Why does the DEOD matter?
The Downtown Eastside Oppenheimer District – DEOD for short – is the heart of the low-income community for a reason. It is the only neighbourhood in Vancouver that is protected against real estate development by city policy. Because of these protections the DEOD is the most low-income neighbourhood in the city. It has the most low-income housing, the most services and resources for low income people, and the fewest condos and boutique restaurants. The area has been protected against the ongoing condo storm which is pounding the rest of the Downtown Eastside by a simple piece of city policy that acts like sandbag levees against a storm
The policy city council uses to make real estate investment and condo development unattractive to investors and developers is called “inclusionary zoning.” It’s called inclusionary because in the DEOD any new building, even an addition to an existing building, legally has to include 20% social housing. So far no private developer has managed to plan, build, and sell a condo project in the DEOD and make enough of a profit to make their investment worthwhile in their eyes.
In most neighbourhoods city hall gives developers and property owner bonuses and incentives for building condo towers. For example, in the spring of 2011 city council changed building regulations in Chinatown so that developers could build high towers where they used to be forbidden. Property values shot up by an average of about 100% that year. And by the anniversary of that rezoning one new condo tower had already been approved (“The Flats” at 219 E. Georgia) and three more major condo towers were going through city approval processes: a 10-storey project at 189 Keefer, a 12-storey tower at 633 Main St, and a 17-storey tower at 611 Main. CCAP calls city re zonings that allow developers to make more money “incentives” for development. It’s a kind of government welfare for the very rich. The DEOD is different from Chinatown and the other areas in the Downtown Eastside because rather than give incentives to developers to build expensive condo projects city policy is to make condo development less attractive and keep property values down. Property owners, investors, and developers hate this kind of thing and are always arguing against this city policy. They like it when the government intervenes in development to give them more benefits, but they don’t like it when government policy keeps profits down. If every neighbourhood in Vancouver was governed by inclusionary zoning then developers would have to make do and there would be nothing special – from a city-policy point of view – about the DEOD. But the DEOD is special because the city doesn’t put such barriers to profit and development in other neighbourhoods. So even though the land in the DEOD is cheaper than almost anywhere else in the city, city policy protects it from the real estate storms that are making people homeless elsewhere.
Controlling the rate of change
To be clear, inclusionary zoning hasn’t actually created any new housing for low income people and isn’t really a good policy for creating new housing that people on welfare can afford. In the DEOD, inclusionary zoning is what planners call a “rate of change mechanism ”It keeps developers from building condos that have all the ripple effects of higher rents in stores and hotels, yuppie stores, more policing and harassment of low income people, and displacement of low income people. We still need the federal and provincial governments to fund more new self contained housing that people on welfare can afford. But inclusionary zoning will give us some time to lobby for good programs and get the governments that will fund the housing.
Since 1982 the 20% inclusionary zoning rule has kept the DEOD low-income but there have been recent signs that 20% is no-longer enough. The most important example is the “Sequel 138” condo development planned at the old Pantages property on the 100-block of East Hastings, right behind Carnegie. The developer had his condo dream approved by the city with the 20% social housing requirement and without a rezoning. He has weathered massive community opposition just to get through the approval stage.
Pantages is not the only problem
In the spring of 2012 CCAP found that property values have been going up in the Oppenheimer district too. Three SRO hotels were bought in 2011, one of them – the York – for sure by a gentrifying developer. A developer is sitting on a proposal for a market-rate apartment tower across from the cop shop on Main. And CCAP suspects that one owner has bought up a bunch of neighbouring properties along Hastings Street and on Main north of Hastings, often a precursor for development.
When the 20% inclusionary zoning rule was made city planners chose that number because that was the percentage of renters in Vancouver who were in “core need” of housing – paying more than half of their incomes to rent and living in unhealthy and insecure conditions. More recent stats are that that number is now more like 35% of renters.
The truth is that working class and low-income people in Vancouver are experiencing a housing emergency. 30 years of inclusionary zoning in the DEOD should teach us that the government can in fact do something about the Vancouver housing emergency. There is nowhere this emergency is more drastic than the Downtown Eastside, but we need social housing and shelter from the storm everywhere in the city. That means we need different levels of inclusionary zoning in different parts of the city; zoning to protect the low income community in the DEOD and the DTES and zoning to create more low income affordable housing throughout the city.
CCAP is calling for a “four circles of care” housing policy with the heart of the low income community at the core:
- DEOD: 100% social housing at welfare/ pension rate;
- Hastings Corridor and Thornton Park (with the Viaducts): 70% social housing at welfare/pension rate;
- Rest of the DTES: 1/3 social housing at welfare/pension rate, 1/3 low-income working peoples’ social housing, and 1/3 market housing;
- Vancouver outside the DTES: 30% social housing.