residents seek clarity on local area plan

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      Downtown Eastside residents are preparing to make their voices heard on a local area plan for their neighbourhood.

      The area is one of four undergoing a community-planning process in Vancouver. Proposed plans for a “thin street” pilot project in Marpole and high-rise towers around Commercial and Broadway have been met with opposition from residents.

      A group of Downtown Eastside community members said Tuesday (July 16) they plan to be equally vocal as city staff seek feedback this week at two open houses. The events will unveil the city’s “emerging directions” documents for the area, following more than a year of local-area-planning (LAP) meetings featuring representatives from groups across the community.

      According to Tami Starlight, one of the members of the LAP committee, one thing that many local residents will be looking for is a plan for housing in the community that includes a definition of social housing.

      “It was one of the very first things that we talked about at the very beginning, and it still hasn’t been defined,” Starlight said in an interview with the Georgia Straight following a town-hall meeting at the Carnegie Centre.

      According to a City of Vancouver document distributed to members of the LAP committee, areas where changes to existing policies are being considered include the so-called Downtown Eastside Oppenheimer District, where a focus on social-housing development with some secured market rental is proposed.

      “Consider bonus density for 60% social housing (primarily for singles) with 40% balance as secured market rental housing,” the document reads.

      City staff declined to comment in advance of the open houses, where the city’s proposals for the area will be made public.

      Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users president Dave Hamm echoed Starlight’s concern that social housing be defined in the plan. “The definition: if it doesn’t state that it’s at welfare or pension rates, then it doesn’t guarantee that we’ll be able to afford anything,” he said.

      Karen Ward, another member of the LAP committee, noted that people on welfare have a $375 monthly allowance for housing.

      “We have SRO [single-room occupancy] suites that are 200 square feet with a broken window and no plumbing, no bathroom, no kitchen, that are going for $475 and up,” she told the Straight.

      City councillor Kerry Jang, Vision Vancouver’s point person on housing, said he also wants to see a definition of the type of rental included in social housing.

      “Is it social housing that is completely government-subsidized? Is it social housing that’s a partnership between developers and the city and the province? Is it social housing that has mental-health and health supports?” he asked in a phone interview. “You start off with these rough percentages, but then, you know, the devil’s in the details. So that’s what we have to figure out.”

      Another member of the LAP committee, Scott Clark, wants to see the city detail its plans for social housing across Vancouver.

      “We believe that housing really needs to be targeted in all communities, particularly around schools and community centres,” Clark, who is the executive director of the Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society, said in a phone interview.

      The document obtained by LAP members proposes allowing a development height in the range of 100 feet to 120 feet for the Hastings Street and Main Street area, and up to 50 feet in the Oppenheimer Park area, with additional density considered for projects that are 100 percent social housing.

      Actions proposed in the document include adopting new social-impact guidelines to advise how potential negative impacts from development can be prevented and how benefits for the low-income community can be generated. The document also proposes a 10-year goal of retaining the existing 2,800 businesses in the neighbourhood and facilitating three- to five-percent growth in businesses.

      The City of Vancouver will hold open houses on Thursday (July 18) from 3:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Vancouver Japanese Language School, and on Saturday (July 20) from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Strathcona Community Centre.



      Xander Clark

      Jul 18, 2013 at 7:28pm

      So what about the Astoria Hotel block, being gentrified by one of the Rennie daughters at the old Wallace Neon office, now set up for fey 'charities' offices?
      While across the street, Vancouver Public Library is being asked to gentrify with building a new branch for "Strathconea"
      Heights mean little when the street frontage is a blank wall of thick glass.


      Jul 19, 2013 at 8:15am

      Tami Starlight makes a concise and practical point.
      I seem to recall social housing rates being capped at 1/3 of gross monthly income. That to me is a simple formula.


      Jul 19, 2013 at 2:28pm

      Maybe the city will plan vandu out of existence. Then maybe the residents of the DTES will have a chance to get their lives back. Vandu is a blight on the community.

      David Beattie

      Jul 23, 2013 at 1:33am

      Clearly the nature of the rental "social housing" proposed for the DTES core needs to be defined, but just on the face of it the thrust of the plan is remarkably progressive. I am pleasantly surprised.

      The area set aside for this 60-40 mix is about two kilometers long (Carrall to Clark), at places three blocks wide (Hastings to Alexander) and at others two blocks wide (Hastings to Powell). In total it is over 0.5 For an area that large, that close to the primary business centre of a fairly major city, to be set aside for 100 percent rental housing should be encouraging indeed for level-headed, realistic progressives. Councillor Kerry Jang hits the nail on the head when he says the devil will be in the details.

      In my view at least half of that 60 percent, and thus 30 percent of the total, should be available at welfare and pension rates. The other half of the social market portion could therefore be subsidized at varying rates - all the while meeting the rule of thumb that the rent takes no more than one-third of tenants' total income. A sensible ceiling on that income would be about $2,000 a month, meaning the rents should run no more than $700 - and the units need to be of liveable size and in decent condition, not the tiny fleapits many of the existing units are now.

      Further, density bonusing makes perfect sense. The density of the DTES core is too low right now - it could use to be increased by at least 50 percent and maybe even doubled.

      It seems to me the plan has a fighting chance of succeeding at an extremely difficult assignment - relieving the relentlessy grim nature of the DTES core while minimizing displacement.

      We can be sure, however, that the usual suspects such as the Carnegie Community Action Project and the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council will vilify the plan because it does not meet their absurd demand for 100 percent social housing.

      On the other hand 80 percent of the city will scorn it as a victory for the "poverty pimps" and an exercise in reckless socialism. I almost feel sorry for the city planning department.

      In the final analysis if it is good enough for former planning director Ray Spaxman it is good enough for me. Remember also it is a work in progress - this is just a first draft. But so far so good, depending on that definition of social housing.


      Jul 23, 2013 at 11:23am

      Good post, David Beattie.

      Regarding "reckless socialism," there is a business, dollars and cents case to be made for providing subsidized housing. Certainly the upper income people in the social mix are not going to object to a decrease in visible homelessness. Even if you can't convince some taxpayers that compassion is righteous, you might be able to show them that it is efficient.

      I think that the "relentlessly grim" aspect has a lot to do with policing, also.

      If you want law and order in your neighbourhood - and I think we all do, within reason - you have to have a respectful relationship with your police forces.

      The cops should know the area intimately and be trustworthy. And the people can't stonewall them either. (It's complicated, I know.)