Vancouver historian Michael Barnholden has written that there are at least two recurring themes in Vancouver’s political discourse. The first is a theme of revision, where low-income and working-class lives and stories are erased from the history of the city. The second is a history of criminalization, where the poor are associated in the political imagination with crime and police control. A truly contemporary example of the use of these two motifs occurred today in a Globe and Mail article on the conversion and upscaling of the American Hotel.
In the coming weeks, the American is set to open with almost 50 market-rate apartment units and an entrepreneurial “izakaya-themed” bar below. The project at 938 Main Street will establish the building as part of trendy developments extending the “Crosstown” area beyond Chinatown South. The Globe piece, written by Frances Bula, sets out to booster the development. The article gives a vivid documentation of the history of petty crime and drug trafficking at the American hotel. It is in light of this dark past that a bright, “revitalized” future is imagined for the American.
Yet in all of its emphasis on crime, Frances Bula fails to mention the biggest crime of all: the illegal eviction of all low-income tenants from the hotel in 2006. Writing exclusively for the quasi-artistic retail bourgeoisie, Bula finds it “hard to mourn the American Hotel and its bar that died in 2006, unless you were into super-cheap blocks of stolen cheese, cocaine, motorcycle gangs, grunge or all of the above.” The list excludes the low-income history while at the same time making it so that if the history were to be included, it would have to do so only by being inserted into a predetermined list of crimes. But for a moment let us remember – mourn – the true history of the American Hotel.
Until 2006 the American Hotel provided affordable housing for those on the verge of being un-housed. That year the owner of the American Hotel illegally evicted all of his tenants and closed the building. The illegal eviction was justified on the basis that 156 units of social housing would be built in the redevelopment. Today, however, when the American opens, there will be a total of 6 units of social housing – not 156. The remaining units will rent at rates far out of reach of the people formerly living at the American, and out of reach of most neighborhood residents, 70% of who are low-income renters. According to Wendy Pedersen, co-organizer of the Carnegie Community Action Project, the units will rent for unaffordable rates (even if the Vancouver Sun has defined them as “low-income single-person units”). “A person can live at the renovated American Hotel if they make about $31,000 a year,” said Pedersen. “Currently, a person earning minimum wage makes about $16,000 a year. A person on welfare makes about $7,300 a year.”
On September 23, 2010, all city councillors voted in favor of approving the permit for the American Hotel, with the exception of councillor Ellen Woodsworth. Woodsworth argued that the 6 low-income units were too few and too haphazard, since the city did not take into account what the owner’s projected profits or income would be. City staff “negotiators” (although it is clear that they did not negotiate) stated to council that they were unable to “speak directly to the exact economics of this project” because they “didn’t specifically look at or analyze the profits in this case.”
Only Woodsworth has attempted to represent Vancouver’s low-income residents at city hall. In fact, many housing activists recently came to the realization that Vision Vancouver literally has no plan for affordable housing. This realization came at a recent council meeting when, after being criticized for making Vancouver unaffordable, councillor Kerry Jang responding that in fact his party has being doing “a lot.” His example? The six units of social housing squeezed into the American Hotel – that’s six out of 156.
Meanwhile, however, SROs continue to be privatized under Jang and Vision, with no end in sight. It is time to recognize what an NPA-Vision coalition, under the appearance of a COPE-Vision alliance, has meant for Vancouver: disappearing housing, disappearing history, criminalization and more police. Barnholden’s observations are more true today than ever before.