For Immediate Release: Chinatown Neighbourhood Plan challenged by low-income group

For Immediate Release:  If it doesn’t include the majority residents it’s not a neighbourhood plan
Carnegie Community Action Project statement on the 2012 Chinatown Neighbourhood Plan

July 25, 2012

City council is poised to accept the recommendations in a new report on Vancouver’s Chinatown going to council on July 25, 2012.  Carnegie Community Action Project recommends the plan be deferred to be coordinated with the rest of the DTES community, particularly as key aspects of the plan, especially housing for low-income people, hinge on cross-sector cooperation.

The Chinatown Neighbourhood Plan is rooted in 11 “Vision Directions” which  treat low income people as though they don’t even exist in the neighbourhood. They are implicitly referred to as impediments to economic revitalization and development.

The low-income community is mentioned in when the report tells us that the median income in Chinatown is $17,000 a year; that 67% of the population is low-income, and over half of the residents live in single-person homes. (p. 11) It sums up the demographic sketch by explaining the “neighbourhood has been and continues to be predominately low-income.” And it asks, in a way that seems to set the question for the rest of the report to answer,  “How will the existing low-income community and new residents define a new vision for the neighbourhood?” Unfortunately this question is not answered. Nowhere are low-income residents’ voices audible nor are their interests represented.

The explanations of issues and visions for each section of the report are totally missing any sort of low-income community perspective. And worse, the record of actions already taken and recommendations for future actions consistently overlook the needs of low-income people or contribute to their displacement from Chinatown altogether.

The Heritage and Culture section is focused on a “Society Building Strategy” that aims at the heritage and real estate renovation of Benevolent Society owned buildings that will also help with the gentrification of Chinatown. Two key tools have been used to accomplish this “revitalization” of privately owned buildings. The “Transfer of Density” heritage incentive policy helped renovate Bob Rennie’s Wing Sang building into an exclusive art, real estate office, and now museum space. And 5 out of 11 society owned buildings have received $100,000 each to support their “rehabilitation plans” (p. 19)

One of these buildings is the Asia Hotel, owned by the Mah Society. The Mah society recently informed its 34 low-income tenants that they will all be evicted sometime this year to allow a major renovation. The society has been tight lipped about what the rents will be in the building after the renovations are complete. Has the city directly funded a major renoviction of a society owned hotel? Are there any measures the city is using to stop renovictions from the hotels in Chinatown under the guidance of this report?

The 2005 Downtown Eastside Housing Plan’s section on Chinatown says to “recognize housing objectives when implementing heritage policies in Chinatown, and vice versa.” (2005 Housing Plan, Pg 56, section 9.3.4) This is suspect because the AECOM consultant report on economic revitalization in Chinatown and commissioned by the City of Vancouver, written in November 2011, recommends easing SRA bylaw restrictions so that societies can get rid of tenants because “rents that can be charged for the ground floor retail spaces and the market orientation of the retail tenants will be influenced by the residents living upstairs.” (AECOM Project Report, “Vancouver Chinatown Economic Revitalization Action Plan.” November 2011, Page 9.)

The AECOM report also lists, under the category of “threats” to revitalization, “The presence of population attracted to the social service facilities on Hastings Street,” (Page 45) And finally, the report argues that it is important to renovate heritage and SRO buildings despite restrictive city guidelines that will not allow for the demolition of SRO rooms because, “additional pedestrian activity, particularly in the evening hours, will dilute the influence of the underprivileged population.”  Imagine how it feels to be underprivileged and know that some business people think your presence has to be “diluted.”(Page 53) This report clearly sees the displacement of the low-income community as a precondition to and also a positive consequence of the economic revitalization of Chinatown. A lot of the recommendations of this report pop up in the Chinatown Neighbourhood Plan with amendments only to the language that has fallen out of fashion for Vancouver planning because it is too strong and outwardly poor-bashing. The ideas, though, appear throughout the city report in a shallow code.

The Built form and Urban Structure section celebrates the Historic Area Height Review’s success in attracting to Chinatown between 600 and 700 new condo units and their residents to support the business, street and shopping climates (p. 12). It is not concerned with the effects of these condo developments on land and rent prices for tenants in hundreds of privately owned SROs or rental units, nor on the effect of a sudden massive increase in higher income residents on the cultural and social assets of the existing low-income community.

The Land Use: A living and working community explains “Chinatown has traditionally been an affordable neighbourhood with a mix of rental, SROs, non-market housing and limited owner occupied market housing.” And it explains the DTES Housing Plan calls for the replacement of “existing SROs with better quality housing targeted to low-income and aging residents” and also, at the same time, to “encourage market housing with a focus on affordable market rental and ownership housing.” (p. 33)

How does this report deal with this policy contradiction of both protecting the existing low-income housing stock (until it can be replaced) and encouraging market developments that threaten to erode that low-income housing stock through gentrification? It provides actions to encourage market development and defers the low-income housing action plan to staff “working on implementing the Housing Plan” through the DTES LAPP committee.

The Housing Plan says that 1 for 1 SRO replacement in Chinatown is unlikely and to expect for replacement to take place in other DTES sub-areas. (pg. 56, 2005 HP) Replacement then, rather than destruction, requires that the city ensures that the housing is replaced before it is lost, not just that low-income housing is offloaded to another area due to economic expedience and dropped. The Chinatown Neighbourhood Plan is plotting the destruction of SRO hotels before there is even a plan for their replacement.

The Public places and streets section. It calls for the expansion of throughways with a rail line and to open up the alley to market development in order to make the area distinctive (competitive) and attractive to “modern” entrepreneurs and consumers. It specifically targets the “clean up” and “safety” improvement of the streets, sidewalks and alleys in and around Chinatown. A pilot alley revitalization project in “Market Alley,” which runs parallel to Hastings and Pender between Main and Carrall will set the “tone for commercial revitalization in the future.” The planned “upgrade not only increases the recognition of this unique historic place, it also sets the tone for commercial revitalization of Market Alley in the future.” (page 39) Again there is no concern for the low-income communities who currently call these alleys community spaces. There is no concern for the gentrifying impact of connecting the Market Alley to Hastings St. where hundreds of low income people live.

The Community and economic development and Economic revitalization strategy focus on attracting new entrepreneurs, cleaning up and tenanting storefronts, and developing a more tourist friendly heritage based and walkable Chinatown.

The active storefronts program has already given incentives and support to six new businesses in Chinatown. The only one mentioned, as a model candidate for the program, is the high-income and non-resident oriented Bao Bei boutique restaurant on Keefer near Main St.

The conclusion of the report is as telling as the introduction. The challenges, taken from the AECOM consultant group’s report, include:

–        “Need more people on the street at night and on weekends” without saying directly which people need to be gotten rid of (not “displaced”) and which are desireable.

–        That the “revitalization strategy must lead with restaurant sector;”

–        That Chinatown “needs to be clean and safe,” and that;

–        “Renovated heritage buildings… could provide a unique competitive advantage in the long term” because “renovated heritage buildings and revitalized laneways = unique, walkable neighbourhood (competitive advantage)”.

Where are the low-income people? Why is the city not recognizing the assets and legitimate tenure of the low-income community? This report could represent a serious step backwards in Downtown Eastside planning.

CCAP’s recommendations

  1. Any restoration and renovation of society buildings must not risk eviction of SRO tenants of the buildings. The city should develop a zero evictions policy for SRO hotels before supporting further renovation efforts.
  2. Replacement of SROs must happen before losses are allowed to occur. The city should not permit any market development in Chinatown until potential ripple effects of market real estate prices and rents can be controlled and low-income housing protected, and tenancy guaranteed. Losing hotel rooms before they are replaced is not replacement, it’s against city policy. It’s displacement.
  3. Public space development must not come at the cost of low-income peoples comfort and safety. Feeling a sense of belonging in the streets is a key asset of the DTES (including Chinatown) low-income community. We cannot afford to lose this to overzealous tourist and retail development. The city should incentivize low-income serving shops and businesses and non-profit industries for a low-income friendly revitalization of Chinatown. All market businesses should go through a social impact assessment of their proposed business before being given a business license.
  4. Market alley and the boutique-ization of any alley in the Downtown Eastside should be put on hold until low-income community housing and other assets are protected and secure. Although this report does not mention the Pantages condo project, the Market Alley redevelopment is inconceivable without it. The DTES low-income community and many others have gone on record against the highly destructive Pantages condos proposal and we strongly recommend not basing any city plans around this development, which the community is committed to stopping. We recommend the city buy the Pantages lot at 138 E Hastings and build 100% resident controlled social housing where people on welfare and pensions pay 30% of their income for rent.
  5. Finally, the Chinatown Neighbourhood Plan should be deferred to be coordinated with the rest of the DTES community, particularly as key aspects hinge on cross-sector cooperation. Currently the plan calls for “sharing” the recommendations of the Chinatown plan with the DTES LAPP committee in the fall of 2012 (page 53) so that the LAPP can learn from the Chinatown plan. We believe these plans must be integrated and enrich and challenge each other by being finalized and implemented alongside each other.

For more info contact:  Ivan Drury (604-781-7346) or Jean Swanson (604-729-2380)