Mayor and Council: Will you really not buy land for social housing in the DTES?

by Wendy Pedersen

On September 21st, I was invited to an interview on the CBC Afternoon Show with host Stephen Quinn about the results of CCAP’s hotel study. Coun. Kerry Jang was lined up to be interviewed after me on the same topic. I said that the most important thing the city can do to help DTES residents is buy land in the DTES and designate it for social housing. At the end of my interview, just as I was getting cut off, I said: “Stephen, please ask Coun. Jang if the city will buy land for social housing in the DTES!”

So, Stephen paused and said, “Welcome Coun. Jang, what do you make of this idea about buying land for social housing in the DTES.” Then I wrote on my scrap piece of paper, 4 reasons, according to Coun. Jang, for NOT buying and designating land for social housing in the DTES:
1.It is too much of a drain on city resources;
2.The city must focus on building a spectrum of affordable housing;
3.Commitments from the senior governments must be made first before the city can buy and designate land for social housing; and,
4.There are not many sites to buy in the DTES.

Since I didn’t get a chance to respond on the radio, please allow me to get this off my chest here now:

1. A drain on city resources??!! How can saving lives be a drain on resources? And if the moral outrage doesn’t convince them, then consider that land is an asset the city can’t lose on.

2. Build all types of housing for all incomes: The previous council used to talk about this trickle-down theory a lot. Build cheaper condos and that will free up rentals for the poor. But, there is a real, massive, urgent need to build housing for people with the lowest income. People who can afford about $700 a month, like at the American Hotel, have a lot more options than people who can afford $375 a month. This also ignores the bad ripple effects of market housing: more speculation, higher land costs, higher rents, displacement, more exclusive stores, more poor-bashing etc.

3. We need senior government partnerships first: No, the city must buy the land FIRST and then the city and citizens can organize a campaign to get the senior governments to build it. That is how it was done before. That is the only way it can be done now. Cameron Gray, the retired Director of the Housing Centre, told me before he retired that he wanted the city to buy and designate for housing another 14 sites and staff can get them ready for the partnerships.

4. Jang’s last complaint: there’s no land for sale. Well, why did the city recently turn down the opportunity to buy the Pantages Theatre for housing, as we learned from former Carnegie Centre Director Michael Clague? There are many sites to buy in the DTES and the land is cheaper here than anywhere else in Vancouver. And even if it is getting pricey, we’re worth it, no matter what the cost.

You may be thinking that hey, Coun. Jang is only one city councillor. One person can’t decide the fate of a neighbourhood. Well, read the article about the American Hotel in this newsletter issue. Every city councillor, except Coun. Woodsworth of COPE, talked about the need to “address the whole spectrum of affordability” in the Downtown Eastside. Even Coun. Cadman of COPE said “he’s not holding his breath” for money from the senior governments for housing which means he sees a few crumbs here and there as the way to go.

From this CBC interview and from the comments made by mayor and council at the American Hotel meeting, I take this all to be a strong statement from City Council that they do not intend to buy property for 100% social housing projects in the DTES. Vision Councillors: please correct me if I’m wrong by buying some DTES land for social housing.