At the Chelsea Hotel on West Hastings Street, Fred Lincoln is going door-to-door, pleading with tenants to pay late rent. The building manager isn’t hassling people for want of money.
In a cramped office, he explained to the Straight that he’s been approached by a prospective buyer with a reputation for acquiring single-room-occupancy hotels, renovating them, and pricing tenants out with rate hikes. Lincoln wants to ensure there are no excuses for evictions in case that happens to the Chelsea.
He pointed to a development called Burns Block located just across the street as an example of a pattern that’s playing out across the Downtown Eastside. There, a room that once rented at the welfare shelter rate of $375 a month now goes for as much as $1,000.
Lincoln said that low-income residents once hoped the Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan (LAP) would offer protection against gentrification, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to work out that way.
“It’s a class war that’s coming,” he concluded.
The LAP, a framework to guide development for the next 30 years, was approved by city council on March 15. Public hearings for a number of related bylaw amendments, scheduled to go before council on Tuesday (April 15), are under way. Proposals include changing the definition of “social housing”, providing for the creation of “micro dwelling” units, and amending zoning regulations for the Oppenheimer District, the poorest neighbourhood in Vancouver.
Mayor Gregor Robertson has described the LAP as a “realistic” strategy for creating more social housing in the DTES. Andrea Reimer, council liaison to the LAP committee, has billed it as a “broad agreement” for a “complex community”. Even hard-core critics applaud certain provisions, such as a requirement that 60 percent of new developments in Oppenheimer consist of social housing.
But no one the Straight spoke with for this story said they believe the LAP will save the area from rising property values that will eventually force the most vulnerable to move. Others go further, maintaining that it isn’t so much a housing plan as it is a strategy for displacement.
Long-time DTES residents like Karen Ward argue that what’s at stake is a neighbourhood unlike any other in the country.
“I think a little bit about my own past and how I wound up here,” Ward said at a March 12 council meeting. “We’ve been displaced from everywhere else, we’ve been excluded from everywhere else, and this is the first and last place we can find home.”
In an interview at Gallery Gachet, Ward continued: “The Downtown Eastside, really, has become the last place where everybody runs to from across Canada,” she said. “It’s the last, best place for people who are the most marginalized people in the country.”
Late last year, Herb Varley echoed those remarks during an antigentrification protest on East Hastings Street.
“Many people who I’ve talked to, they’ve said that in other neighbourhoods, they don’t feel welcome,” he told the Straight. “And then they came down here and they found themselves and they found a community.…Now they’re being forced to leave.”
According to an August 2013 report by UBC researchers, 87 percent of SRO residents who participated in their study said they were originally from a city other than Vancouver. A social-impact assessment prepared for the LAP states that 60 percent of the DTES’s 18,500 residents are low-income and 731 were homeless in 2013. It also notes that DTES property values more than tripled between 2001 and 2013.
Ray Spaxman, a former director of planning in Vancouver who worked on the LAP, told the Straight that geography has meant the DTES has always been in developers’ crosshairs.
He recalled years ago drawing a map of Vancouver with a large arrow swooping in from the downtown core, into the DTES. The arrow represented money, Spaxman explained.
“I was saying, ‘We’ve got to do something because this is going to run over the people that live in that area and there is nowhere else for them to go,’ ” he said. “Low-income people have been pushing for three years now on this, saying, ‘You’ve got to protect us from that onslaught.’ And so the whole question now is, does this plan do that?”
Spaxman assessed a number of provisions that the city maintains will increase the availability of low-income housing.
The first thing he noted is that a 60-percent-social-housing provision for Oppenheimer does not mean that 60 percent of new developments will rent at an affordable rate. The city’s new definition of “social housing” states that only one-third of that 60 percent must rent to people on income assistance. So 60 percent social housing translates to only 20 percent renting at the welfare shelter rate.
Spaxman also called attention to an amendment introducing a definition for “micro dwelling”, which allows for the construction of self-contained units as small as 250 square feet. He noted that this designation allows for a development’s social housing to take up much less than 60 percent of its total area. That will likely shift the economic balance between social and market housing even further in favour of the latter, he said.
Spaxman stressed that the LAP does not ignore poor people. “But it’s uncertain about what it will actually achieve,” he concluded.
The city’s official numbers for the LAP include 4,400 new “social housing units”, 3,000 units of “secured market rental housing”, and 8,850 “affordable home ownership” units to come over the next 30 years.
The Carnegie Community Action Project’s Jean Swanson highlighted problems with those figures. Some of the social housing is planned for outside the DTES and won’t come with units at the welfare shelter rate, she said. There are also differences between LAP targets and what is likely to be delivered, and there are major questions around federal and provincial funding for housing goals (the plan’s price tag is estimated at $1 billion).
“It’s very depressing,” Swanson said. “In 30 years, this will be a middle-class or a wealthy neighbourhood, and low-income people will be gone.”
At a Cordova coffee shop, activist Ivan Drury looked over a map of rising property values that followed the construction of new condominiums like the Woodward’s Building.
“What this map shows is the way that the city is engineering the gentrification and displacement of the Downtown Eastside,” he said. Drury explained that although Woodward’s came with 125 units of welfare-rate social housing, the community subsequently lost as much as four times that many affordable units as nearby hotels were renovated and priced beyond what previous tenants could afford.
“I think the Local Area Plan is an articulation of Vision Vancouver’s plan for the future of the Downtown Eastside, which is displacement,” Drury said. “It won’t produce the social housing that we need.”
Walking down Main Street, Rick Spencer told the Straight he’s lost count of the number of friends who have left the DTES in recent years. “All of the sudden, everybody has started to disappear,” he said.
Spencer, who lost his room at the Thornton Hotel earlier that day, added that it’s probably time for him to move on too. “I was there for eight years, so I don’t know where I’m going,” he said. “I go to one place; I go to another place. But I miss that place at the Thornton. That was my home.”