Downtown Eastsiders grill NDP MLAs on housing crisis

The New Democratic Party (NDP) would spend the $100 million a year they expect to get from a speculation tax on social housing. That’s what NDP MLA David Eby told a packed town hall meeting at the Carnegie Theatre on December 14th. The town hall was organized by the Our Homes Can’t Wait group to call attention to the growing DTES housing crisis.

$100 million would pay for about 500 units of social housing on city owned land, far short of the 3000 new units that the BC Non Profit Housing Association says Metro Vancouver needs every year just to deal with a growing population. It is also far short of the 10,000 social housing units a year across BC the Alliance Against Displacement estimates that the government need to build, and the Downtown Eastside needs 5000 units just to house the people currently homeless and living in SRO hotels.

Co-chaired by Gallery Gachet and VANDU activist Karen Ward and WAHRS president Tracey Morrison, the town hall featured presentations by DTES residents about various aspects of the housing crisis and questions to MLAs Melanie Mark (who had to leave early) and Dave Eby.

NDP needs to focus on low-income and homeless people

Caitlin Hurley with CCAP opened the meeting and explained “We called this meeting because we are worried about the election this spring – no one is talking about low-income and homeless people. All the debates about housing focus on foreign investment, home ownership and middle class people.” Hurley added that “NDP is really contributing to this situation.” Hurley elaborated that “we are also worried because in the last election Dix dismissed social housing as a “big-box” solution that the province cannot afford”

Beverly Ho of the Chinatown Concern Group told the MLAs and the crowd that the myth that the housing crisis is caused by foreign investment is also fueling racism against chinese people and causing more assaults on Chinese people in the streets and in food line-ups. “In Chinatown” Ho added, “the housing crisis that we see is not caused by foreign investment – it’s caused by local developers and middle class Canadians wanting to realize their homeownership dreams.”

Ho concluded NDP needs to shift their focus and make housing for low-income people the number one priority in the upcoming election. Carmen Paterson with CCAP emphasized the importance of focusing on low-income and homeless people, explaining that “as a result of the housing crisis and government inaction, homeless people have half the life expectancy as other BC residents.”


Paterson went on to explain that all “these deaths are all preventable. No one should have to be homeless. Yet DTES will only get an additional 96 new units from the current government’s expenditure of $500 m on housing.” Paterson concluded that, “So even though the province has said it will spend 855 M on social housing, very little of it is coming to our community.”

“Housing is the number one issue for us,” said Mark. “Kids in care age out of care and into homelessness. Where are the Liberals? They sold off Stamp’s Place to balance the budget.”

When asked how many units the NDP would build, Eby said an NDP government would restore the homeless count and and commit to ending homelessness. “You’ll see specific numbers,” he said.  

Hard questions, vague answers

Lama Mugabo reminded the MLA’s that the NDP didn’t push for rent control in the last election.  “Will you work to get rent control by the unit in the NDP platform?” he asked. Eby responded that they would definitely bring in a proposal “around rent control in SRO Hotels”

When asked about fixed term tenancies by the SRO Collaborative’s Wendy Pedersen, Eby said “We’re on the record all over the place saying we’ll end it.” Fixed term tenancies are agreements that landlords get tenants to sign saying that their tenancy will end on a certain date. If the tenant signs, as they often do, because they are desperate to find a place to rent, then they can be evicted for no reason and their rent can be increased by any amount at the end of the tenancy.  This is happening now in the DTES at the Ross House, for example, and in some Sahota-owned hotels.

Through translator Beverly Ho, Mrs. Kong, an 80 year old Chinatown resident asked the MLAs what they will do to protect Chinatown. “The government is not respecting Chinese residents,” she said. “We really need the government to step up for the working class.” When asked what the NDP would do to save Chinatown and 105 Keefer in particular, Eby said those were “municipal questions.”  

Karen Ward talked about the social mix theory, a “convenient myth to sell gentrification and displacement and control social behavior through real estate.” Ward added that “Social mix makes it seem like low-income people are an ingredient in some kind of sauce.” Eby responded that the NDP would build social housing that “doesn’t sign away your rights as a human being.”

When asked if the NDP would endorse tent cities by homeless tenter Daniel Isadore, Eby said no. “The NDP supports shelters where people are treated with dignity and won’t be supporting tent cities because we’ll be supporting housing.”  Eby wasn’t concrete when Isadore pressed him about what homeless people are supposed to do in the meantime.

Eby said he would be open to our suggestions on how to protect women’s safety in SRO’s when asked by Deb McNaught. “Tenant organizing is a good way,” he said. When asked by Regent Hotel organizer Jack Gates if the NDP would buy and upgrade 20 SRO hotels, Eby said, “if the community thinks money from the speculation tax sould be used to buy SROs, we could do that, recognizing their roles as a stop gap.”

“One of the main reasons for the housing crisis is that people don’t have enough income,” Harold Lavender told the group. “The NDP does call for a poverty reduction strategy but is reluctant to commit to a substantial increase in welfare. In the last election they only committed to raising the welfare rate by $20″ Eby replied, committing the Party to a poverty reduction strategy but not a substantial increase in welfare. “We can’t say how much,” he said.

At the end of the meeting, Jean Swanson reminded the MLA that his party had committed itself to a $10 a day childcare plan and to a $15 an hour minimum wage. She said low income people are looking for strong commitments to build 10,000 social housing units a year and raise welfare to $1500 a month.