Displacement is Happening: City’s Historic Area Height Review

Dave Diewert, Streams of Justice

It just doesn’t make sense for anyone who wants to undertake a major renovation of their home to take off the roof, or remove the entire back wall of the structure without having an idea of what the renovated building will look like or without having clear plans in place. Not only would this be unreasonable, it may well pose significant danger to the inhabitants of the home and their neighbors.

Likewise, it makes no sense for the City to push forward substantial zoning changes in a predominantly low-income neighborhood without first assessing and evaluating the current and ongoing impacts of previous upscale, market developments in the area, and without having a solid, community-based vision to guide and inform any decision-making for neighborhood development. Not only does this seem irrational and theoretically ill-conceived, it poses grave dangers to the lives of the low-income residents of the DTES – in particular, the danger of displacement.

Displacement from home and community need not come as a result of the threatening violence of armed political conflict, massive social upheaval, or environmental disaster; it can also result from the dominating discourse of urban revitalization, the dull bureaucratic policies of rezoning, and the tedious procedures associated with granting development permits for gentrifying projects. As banal as these things are, the human displacement they produce is, nevertheless, a disruptive, destructive and traumatic (wounding) experience for individuals and the community as a whole.

But maybe I’m wrong; maybe there is a vision and a plan for the DTES. Perhaps the rezoning and densification proposal on the table emerges from the conceptual formulations of city planners, informed by real estate developers and corporate investors, and fueled by the media spin of Operation Phoenix. Perhaps what we are witnessing is another manifestation of the conventional strategy of urban development known as Social Mix.

Bob Ransford described the notion of social mix in his October 4, 2008 column in Westcoast Homes. He writes:

Developing a community with a good supply and range of housing types, both market and non-market, including rental and affordable condo ownership units, will help to support a more diverse community in the Downtown Eastside. Diversifying the social spectrum will mean street-level businesses will become more viable, providing more service commercial uses for the existing low-income residents of the area and new residents. An active street with viable businesses means increased community safety. With the pride of ownership comes a commitment to neighbourhood stewardship that leads to cleaner and safer streets. This is all part of making the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood a more real neighbourhood.

What Mr. Ransford fails to appreciate, and what the community visioning work of CCAP has made abundantly clear, is that the DTES is already a real neighborhood; it is a real community full of really creative, courageous, compassionate people, who really care about their neighborhood, are really passionate for justice, really give to one another through connections of friendship or voluntary service, and who are really afraid of being displaced from their community through imposed strategies of gentrification.

Martine August, in an article on social mix in the Canadian Journal of Urban Research, argues that:

Despite the popularity of the social mix approach …, there is little evidence suggesting that it is merited by socially beneficial outcomes. Particularly nebulous are the benefits of social mix policies for low income populations, upon whom mix is often imposed when wealthier people move into their neighbourhoods.

The concept of social mix, historically infused with notions of social harmony and equality, is now employed as the rhetorical façade for powerful economic interests which, while seeking to improve the image of Vancouver as a livable city, use the social mix discourse as a means of promoting social exclusion. The social mix being sought is one that ensures profitability, and those who appear as an impediment to that goal (i.e., low-income people) are displaced.

Nick Blomley (Unsettling the city: Urban land and the politics of property [New York: Routledge, 2004]) has made the observation that in attempting to bring middle-class residents into the DTES under the guise of social mix, “property-owners have deployed a language of balance in the service of exclusion” (p. 99). Given the considerable power differential between the new condo owners moving into the neighborhood and the low-income population that has been rooted there for many years, the language of social mix serves to justify giving the right to space and property to those with wealth, and taking it away from those who are poor. Social mix, then, is a strategy used to expand hierarchical structures and mask asymmetrical power, and as such it undermines the possibility of genuine social solidarity while rhetorically appearing to promote it. It is the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

In my view, the inevitable result of this policy, embodied in the recommendations today, will be further gentrification, displacement, homelessness, and increased human suffering. So I urge you to stop this process, listen to the majority low-income people of the community, and support their vision for the neighborhood, a vision that puts new, secure, adequate social housing, not more market housing, as top priority.

Joyce Rock,Executive Director of the DTES Neighbourhood House

I’m Joyce Rock, the Executive Director of the DTES Neighbourhood House, Vancouver’s newest NH in 20 years. I am present here today to communicate to Mayor and Council the DTES NH’s position on the proposed Height Study, a position intimately informed by more than 8,000 of our DTES neighbours who annually enter the door of our modest storefront. I would like to affirm our respect for the City Planners who sculpted this Report and who so often generously lend us their talents as we manoeuvre the learning curves of an emerging NH.

The DTES NH asserts that the Height Study is illogically timed in relation to the pressing need for a meaningful DTES Land Use and Planning Process which must be initiated in order that the future design and content of the DTES landscape includes and reflects the voice and the vision of the longstanding low-income community.

We propose that this last can only be accomplished by tabling the Height Report for the moment and that in its stead, the City commit to undertake a Socio-Economic Impact Study to determine the effects of the Woodward’s Redevelopment and the other new buildings on the fabric of our community. Ironically, the City – in tandem with the Woodward’s developer – has on two fronts played a principal role over the past few years in creating the need for such an Impact Study. The first front being the City and the developer’s failure to include the once promised amenities within Woodward’s. The second front is the consummate silence from both the City and the developer to the DTES community regarding the opening of Woodward’s: there has been no semblance of greeting or welcome to our neighbours. A city with a soul is an amalgam of people of all ancestries, incomes and ages living in productive complicity. If the communications disaster of Woodward’s is truly your template, then you are positioning the DTES to become a series of bereft, parallel enclaves.

Since January 2008 we have asked: “Who and what is going to humanize Woodward’s to the pre-existing DTES community?”

As Woodward’s has revealed itself to be an example of how not to proceed, let Mayor and Council now – in partnership with DTES residents – make wiser choices, better communicated and acknowledging of residents. Logic dictates that a Socio-Economic Impact Study be completed before the Height Study’s recommendations be considered and/or approved, for the Impact Study will inform height and density needs, as well as community capacity, from a solid community footing.

In recent years, a fervent embrace from a variety of sources, has wrapped itself around the DTES.
Once the preoccupation of few, we are abruptly the favoured of all, and all certain that they know what is best for us. The 1000s of residents who constitute the DTES low-income community and who wish to continue to live here, are complex, talented, hard working, ambitious individuals – material poverty, substance dependency and compromised physical/mental health status notwithstanding. The DTES NH asks Mayor and Council to establish a Land Use and Planning Process which is steered by low-income representation proportionate to the current population.

The modern tongue is fond of the term ‘inclusive’ – the DTES NH is not, for at multiple turns it is increasingly used as an instrument of manipulation. We sometimes hear that our allegiance to 1000s of low-income people is exclusionary of others. As I myself am a white, middle class, over-educated woman, I know as a lived fact that those with privilege inevitably find our way to exercising that privilege as well as our inherent sense of entitlement. The DTES NH considers it simply neighbourly to include the majority of the DTES population in our deliberations and invite you to do the same, in concert with others of like mind.

Thank you.

The DTES NH acknowledges and honours the fact that our community lies within the Traditional Territory of the Coast Salish people.

Ned Jacobs

Once upon a time there was a beautiful old department store named Woodwards situated in a lively if somewhat scruffy part of town. But something went wrong and Woodwards fell into a deep sleep. For years it lay senseless, a blight upon the neighbourhood, which lost commerce, got a lot scruffier and became an embarrassment to the entire kingdom. People agonized and debated about what to do, and finally they convinced the king and his court that through strategic investment and community planning the still-lovely form of Woodwards could be awakened and transformed into a palace where everyone from plump merchants to skinny street waifs would mingle in peace and harmony.
History sometimes reads like a fairy tale, but I would caution would-be storytellers that it is premature to end this one by saying that the reborn Woodwards and the scruffy neighbourhood got married and lived happily ever after. Like all marriages, this one is an experiment, and even as the whole town rejoices at the wedding feast, there are signs of trouble.
The messenger of ill-tidings is a grass-roots social research and development group named the Carnegie Centre Action Project (CCAP) after the restored and revitalized Carnegie Library, which has succeeded in developing a loving and constructive bond with the neighbourhood. CCAP’s research shows that displacement of residents is accelerating, outpacing efforts to renovate or build new homes in the neighbourhood for rents they can afford. Furthermore, they have identified the geographic epicentre, if not the actual displacement point, as Woodwards.
Meanwhile, a City of Vancouver “height study” has identified sites where, according to various criteria, new highrise buildings, perhaps based on the Woodwards model, could be built. But CCAP’s resourceful and extensive community mapping and visioning initiative, based on the premise that recognizing existing cultural and physical assets (as well as needs) is the foundation from which to plan constructive change, shows that this height study is not only top-down, it is premature and possibly flawed. The low-income community of the Downtown Eastside is asking for our respect and assistance—but not our directions—in completing their vision for the Downtown Eastside as a place where planning and change is anchored in local knowledge and consensus.
Some of this work will necessarily involve study and analysis of Woodwards, focussing on how it is affecting the neighbourhood and especially the low income residents, who are quite capable of distinguishing what is working well and should be emulated from what needs to be fixed or mitigated—but not repeated.
“Gentrification” can mean different things depending on who is doing the gentrifying, and why. Developers are eyeing the Woodwards area for “starter condos,” geared to singles and couples who have their sights fixed on Coal Harbour, Southeast False Creek, or even a heritage house in Strathcona, but don’t yet have the wherewithal.
These are the folks that real estate promoters say will serve as “role models” for their less fortunate neighbours. But unlike some middle-income residents who truly are drawn to the area and can relate to their neighbours, warts and all, these upwardly mobile types are apt to view it as a “launching pad” for someplace better. Generally speaking, this population is more transient than the low-income residents and less engaged with neighbours, whatever their socio-economic status or personal habits. Those who don’t make it to Yaletown in three or four years will feel trapped and resent their surroundings, which admittedly can be a challenge for mainstream sensibilities. In short, these would-be new residents are not necessarily part of a recipe for success.
“Neighbourliness” is a quality the Downtown Eastside has in spades, and perhaps its greatest asset. For all we know, apartment towers may not actually be the best building form for supporting community in this neighbourhood. In any case, this is not the place to be densifying on the basis of city-wide or regional objectives. Protecting this neighbourhood’s assets and serving its needs—as determined by its residents—is what matters. Don’t top-down them with this height study. Allow them the planning process that they—like every other Vancouver neighbourhood—are asking for and deserve .


We are handing out some recommendations to you now that we hope you will incorporate.

We have 3 points to make.

Our first point.

More new condos wouldn’t be a problem if the tenure and assets of the existing Aboriginal and low-income community were secure. That tenure is not secure.

Consider these facts.

1. Hotels like the Colonial and the Argyle near Woodwards have emptied out and not renting rooms to low-income people.

2. CCAP’s hotel survey showed the number the number of SRO hotels charging rent above $425 a month has increased by 44 per cent between 2008 and 2009. This is a significant loss and the city is not counting these rent increases as losses.

3. Hotels near Woodwards have the highest rents. When the Columbia, Golden Crown, Burns Block, Hilden, Lotus and other hotels near Woodwards charge or intend to charge $500-$800 a month for a room with no bathroom and kitchen, that is not affordable by our definition and we count it as a loss. The planning term for this is SOFT CONVERSION and it is gentrification.

Not counting these losses is a big problem and it is a big gaping hole in your homeless strategy, Mr Mayor.

Our Second Point:

The retired head of the housing center, Cameron Gray told council clearly on May 1st , 2008 that:
– condos are absolutely driving land prices up;
– condos are being built at twice the rate that the housing plan projected;
– the housing plan did not address increasing rents or student housing
– the housing plan says that the rate of change in the DTES may need to be controlled;
– that council could work with the community on developing a vision to address rents and rate of change;
– He also said, that if council slowed condo development, land owners and developers might go to Victoria to try to get more social housing. That’s where we got the idea for the “pause” in order to get funds for social housing in place.

If council tells gov’t and developers they can’t have condos in the HAHR until there is more social housing, maybe they will help us work for a national housing program. We can’t give up on this or say it will never happen. There is lots of support for Libby’s housing bill. Liberals are saying they want a national housing program now and that canceling it was a mistake. Funding for social housing in the DTES would be a great rate of change mechanism. This program could be your legacy, Mr. Mayor. Harness the unrelenting energy of the market to achieve this goal.

With money available for social housing:
– The low-income community will have a chance to compete
– Chinatown heritage buildings with tenants could try to get this subsidy
– We could manage the rate of change more easily
– The low-income community won’t have to settle for a floor of social housing in the bottom of a condo project with separate elevators and entrances and amenities based on class.

Our 3rd point:

Adopting a definition of affordable and low-income will protect the low-income community from displacement.

The city does not have a definition of “low-income” or “affordable” that we know of or that applies to the reality of the DTES or even the rest of the city where 26% are low income. To us, “low-income” simply means having income below the official low income cut off line. The average income in the DTES is less than $1000 a month. We believe its crucial for the city to keep housing that people on welfare, basic seniors pension, and disabilitiy, can afford. A person on welfare can afford $375 a month for rent. A person at the LICO line could afford $500 a month for rent.

As in interim measure we will support points C2 and C1ii if council adopts the following definition of affordable which we have adopted based on our extensive consultations with the low-income community:

1/3 welfare
1/3 between welfare and LICO
1/3 below market

This housing would be for Aboriginals, Chinese, singles, couples, families, seniors. Some of those units could be for people who need support.

Our recommendations.

– No new height until a social and economic impact study is done on the effects of WW, other condos and new height/density on the tenure and assets of the low-income and Aboriginal community.
– No new height until we have a local area planning process created with and for residents of the area.
– As in interim measure we will support points C2 and C1ii if council adopts the following definition of affordable which we have adopted based on our extensive consultations with the low-income community:
a. At least 1/3 of units at welfare rate (Aboriginal, singles, couples, families and seniors)
b. 1/3 afford to people at income between welfare and LICO line
c. Final 1/3 are rentals at just below market rate