On a rainy November day, Karen Ward looked down the alley adjacent to 150 East Cordova Street, a brand-new nine-storey building of condominiums that’s scheduled move tenants in this winter.
“I wonder how everybody’s going to get along,” Ward, a volunteer with Gallery Gachet and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), told the Georgia Straight.
InGastown, the name of 150 East Cordova, consists of 61 market-rate units. It shares that alley with Insite, Vancouver’s low-barrier supervised-injection facility, and the Balmoral Hotel, one of the city’s shabbier SROs. Ward noted it might be the busiest alley in Vancouver. At all hours, it’s crowded with drug users who prefer not to visit Insite but who still want to take advantage of the relative safety offered by the proximity of a health-care team.
“There’s clearly a clash comin’,” Ward said.
InGastown is one of 17 developments the Straight examined for this project.
Focusing on 20 square blocks centred around the stretch of East Hasting Street that is typically described as the Downtown Eastside, the Straight looked for new developments (as opposed to renovated buildings) that began hosting tenants within the past year or that are scheduled to begin moving tenants in within the next two years.
In that relatively short time, those 17 buildings will bring approximately 2,000 housing units to the area, this analysis revealed.
“It’s kind of dizzying,” Ward said. “The amount of market housing coming in, especially in Chinatown, is going to transform the neighbourhood….The city’s agenda was to open the Downtown Eastside for development, and that’s what’s happening.”
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+50% of units supportive housing or below-market rate
Major community developments
This is not a simple story of gentrification. A map of these developments produced by the Straight reveals a solid mix of private condos, secured-market, and below-market rental units, plus quite a bit of supportive housing.
Of the roughly 2,000 units coming online in Gastown, Chinatown, and the Downtown Eastside, the Straight confirmed that 1,147 are market rate. Another 708 are supportive-housing units or units that receive some sort of subsidy to rent at below-market rates.
Rules for the Oppenheimer District
The construction of most of these buildings is guided by the Downtown Eastside local area plan (LAP), a framework and package of bylaws that Vancouver city council adopted in 2014.
In a telephone interview, Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer acknowledged there has been a lot of development in a short period. But she maintained the area was in need of more housing and overdue for development. Now, she continued, the Downtown Eastside is simply catching up to objectives that were put down on paper more than a decade ago.
“The plan might have been passed in 2014, but it reflects needs that existed before that plan was developed,” she said. “The LAP, it essentially took the same numbers from the original housing strategy of 15 years ago and just cut and paste them and then tried to prove them out financially.”
Making projects economically viable under the LAP can be tricky, especially when they fall within a subsection of the Downtown Eastside called the Oppenheimer District. In this stretch of East Hastings loosely centred on the intersection with Main Street, 40 percent of a new building’s residential units can rent at market rates but 60 percent must fall into the category of social housing. Of that 60 percent, one third must rent at the welfare-shelter rate of $375 a month, one third at a rate not exceeding the area’s housing-income limit ($963 for a bachelor suite in Oppenheimer), and one third in line with “affordable market rents” ($846 for East Hastings in 2015).
The first development scheduled to complete construction under those rules is a 12-storey building rising at 41 East Hastings, at the intersection of Gore Avenue. The developer behind it is Wall Financial Corp. In a telephone interview, the company’s president, Bruno Wall, said this project wouldn’t be happening without support from both the provincial government and the City of Vancouver.
“They are putting in all the equity that is necessary to make the supportive and nonmarket housing work financially,” he explained. “And then the market rental will stand on its own.”
Wall said the LAP guidelines provide for a strong social mix, but don’t leave a lot of room for profit.
“We’re just earning a management fee,” he said. “But we would do it again if we could put together a similar team. The question would be 'Does B.C. Housing have the resources to do more of these?'”
Making the economics work
Over coffee at a Gastown café, B.C. Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay said that the city’s restrictions on development along the Oppenheimer corridor pose challenges for development, but challenges that are manageable.
“Without significant government investments—federal, provincial, or city—in the form of land or capital, no private developer, I believe, can make the economics work on a straight-up market deal,” he said. “It will require provincial or federal or local investments to make it work. The numbers just don’t add up.”
From 2007 to 2015, B.C. Housing and the City of Vancouver partnered on 14 social-housing sites, five of which are in or around the Downtown Eastside. A preferred model emerged from that partnership, where the city puts up land, B.C. Housing covers capital costs, and a nonprofit organization such as the Portland Hotel Society or RainCity Housing is contracted to meet operating needs.
With a finite number of city-owned sites, where does that leave prospects for future projects?
“Right now, access to land isn’t the biggest limiting factor,” Ramsay replied. “That’s access to financing and capital and subsidies.” In that regard, he said B.C. Housing continues to work with the city and sees new opportunities at the federal level.
On November 22, Ottawa is scheduled to release the results of a public consultation period for a forthcoming national housing strategy, Ramsay noted. And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said there will be federal money coming to the provinces for housing projects.
“And this doesn’t just happen on city-owned land,” he said. “There are probably seven or eight projects that will be announced soon that are not on city-owned land.”
Three buildings on East Hastings Street
Wall Financial Corp’s 12-storey building at 41 East Hastings is one of three buildings of special note. The second is 138 East Hastings and the third is 288 East Hastings. Together, these developments will bring 224 subsidized units to the area, but also 214 market-rate condos and rental units, the first upscale homes for this especially poor stretch of the neighbourhood.
Lama Mugabo, a volunteer with the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP), told the Straight even that sort of a mix “creates a severe problem for people on low incomes”.
He noted that the LAP’s definition of social housing only requires that 20 percent of a building’s units be rented at the welfare-shelter rate, while 40 percent of a building’s units still classified under the broader category of social housing can rent for more than $900 a month.
“This is development still without really looking at folks on the lower end of the social-economic ladder,” he said. “There’s still not enough housing that is really affordable.”
Michael Geller is an architect and former social-housing program manager with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. He looked at the same numbers and came away with the opposite conclusion.
“It is a mixed group and I’m pleased to see that,” he said. “Although the market units tend to be concentrated more in Chinatown and the social-housing units more in the DEOD [Downtown-Eastside/Oppenheimer District].”
Geller expressed concern for a “ghettoization” of the Downtown Eastside. He noted that a fourth development one could add to the list of new buildings along Hastings is 58 West Hastings, for which the City of Vancouver has proposed a 12-storey tower with 250 units all rented at the welfare-shelter rate of $375 a month.
“I worry about a building that is essentially 250 social-housing units,” he said.
Another building rented entirely at rates below market (but mostly well above the welfare rate) is 250 Powell Street. It was converted from an old city jail into homes for 96 tenants, who began moving in in August 2015. It was a project of the Bloom Group, whose executive director, Jonathan Oldman, told the Straight that a mix of incomes is crucial to making development work for the community.
“Clearly, the Downtown Eastside is a community in transition and change,” he said. “One of the pieces that is challenging for the community is that there is a tendency to be reductive in the analysis of what is happening and what the forces are at play. It’s only when you take a really close look, not just at the Downtown Eastside as a whole but also at all the neighbourhoods in it, that you realize it’s a very complex picture.”
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St. Paul’s Hospital and 312 Main Street
In addition to the 17 new low-rise towers detailed in this project, there is also a number of old hotels that in recent years landlords have renovated and then reopened with higher rents. (A small sample of the many buildings where this has happened appears on the Straight’s map, demarcated by three brown markers.) According to a May 2016 city report on low-income housing, the percentage of private SRO rooms renting at the welfare rate in Vancouver has decreased from 36 percent in 2009 to 17 percent in 2015.
In the past, the Straight has also reported on concerns related to St. Paul’s Hospital’s move from the West End to False Creek Flats planned for 2021. Another project that will have an impact in the nearer future is the redevelopment of the city’s old police station at 312 Main Street.
Ashley Proctor is the executive director of 312 Main Community Co-op, the group overseeing the project. In a telephone interview, she acknowledged early controversies around the plans for the site related to its initial description as a “tech hub”, concerns about gentrification, and what sort of residents it might attract to the area.
“There’s been a lot of shifting since then,” Proctor said. “It’s now more about community-building, and it’s about reconciliation. We are building an entrepreneurial ecosystem that is very heavily reliant on social innovation, nonprofit organizations, and groups that have a very strong community impact.”
Years in the making, 312 Main is scheduled to begin moving its first commercial tenants in this coming April. According to Proctor, that will see the basement level filled with artists’ studios and a maker space, the main floor used for special events held alongside meeting rooms and a coffee shop, and the second floor used as a coworkers space. The third and fourth floors are scheduled to begin housing tenants in September 2017 and the fifth and sixth floors will open in 2018.
“As much as there might be fears, externally, as construction is taking place, I think what people will see in 30 years, when you look back on this project, is that this is somewhere where we are able to plant a flag and hang on to this ground in the midst of all of this sort of change in the neighbourhood,” she said. “I really feel like one thing we are doing is serving the groups that are fighting that fight, providing a space for them to organize.”
Around the corner from 312 Main Street, Lou Demerais has spent more than two decades watching the Downtown Eastside change from the vantage point of his second-floor office at the Vancouver Native Health Society. Interviewed there, he criticized developments—even social-housing developments—for failing to bring real community amenities to the Downtown Eastside. For that, Demerais told the Straight , he doesn’t blame the businesspeople behind those projects. He instead finds fault with politicians.
“For a long time now, the people who are calling the shots at city hall have very definite things in mind, and one of them is to get rid of what many people consider to be the blight of poor people that find themselves residing down here,” Demerais said. “To sweep those people away and call that progress, it makes me ill.”
Back on the edge of the alley that runs between Insite and the Downtown Eastside’s newest block of condos at 150 East Cordova, Karen Ward maintained there is a need for even more social-housing in the area.
“I don’t think it’s ghettoization for people to live in their own community,” she said. “We don’t see our community as a ghetto. We see it as something that is vibrant and is respectful to people despite their circumstances.”