The Pidgin picket has pressured the city government to declare its stance on the gentrification of Vancouver’s most affordable neighborhood. City Councilor Kerry Jang has thrown his support behind gentrification in general, and has made a point of making personal appearances at the Pidgin/21 Doors project in particular. This has revealed a contradiction of the city’s policies: the mayor claims to oppose homelessness, but at the same time promotes a targeted gentrification policy that is causing the rapid loss of affordable housing in the DTES. The Pidgin restaurant itself is part of the 21 Doors condo project, which displaced 30 low income families when tenants were evicted in 2008. Pidgin is only blocks from the Woodward’s project, which resulted in the direct loss of eight hotels and 404 low income units in a 1-block radius since 2010. Today Woodward’s is flanked on all sides by high-end boutique stores instead of affordable housing.
Against the visible facts on the ground, Kerry Jang is arguing that gentrification is not causing the loss of low income housing in Vancouver’s Eastside, stating, “Gentrification is a problem if people are being displaced. But no one is being displaced.” As evidence, Jang points to a statistic from a recent city hall report — a statistic also used in an article published today in the Tyee by Doug Ward: “The study found that the number of low-income housing units in Vancouver’s downtown core not only stabilized during the gentrification boom that came before and after the 2010 Olympics — it’s on the rise.”
The city report, which is in fact only a slideshow presentation for a public relations campaign, suggests that the number of low-income singles housing in the downtown core has increased from 11,371 units in 1993, to 12,126 units in 2012. However, Ward’s Tyee article fails to take into account that the same slideshow also states that out of the 4,482 low-income SRO units in 2012, only 24% of the units rent at welfare rate (according to the 2011 low income survey). Taking this into account, the total number of low-income singles units in 2012 is closer to 8700 units, not 12,000. The problem is that the city’s SRA By-law literally does not count these units as losses in the affordable housing stock, regardless of what price they climb to.
To make matters worse, the same city report also admits that many of the new social housing units are themselves not affordable: “Less than half of new non-market downtown single units [are] renting at welfare rate due to lack of sufficient subsidy.” For example, 70 units of housing in Wall Corporation’s massive redevelopment at 955 East Hastings, as well as nine units of the same in the Sequel 138 condo project next to the Carnegie centre, are termed “non-market” and “affordable rental” despite their actual price. Incredibly, the city is calling these units “non-market” even though they will all rent at market rates expected to exceed $900/month.
Although the report itself partly concedes the loss of affordable housing due to upscaling, it nevertheless underestimates the extent of the crisis. According to a recent CCAP report, the decline of low-income SRO units in the DTES is more serious than currently grasped at city hall. During the recent period of city-promoted gentrification in the Downtown Eastside, the number of hotel rooms that rent for $375 or less has declined from 777 rooms in 2009 to only 159 rooms in 2012. In the last year alone, 426 welfare-rate units were lost to gentrification. The gradual upscaling of the Lotus Hotel, where low-income tenants were harassed, intimidated and eventually evicted one-by-one, is the typical story.
But the numbers on their own, however, do not capture the real situation. The systematic loss of low-income housing units due to gentrification is hitting the Aboriginal populations the hardest. In Chinatown it is longtime communities of Chinese seniors who are evicted first, even if their landlord is a so-called “non-profit” landlord. With gentrification comes heightened cultural and social shifts, including the inherent stigmatization and stratification that comes along with gentrification. Renovated SRO’s have been using racial profiling in choosing who to house, and as First Nations reserves come under attack by the private mortgage market, so too are highly indigenized areas like the DTES. “This has been our reserve,” states Robert Bonner, “and now all of a sudden developers can come in here and grab land at a cheap price, convert it into condos, and turn it over at a ridiculous price. And the last place that poor, marginalized and aboriginal people have to go is the DTES.”
In addition to underestimating the present crisis, Doug Ward and Vision Vancouver underestimate the coming crisis of social housing. In his article for the Tyee, Ward neglects the increasingly rapid expiration of social housing operating agreements across the country. The expiration of operating agreements means an end to the external funding that most non-profit groups rely on to provide welfare rate units. Just last year $131 million in housing spending was cut by the federal government. The expiry of all operating agreements will amount to $3.5 billion in reduced government expenditures annually. In British Columbia, 33,200 funded units will expire in the next 25 years. The termination of funding is forcing non-profit operators to rely on the market for stable revenues. In practice this has meant evictions and major rent increases used to bring in higher-income tenants.
At a time when non-profit housing providers are being forced to cave to market pressures, Ward is naively dismissive of any existing threat to non-market housing. With cavalier tones he writes: “There are also a number of private units owned and rented out by charitable or non-profit groups who have no intention of going up-market.” It is difficult to imagine a journalist more optimistic about a foreboding situation, and more uncritical of our current municipal government. Only Frances Bula comes to mind in the echelons of booster journalism, which is perhaps unsurprising given that the two journalists are married to each other literally, and to Vision Vancouver figuratively. The public is not served well by such an overriding consensus about the sufficiency of the status quo. Meanwhile affordable housing continues to disappear from the city.
*Photo courtesy of Sharon Kravitz
 29% (2009), 12% (2010), 7% (2011), 5% (2012) / 29%=777 rooms(2009), 12%=362 rooms (2010), 7%=235 rooms (2011), 5%=159 rooms (2012).