What are community benefit agreements? When development comes to a community, it often brings bad stuff. In the Downtown Eastside its bringing high rents, high end stores, closed hotels, more homelessness, more low income people pushed out, more police and security guard harassment and a growing feeling of not being comfortable in your own neighbourhood.
So developers and the city government, which makes rules about development, have come up with a plan to stop opposition to development. They call it community benefit or public benefit agreements. And on the surface it seems like these agreements could be a good deal. For example, if a developer is allowed to build a condo tower, maybe he could put in a free daycare space. Free sounds good. Or when the Olympics came to town there was a community benefit agreement that got a few DTES residents some short term jobs. Jobs seem good.
Now the city is saying it wants more condo towers in the DTES because, if it allows the developers to build higher, up they can get some community benefits from the developer and the city won’t have to pay for them. Community benefits in their terms could be a few units of low income housing, cultural projects, and even, “support for residential intensification and economic revitalization.” Translation: getting more, richer, residents to live in Chinatown and spend their money there. Let’s use the BC electric site at Carrall and Hastings as an example. Last year the city would allow the owner of that site to put in a building 75 feel high, about 7 stories. But now they are considering a new policy that would allow the owner to put in a building 15 stories high. So instead of being able to sell 7 floors of condos, the owner of that lot could sell 15 stories of condos and double his profit, just because the city changes one little zoning law. So the city says to the owner, because you can make more money if we change this law, you have to do something for the community. Now there are several problems here:
1. The community doesn’t actually get to say what it wants. The developer can go to anyone it wants, like BOB, Atira, PHS, even if those groups aren’t made up of community members. For example, BOB was dealing with the Olympics about the job creation. Or the city can simply conjure up what it wants and negotiate with the developer for it. In the case of BC Electric, a city planner has already told CCAP that the community benefit would be the CPR right of way opened up as a public space. The whole process in completely secret. And completely against the DNC constitution which calls for “community control over neighbourhood planning, policy, land use, and community development.”
2. Another problem is that community benefits can be things that aren’t really beneficial to the community: like rental housing that costs $1600 a month, or restoring heritage buildings into expensive condos, or the “economic revitalization” of yuppie stores and boutiques, or a new public space designed mostly for new condo residents.
Let’s just stop here for a minute and think about these 2 problems: some people in agencies in the DTES, at the Urban Core group, for example, are saying, well let’s get together and figure out what we as a community want in the way of community benefits and we can negotiate with the developer to get what the community really needs. That sounds like it might be a good idea too, on the surface, but let’s think about this: what does our low income DTES community really need: 5000 units of decent self contained housing; more health services; higher welfare. Developers aren’t going to provide these—they might provide a few units of housing, but those few units would be overwhelmed by condos. So there is a third HUGE problem with community benefits at least in the DTES, the way CCAP sees it:
3. There is no way that the good impact of the community benefits could outweigh the bad effect of more condos on our low income community. We’ve all seen what the condos at Woodwards have done: hotel rents increased, hotels closed and have been renovated for richer people, yuppie stores moved in, police and security guards harass low income residents etc., etc. If we get 15 stories of condos at BC Electric, 15 more at the budget car rental place, and 2 full blocks of 15 story condos on both sides of Main between Keefer and Union, the pressure on our low income neighbourhood will be enormous. How many more hotel rooms will raise their rents? How many more restaurants selling soup for $9.50 a bowl will open? How many bridal stores and stores that sell dog clothes and fancy furniture? How many more condo associations will oppose our food line ups? How many stores will call the cops because one of us is selling something near their door? How many more people will become homeless? Those are the ripple effects of condo development that aren’t helping our low income community one bit. And that’s what city staff are proposing to council on Jan 20th.
Some people say that development is inevitable and if we don’t negotiate with the city and developers we won’t even get any crumbs. But condo development, and even denser condo development is not inevitable. The city already has lots of places where towers are allowed. It doesn’t have to have towers all over. Condo towers are the result of choices that the city government makes. And we can fight to make sure that they stay out of our neighbourhood until we get all the social housing we need. Our ‘hood has a history of fighting for its human rights and that’s what we hope to continue to do.
So at CCAP we think we need a united voice in the DTES.
Let’s help everyone we know understand the ripple effects of condo development and then let’s make sure we say:
1. No to more condo development until we get housing for the people who desperately need it; and until all the good things about our low income community are secure; and
2. No to letting some groups or the city do secret negotiations with developers for crumbs;
3. And let’s see if we can get a united voice on this with residents and even agencies in the community. ~Jean Swanson