woodwards-housing-losses(Excerpt from CCAP’s 2012 hotel report. View online here)*

Did the Woodward’s experiment work?

Woodwards is a huge development in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood of Vancouver, often called the “poorest postal code” in Canada. It opened in 2009 and consists of 2 towers with 536 condos, some costing millions of dollars, 125 units of supportive housing for low income people, 75 units of non market housing for mostly middle income people, an upscale Nesters supermarket, a drugstore, a Simon Fraser University campus, City of Vancouver offices, small shops and a bank office. 

“[The building] seems to be a model for inclusivity, in my mind,” says its architect, Gregory Henriquez.  When Woodward’s condos were built the City called them the “social mix” future of development for the Downtown Eastside. Woodward’s was the city’s model social-mix project because the plan included expensive condos, family housing with some subsidies, and welfare-rate social housing. It was also planned to have both higher-end retail shops and low-income community space too.

Mixing low income people with richer people is according to the social mix proponents supposed to create jobs for the low income people and help low income people become more middle class.  In reality, “social mix” has become a euphemism for diluting the low-income community in the Downtown Eastside with more higher-income people.

What has social mix meant for the low-income community?

Before Woodward’s and accompanying condos were built the western section of the Downtown Eastside was a majority-low-income area. In the 2006 census the highest percentage low-income population area of the Downtown Eastside was Victory Square; with over 70% low-income residents. At the time, the neighbourhood was full of old single room occupancy (SRO) hotels housing people on very low welfare and disability incomes. While the rooms don’t have private bathrooms or kitchens, and are often full of cockroaches and vermin, they are the last resort before homelessness for very low income people.

There are 23 SRO hotels in a 2 block radius of Woodwards. Before Woodwards opened virtually all the hotels except one, were renting to people on welfare and disability or basic pension incomes. The basic welfare for a single person in BC is $610 a month for everything including rent, with $375 towards rent. The redeveloped Woodward’s building was opened in 2009 and after seven years there is some evidence available about the real effects of this project and what social mix means for the Downtown Eastside low-income community.

  • By 2011, rents in 7 hotels which had 442 rooms had escalated to $500 or higher.  This meant low income people were either pushed out or had to survive somehow by binning, free food, vending on the street, or a combination of these. So, while Woodwards created 125 new units that low income people could afford, the climate of investment and gentrification it produced destroyed at least 442 privately owned SRO hotel rooms, a net loss of  317 rooms within two blocks of Woodwards.

  • By 2015, rents in many of the surrounding SRO hotels have almost doubled. BC’s rent control laws allow landlords to raise rents as much as they like for new tenants. Landlords in at least 3 hotels were paying long time tenants $500 to $2000 to leave so they could do minor renovations and raise rents to the $850-1200 range.  While inflation would count for a $21 rent increase between 2011 and 2015, 7 hotels increased their rents by over $100 in that period and 7 had rents starting at around $700 by 2015, completely excluding previous low income residents. Seven years after Woodwards opened, one hotel across the street from Woodwards advertised an SRO room on Craigslist for $1500 a month.

  • The Woodward’s area has become a zone of exclusion for low-income people. New residences exclude the poor with separate entrances and amenities. New businesses exclude low-income residents by price and culture. Security guards and higher-income shoppers and residents treat them with scorn. The unique sense of belonging low-income DTES residents have has been eroded in the Woodward’s area. To make matters worse, the community space that it was supposed to include is now gone as the community groups couldn’t afford the $80,000 a year rent.

  • Social mix is a poor bashing philosophy. The social mix idea assumes that being middle class is better than being working class, a prejudice in itself. And it’s actually ridiculous to think that living near middle class people could help people who are poor get more money or recover from physical or mental disabilities if they have them. But, regardless of the shortcomings and biases in the theory, there is no mix in the Woodwards social mix.  The Woodwards development has two entrances, one for the poor on W. Hastings St. and one for the condo owners on W. Cordova St. It has two amenity rooms, one for the poor, and another with a “w” shaped hot tub for the condo owners.

So, did the Woodwards “experiment” work?  Is Woodwards a “model of inclusivity” as its architect claims? Actually in Woodwards, there is no mix as the two classes are kept separate and businesses exclude low income residents with high prices and security guards.  Woodwards has become a zone of exclusion for low income people except for the “poor door” entrance to their housing.

Did the social housing at Woodwards help reduce homelessness?  While people who got into the 125 units are generally happy to have a place to live with a bathroom and kitchen, the Woodwards-induced gentrification caused increased rents in the surrounding hotels. In this way, social mix destroys more low-income housing than it creates.  The loss of SRO hotels to low-income people has contributed to Vancouver homeless count skyrocketing since 2008.

*The discrepancy in figures between the 2011 report and this 2016 article is due to the 2016 article covering a two block radium of SRO hotels while the 2011 report only covered a one block radium from Woodwards.  



What is it like to live at Woodwards as a low-income person?

The rooftop hot tub accessible only to market tenants.

“Social Mix is Exclusion,” Article by Karen Ward

I’ve lived in Vancouver for thirteen years, in SROs for seven, I was homeless for about eight months, and now I live in supportive housing at Woodward’s. I’m an artist, and I live with a mental illness. I’m on the Local Area Planning Process committee that works with the City of Vancouver to create new planning policy for the Downtown Eastside. On the committee, I represent Gallery Gachet.

One of the key ideas that appeals to planners these days is “social mix.” It sounds like a neutral term, but what it means is that you can mix higher-class populations into a low-income community. In theory, it’s supposed to embody the idea that “a rising tide lifts all boats”: that people bringing more money into a neighbourhood will create jobs, a better life for all, and impose middle-class values on a low-income community. In practice, however, we can look to Woodward’s to see the real effects. There, the rising tide has led to higher property values, the closure and displacement of low-income housing stock, the closing of several studio spaces, and a ring of surrounding high-end retail that excludes low-income people by implication and more directly by private security guards (in case you weren’t certain if you were welcome or not).

125 social housing units were built at Woodward’s, but these residents are effectively excluded in their own surroundings. I know, I live there, and I’ve experienced exclusion for a very long time. My friends, my neighbours complain about being followed around by security guards in Nester’s, not being able to find a coffee under $2, being treated as less-than-acceptable in this development, in their own home, as soon as you exit the front door.

And what about our neighbours? I’d love to tell you what the people in the market towers think of this situation, but I can’t. I’ve lived at Woodward’s since 2010 and I’ve yet to meet one. This isn’t social mix.

These new residents aren’t interested in our already-existing communities; they’re interested in remaking their new land into a weird designer-baby store, $5 latte, a super-trendy restaurant and fancy cheese wonderland, insulating themselves from us, making sure with their money that they-and-us are as distinct and as separate as possible. They are interested in parking their beamers, crossing their skywalk, and entering their condos without even having their $130 shoes touch the pavement. And they impose their values; they expect to impose their values – why would they encounter resistance? They are quite used to getting what they want. They expect that their values will win. And their values are greed, narcissism, and arrogance.

Meanwhile the low-income folks become invisible in their own homes, not at home in their own backyard. This is another kind of NIMBYism: I don’t have a backyard but if I did I wouldn’t want higher-income people in it. It’s a sick feeling to realize that your neighbours probably spend more than your entire social assistance check on food for their designer dog. I do agree that, to quote some graffiti (public art) on the wall in front of the Pantages site at 138 East Hastings, “my civilization sucks,” but you don’t have to rub it in.

The Carnegie Community Action Project made a map of the zones of exclusion around Woodward’s; I would update it today: the zones of exclusion have radiated outwards over time until the entire area has been gentrified. Thus the conqueror conquers again– under the banner, remember, of “social mix”. Actually, the mix goes one way, unless we stop the tide now.

Right now, the city has created a local area planning committee to create an overarching plan for our neighbourhood and the future of our community for years to come. It’s a way – at least in theory – that low-income people and the organizations we represent can have a substantial impact on our own futures, and the future of our community as a whole. New higher class projects are being proposed, and between these many rising tides, we drown.

Right now, as I’m writing this, I’m listening to two children playing outside, playing with joy and laughter. Happiness isn’t about money or property, it’s finding that basic human emotion: joy, strength, beauty. Now, not to foment class war, despite that quest for joy, no people are more equal than others. In our society, money has instead been equated with joy, to our great, profound loss. This is the situation that the Downtown Eastside resists, and has resisted – since the world began.

For me, the possibilities of the local planning process is first of all the sharing of information, experiences, and ideas from really diverse members of our community. What we want has become very clear: housing, adequate social assistance, opportunities for all kinds of work within and for our community, and ways we can actually build our own community, rather than having it built for us. And that applies both to developers and bureaucratic agencies run by ‘experts’ to serve the people.

But we have something else: We have the power and knowledge to shape our own lives and our community, to create something different, a different way of being and doing that puts people before profit, the common good instead of common greed.

Initially published in the The Volcano Newspaper.