Downtown Eastsiders win a small victory

March 29, 2012

Downtown Eastsiders win a small victory

Vancouver, Unceded Coast Salish Territory:  Eloquent, passionate and articulate speeches by low income residents who love their community caused a tiny victory at City Hall last month. It was all about a technical, but controversial detail:  the definition of social housing.

On March 27 and 28, City Council considered a 37 page report about the Downtown Eastside Local Area Planning Program (LAPP).  Buried in the report was a definition of social housing. Developers in the Oppenheimer part of the DTES would have to meet this definition if they want to build condos.  The law for that area already says that 20% of any development has to be social housing.  The Council report said this 20% could be half at welfare rate and the other half at up to $839 for a bachelor or $925 for a one bedroom unit.  The LAPP committee asked Council to send this part of the report back to the LAPP committee and city staff to change.

Then the residents spoke:

Lou Vodnak told Council, “The DTES is vibrant, creative, and diverse.  People have a lot of heart and pull together to help each other out….We need to protect low income housing before any more condo’s are allowed.”

Patrick Foley said he’d like Council to sign a declaration that “the DTES is a precious asset to all Vancouver.”

Patricia MacDonald said clearly, “No to condo development.  Yes to welfare rate housing.”

Krista-Dawn Kimsey told Council that her children “are excited to walk on Hastings St. because of the generosity of people toward them.”  “The sense of welcome and neighbourliness is one of the most beautiful things about the neighbourhood.”

Wendy Pedersen read Victoria Bull’s letter to Council: “The DTES is not really a horrible place.  It’s a community.  What you’re doing is gentrifying a neighbourhood completely without us in it.”

Harold Lavender explained that gentrification was “creating a fantastic amount of stress, anxiety and despair” among people like him who had only $906 a month from their disability pension. “The definition of social housing is a fundamental issue.  The community needs to be heard.  The median income [in the DTES] is only $12,000 a year, very far below the low income cutoff (about $21,550 a year).”

Karen Ward, who lives in the new social housing at Woodwards, told Council, “Reducing social housing from 20% to 10% will destroy our community.”  She explained how “social mix is a code word for gentrification.  As soon as I leave [my home] I face obstacles.  I can’t afford an $8 sandwich.  I’m followed by security guards.  Feelings of exclusion pervade our very souls.”

Herb Varley, an Aboriginal man, told council, “we all borrow the land from our great grandchildren.  We cannot continue to displace people.  Think of the DTES as a reservation.  People put us there because it was bad for farming.  But now there are resources there.”  He went on, “If we lose our sense of community, it makes it easier to rob and steal from our neighbour, to walk by a man passed out on the street.”

Colleen Boudreau told Council that she was “gravely concerned if the policy goes through.”  She was also concerned that more liquor licenses in the area would bring more violence to the community.

Kathy Shimizu, said that her family lived near Oppenheimer Park before they were displaced by the forced removal of people of Japanese ancestry during WWII.  “The forced removal of current residents is the same type of injustice,” she said.

Jean Swanson spoke about the DTES Housing Plan.  She said “the plan points to the Oppenheimer district as the place where social housing can be built to replace 2,000 SRO hotel units. And it says that if development becomes too attractive in the area then council must act to hold development back.”

After they were done all waited expectantly for council to make their ruling. The room let out a collective sigh of relief when Mayor Gregor Robertson moved an amendment to send the Oppenheimer social housing clause back to committee.

Councillor Andrea Reimer supported the amendment and called for a specific definition and ratio of low-income social to market housing that takes local neighbourhood dynamics into account. She said, “I don’t see how we can take the average [income] of the whole city and use it for the DTES.”  Her observation was backed up by the staff report which cites the median income of the entire Downtown Eastside as $12,000. In the Oppenheimer district income levels are lower still.

In the end, Council did refer the definition of social housing back to the staff and the LAPP committee. Council also told staff that the LAPP committee has to have reports that go to Council at least three weeks in advance.  But they did approve the LAPP work program that most LAPP committee members had no input into.  Council also agreed to a rezoning policy that will allow a least 500 more condo units to proceed during the planning process.  So there is still a lot of work to do.

“We’re hoping that we can develop a new definition of social housing that will slow condo development in the Oppenheimer Area,” said Ivan Drury of the DTES Neighbourhood Council.  “We’re hoping we can use this action by Council to help stop the Sequel 138 (old Pantages site) condo project on Hastings St.”

Sequel 138, slated to go to the Development Permit Board on April 23rd, is located on E. Hastings St. in the Oppenheimer zoning district where the zoning calls for 20% social housing in nearly all new developments.  The project, which is opposed by at least 40 organizations and thousands of residents, is key to the transition of the low-income community into a high income community.  Learn more about the controversial Sequel 138 project at: