Tent city sparks small victory for DTES housing

On Aug. 2nd at a packed meeting in the Carnegie Theatre, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson finally agreed to the minium demand of the Our Homes Can’t Wait campaign: that the city-owned lot at 58 W. Hastings in the Downtown Eastside should have social housing with 100% welfare/pension rents.

The commitment to 100% welfare rate social housing shows a significant change in the City’s plans for the site. Only, last summer the City announced 58 West as the home of one of the Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency’s (VAHA) seven sites of “affordable housing.” However, the preliminary plans indicated that only 15% of the units would have rented at shelter rate ($375).

The agreement comes after over ten years of struggle to get social housing at the large vacant site, across from Army and Navy. Yet, the struggle isn’t over yet. The Mayor didn’t agree to fund the housing, just to rezone it by June 2017. He says the City will still have to get money to build it from the Federal and Provincial governments.

The meeting at Carnegie was the result of a sort of occupation of city hall on July 12th by residents of the current tent city and supporters from the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), Chinatown Concern Group, CCAP and other groups.

At the Carnegie meeting diverse groups representing people of African descent, the Chinese community, drug users, tent city residents all argued that the City should adopt the four points of the Our Homes Can’t Wait campaign, already endorsed by ten DTES groups.

Jannie Leung of the Chinatown Action Group told the Mayor and several city staff that the city should build 100% welfare/pension rate social housing on ten city owned sites in the DTES. She said that one of those sites should be 105 Keefer St, that is currently slated for a condo development.

Debra McNaught of CCAP called for the second demand of the Our Homes Can’t Wait campaign: the preservation and improvement of the Single Room Occupancy (SRO) Hotels until new housing can be built. “All three levels of government have utterly failed this community,” she said. “SRO rooms are shit holes, there is no basic maintenance, they lack kitchens and adequate bathrooms and elevators don’t work.”

Al Fowler from BCAPOM called for the third demand of the Our Homes Can’t Wait campaign: a rent freeze. “Can’t have people moving out and rents getting hiked up.” Martin Steward talked about the importance of 58 W Hastings Tent City, explaining that “we have come together as a community to make a safe space that’s ours.”

Jinx, who lives at the tent city, also asked the city to address the basic needs of tent city residents: porta potties, garbage pick up, wash basins, and more help with harm reduction.

Before giving the mic to the Mayor, Karen Ward from VANDU and Jen Allan from Cop Watch questioned the City’s spending priorities. Jenn Allan explained how “the City says it doesn’t have money for housing but it has increased the annual police budget by $100 million (64%) since 2008.”

Ward elaborated Jenn’s argument, explaining how “the City just spent 55mil to purchase arbutus corridor so rich people can bike there, but they say they don’t have money for housing.” Ward also added that “the City subsidizes developers to the tune of millions to build rental housing that is not affordable to us and they spend millions of dollars to manage homelessness, instead of ending it.”

The group had decided before the meeting that the minimum demand was a committment to 100% welfare/pension rate and community controlled social housing at 58 W. Hastings. So after the Mayor spoke, Aiyanas Ormond from VANDU, produced a scroll with the basic demand on it. The audience chanted “sign it, sign it.”

After some revisions to the proposed time-line the Mayor finally signed the agreement on the flip chart. The final agreement read: “We commit to building 100% welfare rate ($375) community controlled social housing at 58 W Hastings, working with the community to develop a rezoning application that will proceed to council by the end of June 2017.”

The details are important. The final agreement read “community controlled social housing,” this means housing run and accountable to residents – not supportive housing.

While the agreement is a notable victory, the fight is far from over. The housing will only replace half of the social housing destroyed by the climate of investment that Woodwards created, a fraction of the housing lost each year to rising rents and will only house a fraction of people who are homeless in our city. And that is only if the housing is actually built, which remains to be seen.

Photo from Metro News