On low-income “voice”, “ghettos” and neighbourhoods for profit: A response to the Inner City Neighbourhood Coalition’s submission to the City on “Emerging Directions”

November 12, 2013

Submission to DTES Planning Staff, City of Vancouver
From the Low-Income Caucus (LAPP Committee Members) and the Carnegie Community Action Project
Contact: Tamara Herman, tamaraccap@gmail.com, Carnegie Community Action Project

RE: The Future of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) as a Low-Income Neighbourhood: A Response to the Inner City Neighbourhood Coalition submission

In early October, former NPA Candidate and planner Michael Geller posted a letter written by the “Inner City Neighbourhood Coalition (ICNC)” to city planners on his blog[1]. The letter is a submission in response to “Emerging Directions”, a city document that sets the groundwork for the Local Area Plan for the Downtown Eastside in collaboration with the Local Area Planning Process (LAPP) Committee. The LAPP Committee was formed to be a “partner” with the city in developing a community plan. Half the committee members are low-income DTES residents who meet informally as a Low-Income Caucus.

We, members of the low-income community and advocates, felt an urgent need to respond to the ICNC letter and address the threats that it presents both to the LAPP process and the Local Area Plan itself.

Of the twelve groups that signed the ICNC letter[2], most were Business Improvement Associations and residents’ associations from outside of the poorest areas of the DTES. The ICNC letter reflects the interests and demographics at play. It argues that the Local Area Plan prioritizes the needs of the Downtown Eastside’s low-income community at the expense of other more privileged residents and business owners. It articulates a frustration that low-income people have a voice in the document that is proportionate to their numbers in a community that they call their own.

The ICNC letter warns the city that the adoption of elements in the final document that protect low-income homes and services are “more likely to add to conflict rather than lead to widespread adoption of the final plan.” We also see a risk of conflict ahead. If the interests of wealthier residents and business owners trump the very limited measures that are proposed to house and service the low-income community, the Local Area Plan will fail to meet the purpose defined in its terms of reference. If it adds to displacement of low-income residents, the plan will certainly be a source of contention.

This letter responds to three points raised in the ICNC letter: First, that low-income people have had too much voice in the planning process and that the community representatives on the planning committee are “self-designated.” Second, that the plan should not be framed in the context of low-income needs and a housing crisis caused by gentrification. Third, that providing concentrated areas of social housing for low-income people will produce “ghettos” that jeopardize profit-making opportunities for more privileged community members.

1. How much of a voice should low-income people have in planning the future of their community?

The “Emerging Directions” poster boards at an open house session

At several points, the ICNC letter criticizes the city for prioritizing the needs of low-income or “vulnerable” single people in the DTES over those of residents less vulnerable to homelessness.  It argues, for instance, that “the so-called ‘vulnerable’ residents seem to be the only ones considered” in some of the plan’s sections and that “the ‘key issues’ presented seem to primarily relate to the priorities of single, often street-involved individuals.” The authors argue: “In too many cases, the effect has been to silence other opinions or to ignore the needs and priorities of residents not deemed by the LAP Committee to be ‘vulnerable.’”

The Local Area Plan for the DTES is a development plan for a neighbourhood in crisis. The reality is that low-income singles form approximately 70% of the DTES population. Many are indigenous, struggle with mental health issues, use illicit drugs or live with disabilities. In short, they are the most marginalized members of our community. The terms of reference for the process, which were signed by City Manager Penny Ballem and adopted by City Council, state that “the purpose of the LAPP is to improve the future for all residents, especially low income and vulnerable residents.” The city was compelled by logic, public pressure and decades of work on the part of low-income DTES residents to adopt these terms of reference and consequently prioritize the needs of low-income people. The purpose of the LAPP was defined through months of discussion and is no longer negotiable. If a Local Area Plan fails to address, first and foremost, a crisis that has drawn national attention for decades, then it is simply not grounded in reality. Community members in the DTES have fought to be included in decisions that affect their lives. Their strength and victories have won them the right to not be pushed aside by more powerful interests.

The ICNC does not dispute that low-income residents should be “included” in the planning process, but seems to take issue with the fact that their input is reflected in the draft planning document. While the ICNC accuses the city of over-emphasizing the low-income community in “Emerging Directions”, the Low-Income Caucus has concluded that most of the recommendations and quick-start items serve the interests of wealthier residents and the businesses they support. Elements in the narrative sections reflect input from the low-income community in the planning process, but the majority of the zoning and policy recommendations that will determine the future of the neighbourhood do not[3]. As we wait for the next version of the plan, whether the collaborative planning approach adopted by the city allows for meaningful input from marginalized residents remains to be seen.

Who represents the “community”?

SJZ_group of residents
DTES artist Diane Woods’ poster art in support of the Social Justice Zone

The ICNC letter asserts that “vulnerable residents, often through self-designated representatives, have the only or overriding say in strategies and results.” We read this statement as an ill-founded attempt to de-legitimize the representation of the low-income LAPP Committee delegates. Both the low-income and the non-low-income communities hold the same number of “member at large” seats on the LAPP and are, by their very nature, not accountable to any distinct association.[4] Even these members were not “self-designated,” but chosen through a delegate application and selection process agreed to by the city and the groups tasked with populating the LAPP Committee. Other LAPP Committee members are chosen representatives of organizations that are made up of the city’s most vulnerable members, such as the Carnegie Community Centre Association (5,000 members), VANDU (over 2000 members) and the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society (over 500 members).

The problem is not, as the ICNC suggests, a crisis of democracy on the LAPP Committee. We feel that the problem is simply that the ICNC signatories do not agree with the positions of the Low-Income Caucus.

Enough adequate housing: A “narrow political philosophy”?

The ICNC letter continues to argue that due to the LAPP Committee membership, the document is framed to “disenfranchise local residents who do not fit a predetermined profile or adhere to a rather narrow political philosophy.”  In fact, the members of the Low-Income Caucus have diverse positions that emphasize the issues many live with and work on: homelessness, illicit drug use, health, sex work, racism, colonization, etc. All, however, have voiced shared demands around housing: The Local Area Plan must include the replacement of 5,000 Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotel rooms and the creation of new housing for the 730 homeless people in the DTES. We do not think that prioritizing housing is a “narrow political philosophy.”

The ICNC letter ends its first section by claiming:

“One would hope that the aim of a local area plan would be to unite the entire community behind a joint vision for future development, not to divide groups into those who matter and those who don’t.”

The Social Justice Zone rally in June 2013

The ICNC letter draws a dividing line between low-income residents and the others throughout its document. In a neighbourhood where a dramatic loss of housing for low-income people has been documented, it is strikingly clear that the balance of power sits in favour of wealthier residents and business-owners.[5] It is unreasonable to expect city planners to produce a document that unites a community under these conditions. The municipal government plan must begin by prioritizing basic needs for the residents who are vulnerable to  the dynamics of the market, such as affordable and adequate housing, food and amenities. Once basic needs are met and all residents protected, the work of uniting a community can begin.

2. Gentrification, social housing and a low-income community

The ICNC letter takes issue with the use of the word “gentrification” in the local area plan, calling its use “unfortunate” and questioning its link to homelessness. The use of “gentrification” in “Emerging Directions”, however, is an accurate description of the process that is transforming the DTES. It is rational, logical and essential for a planning document for the DTES to make reference to “gentrification” and link the process to homelessness.

Gentrification is a term widely used in academic, policy and media spheres to describe an economic and social process where low-income residents can no longer afford to live in an area and are consequently displaced. As mentioned, CCAP has studied and documented the loss of affordable housing stock in the DTES for years. Establishing direct links between loss of affordable housing and homelessness may be a statistical challenge due to the nature of displacement, but it is not an analytical challenge. When a low-income resident is evicted from an SRO and rents in surrounding buildings have risen beyond what they can afford, there are four options: Either they are fortunate enough to access some form of housing, they are displaced from the neighbourhood, they are forced to make cuts to their other essential costs to pay higher rents, or they become homeless.

The argument against “gentrification” is a prelude to the objective of the ICNC letter: Opposing the few concrete proposals in the draft plan that may serve to dampen the displacement of low-income residents from the DTES and limit the expansion of higher income homes, shops and services in the neighbourhood.

The DTES planning sub-districts

At the heart of the controversy surrounding the DTES plan is an inclusionary zoning mechanism that would require 60% of all new developments in a small sub-district known as the “Downtown Eastside Oppenheimer District” to be social housing, and the remaining 40% to be market rentals. Because the city is proposing a limited definition of social housing, only 30% of any new units would actually be accessible to people on income assistance or basic pensions. Nonetheless, the new rules would keep condos out of the sub-district, which would, in turn, slow retail gentrification and make it easier for non profit groups to acquire land for housing.

Other measures that the city puts forward in “Emerging Directions” to alleviate the housing crisis are building 800 social housing units and protecting low-income community assets in a “Community-based Development Area.” These, along with the 60%/40% zoning, are among the only concrete elements of “Emerging Directions” that the Low-Income Caucus defends.

3. “Ghettos” for low-income communities, “neighbourhoods” for high-income communities?

Although the ICNC does not clearly articulate its opposition to the 60%/40% zoning, it warns that: “Planning based on accommodating the current, or a designated percentage, of low income residents has the potential to maintain the area as what might be termed a poverty ghetto.”

The reality, however, is that the Oppenheimer District is very small and there are few empty lots. As such, implementing the 60%/40% zoning is very unlikely to fulfil the obligations of the City of Vancouver’s DTES Housing Policy – which calls for the replacement of 5,000 SRO units – let alone provide housing for any new neighbourhood residents. It is further unlikely that it will produce enough housing for the conservative estimate of 730 people who are currently homeless.

More problematic than the flawed calculations, however, is the language that the ICNC uses and the analysis it implies. The reader may assume that the ICNC does not use the term “ghetto”, with its racial and class-based undertones, to honour the low-income community assets that so many of the city’s most marginalized residents have built and rely upon. “Ghetto” is not a word used to describe all non-mixed neighbourhoods: Kerrisdale, Point Grey and other predominantly white and middle/upper-class neighbourhoods are not commonly named “ghettos.” The CCAP “Community Vision for Change” document, which summarizes meetings with 1,200 low-income residents, paints a very different pictures of the DTES than the version put forward by the ICNC. Residents report that the “poverty ghetto” of the DTES is a culturally diverse community that – unlike most neighbourhoods –  provides many marginalized people with a sense of belonging, support networks, an informal economy, and easy access to essential services.

This does not mean that low-income residents do not want change or to be accepted in other neighbourhoods. The needs identified by the community include building social housing, stopping gentrification, developing an economy that serves and employs local residents, involving low-income DTES residents in decisions and tackling systemic poverty[6]. The Social Justice Plan, an alternative development plan that was created by the Low-Income Caucus and CCAP and endorsed by over 3,000 low-income residents in June 2013, sets out the changes and transformations that many in the community would like to see.[7] This plan, if implemented, would put in place policies that would result in significant changes and offer more promise in terms of building real solutions to displacement, poverty, homelessness and the many intersected oppressions that people face in the DTES and beyond.

The saturation point for social housing or for profit?

The Social Justice Zone rally in June 2013

The “Emerging Directions” document, despite its many flaws, rightly acknowledges that the sense of inclusion and belonging that many low-income community members have expressed in the DTES is essential to their well-being. It reflects – to an extent – an understanding of years of research on mental health, addictions and disabilities that point to the importance of communities of support and accessible health services in protecting the health of low-income and vulnerable people. The ICNC, however, puts forward a misguided and outdated belief that “providing housing on this basis actually rewards those who continue dysfunctional lifestyles at the expense of those who manage to find some stability.” This moralizing approach to health and well-being has been tried and proven to fail. Progressive social and health policy takes a completely different approach to health – one that defines addiction and mental health issues as disabilities and not chosen behaviours. Reverting to this approach would not only imply ignoring many of the city’s own social and health policies; it would do little to address the fundamental causes behind human suffering in the DTES.

In what can only be interpreted as a contradiction, the ICNC authors “heartily agree with the staff recommendation to ‘revitalize the area without displacing existing residents’” while arguing that the local area plan’s commitment to “add new social and supportive housing units in the DTES wherever possible” is not backed by  “evidence presented as to whether the DTES has already reached a saturation point for such housing or what such a saturation point should be.” It is unclear whose “saturation point” the letter is referring to. That said, for the thousands of people who are either living in substandard SROs or homeless – and facing mental health issues or living with disabilities – it can hardly be argued that supportive or social housing is at a “saturation point.” “Emerging Directions” only guarantees an additional 800 units of housing in the next 10 years. This small number of units would barely meet the present needs of street homeless people, let alone replace thousands of derelict SROs or account for the population growth that the city predicts.

What is clear is that the ICNC letter, with its aversion to “ghettos”, strongly supports the “scattered site” model. This model would see low-income housing dispersed throughout the city while creating a “mixed income” community in the DTES. We agree that social housing should be available across the city, but – as the ICNC states – no DTES resident should be forcibly displaced from their community and their supports because they cannot afford housing. We believe that low-income housing stock in the DTES should be protected at the same time as social housing is expanded across the city. The “Emerging Directions” plan falls short of planning, or even visioning, the social housing to make this possible. It must be changed to boldly challenge other levels of government to build the social housing we need. The two strategies are complementary. But to plan or allow mass displacement by gentrification and rent increases without building the replacement housing first is a recipe for disaster. Lacking the social housing construction plan we need, the immediate action must be to stop gentrification and displacement.

Neighbourhoods for homes versus neighbourhoods for profit

The ICNC argues that a concentration of low-income people in the DTES hampers business. The authors write, for example:

“Staff should also recommend removing barriers to business expansion, such as the 20% social housing requirement on anything over 1FSR expansion. While the intent of such a policy is understandable, in reality it has served to stymie business growth while not appreciably increasing social housing.”

The ICNC writes that businesses that “do not require significant public subsidies are required”, and that these “businesses will require sufficient presence of working residents to maintain commercial viability.” Furthermore, while the ICNC acknowledges the importance of businesses that serve and employ low-income people, it holds that “it is equally important that residents of other neighbourhoods and tourists feel attracted to spend money in the community.” The ICNC is quick to draw links between higher-income businesses, private home ownership and profitability. It reminds the city that “business success leads to high property taxes leads to high rents which in turn leads to high prices.” Ultimately, a predominantly low-income community is simply not profitable.

We agree that there is less of a potential for private profit for business owners in a low-income neighbourhood. The purpose of the LAPP, however, is to improve the lives of the neighbourhood’s poorest residents. This entails ensuring that market developments do not raise land values and displace current residents to neighbourhoods that do not provide the services, amenities or sense of inclusion they require.


There are other aspects of the ICNC report that merit more attention. We are concerned that the letter’s intent of de-emphasizing the needs of the low-income people, delegitimizing the LAPP Committee and limiting low-income housing threaten the few progressive policies that “Emerging Directions” puts forward.

The ICNC writes: “There are inherent dangers to combining social engineering with community planning.” We disagree. All community planning is social engineering, including the ICNC’s proposals for a private-market-driven streetscape. Plans are not haphazard. Zoning, bylaws and other mechanisms engineer who can live in a community. If community planning is not governed by an interest in addressing the basic needs of its most vulnerable residents, first and foremost, the process will lead to more homelessness, disorganization and displacement of those communities most vulnerable to such violence. If the Local Area Plan fails, the conflict that ICNC warns the city of is sure to unfold.

There are some elements of the ICNC proposal, such as resident control of social housing, that we agree with. Ultimately, however, the ICNC letter is a glimpse into the transparent intentions of property and business owners with their sights set on the DTES.

Central to the ICNC letter is a belief that home-owners, business owners and new DTES residents that have moved into higher-rent renovated SROs are being treated unfairly in “Emerging Directions.” The authors state, for instance: “We find it frankly unfair that so little consideration is given to long-term residents who invested in buying local housing and indeed newer residents attracted by the area’s culture.”

We maintain that the greatest injustice in the DTES is poverty. Many First Nations DTES residents have experienced the dispossession of their land, residential schools, forced adoptions and other traumas. Chinese and Japanese community members in the DTES have also experienced forced displacement due to the policies and interventions of the Canadian government. It goes without saying that an overwhelming number of low-income DTES residents have experienced injustices in their lives. In our Town Hall Meetings, open community sessions and days spent asking for petition signatures, many residents have told us that gentrification is the latest trauma in a cycle of displacement[8]. Although we do not dispute the perception of unfair treatment that the higher-income homeowners, renters and business owners who signed the ICNC letter are experiencing, most low-income people cannot access the same means of defending their interests in the neighbourhood. They cannot purchase property, they cannot own businesses, they often cannot access legal assistance. The Local Area Plan is a device for ensuring that their interests are represented in the future development path of their neighbourhood.

As it stands, however, the city has only few commitments in support of low-income homes and business. Essentially, a promise to build 800 units of social housing (some of which are already planned and/or pre-existing promises), a requirement of 60%/40% inclusionary zoning in the DEOD, and some form of impact assessment project for developments in the “Community-based Development Area” are the only measures proposed.

Marginalization, discrimination, poverty and vulnerability will not disappear if the DTES becomes a higher income community. Instead, the same problems will surface repeatedly throughout the city, in a cycle of displacement and conflict. There are alternatives. The few elements of “Emerging Directions” that seek to provide people with better housing, better incomes and may allow them to endure less discrimination should be supported. The “Social Justice Zone”, which has been endorsed by 3,000 residents, puts forward concrete policy alternatives for the neighbourhood that address the root causes of poverty and discrimination in the DTES.


Members of the LAPP Low-Income Caucus

Colleen Boudreau, Survival Sex Workers

Victoria Bull, Low-Income Community Member at Large

King-mong Chan, Carnegie Community Action Project

Tamara Herman, Carnegie Community Action Project

Harold Lavender, Carnegie Community Action Project Volunteer/Low-Income Caucus Member

Ian McRae, Downtown Eastside Neighourhood Council Member at Large

Tami Starlight, Low-Income Community Member at Large

Jean Swanson, Carnegie Community Action Project (CCCA Alternate)

Gena Thompson, President, Carnegie Community Centre Association (CCCA)

Karen Ward, Gallery Gachet

Phoenix Winter, Carnegie Community Centre Association (CCCA)

[1] http://gellersworldtravel.blogspot.ca/2013_10_01_archive.html

[2] The signers are: Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society (ALIVE), Crosstown Residents Association
False Creek Residents Association, Gastown Business Improvement Association, Hastings Crossing Business Improvement Association, Inner City Safety Society, Network of Inner City Community Services Society,
Ray-Cam Community Centre, Sacred Heart Parish, Strathcona Business Improvement Association, Strathcona Residents [not Association], Urban Core (information sharing), Vancouver Chinatown BIA Society
Vancouver Eastside Educational Enrichment Society.

Mission Possible, a DTES humanitarian agency, was listed as a signer, but was in fact never consulted and asked to have its name removed. Although “Strathcona Residents” signed the letter, the Strathcona Residents’ Association, which sits on the LAPP Committee, did not. The Urban Core was listed as “information sharing” but not a signer. Three BIAs that signed the ICNC letter hold seats on the LAPP Committee.

[3] http://ccapvancouver.wordpress.com/category/city-planning/

[4] http://vancouver.ca/home-property-development/committee-members.aspx

[5] http://ccapvancouver.wordpress.com/ccap-reports/

[6] Pedersen, Wendy & Swanson, Jean (2010). Community Vision for Change in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Carnegie Community Action Project.

[7] http://ccapvancouver.wordpress.com/category/city-planning/social-justice-zone/

[8] http://ccapvancouver.wordpress.com/category/city-planning/social-justice-zone/