houseBC Rooms hotel, across the street from the proposed condos at 557 E. Cordova, was where MLA Jagrup Brar stayed during his welfare challenge in 2012.

The Vancouver Development Permit Board will hear yet another Downtown Eastside condo project proposal on Monday. The low-income community has already spent much time and energy on futile trips to City Hall to protest their displacement by more and more condo developments in the DTES. All protests have fallen on deaf ears – at both Development Permit Board and City Council public hearings. In lieu of protest in person this time, our frustrated community is sending our opposition by email to see if it will help Development Permit Board members and City Councillors to actually consider the reasons why people oppose the 24-unit condo project at 537 E. Cordova. Perhaps their reading abilities are better than their listening ones… Wishful thinking we know, but if you are interested in joining this opposition, please send a letter to mayorandcouncil@vancouver.ca or go to the Development Permit Board hearing, Monday March 25, 3pm at City Hall Town Hall meeting room. While we continue to come up with other strategies for protest, we support all efforts to continue speaking in person. Register to speak by calling 604-873-7469 or lorna.harvey@vancouver.ca.

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Daniel Boffo is a young developer born into a family real estate development company far from poverty and the streets.

That’s why, at last month’s public information meeting about the condo project he wants to build on the block between Oppenheimer and the UGM shelter, I was astonished to hear him compare himself to people on welfare living in nearby SRO hotel rooms.

Herb Varley, a young Nuu-chah-nulth and Nisga’a man who lived in a hotel down the street for two years, told Boffo that hotel residents are there because they have no choice. “No one wants to live in hotels,” he said, “but the other option they have is the street. If you build a condo here, it will push up land and rent prices and you will push those people out on the street.” Daniel Boffo didn’t flinch. He said that people don’t get to choose where they want to live; “I want to live in a mansion on the water and I don’t get to do that.” Then he said that if low-income people want to be comfortable in other places besides the Downtown Eastside they should get out there and stop being prejudiced against higher income people.

Developer vision of the 500-block E. Cordova without low-income people

Developer vision of the 500-block E. Cordova without low-income people

Is Boffo’s attitude a coincidence or is it a necessary pose for a private developer operating in the DTES Oppenheimer District (DEOD)? Although this is a relatively small condo building, 4-storeys with 24 units and a total of 3 social housing units at welfare rate, the Boffo condo at 537 E. Cordova threatens to have a far greater impact on the low-income neighbourhood than someone unfamiliar with the building rules and culture of the DEOD might first think. The truth is that the displacement threat posed by this development is far greater than any possible perks it might bring, and the only way to stop its displacement effects is to stop the project.

Why the DEOD is special

The DEOD is a 16-square block area in the heart of the Downtown Eastside which was identified by planners in the early 1980s as a protected area for low-income people, a refuge from real estate investors. These planners employed a provision seldom used in Canada called “inclusionary zoning;” setting rules that any development in the area must include at least 20% social housing. They came up with the 20% number specifically because at that time 20% of people in the city were in “core need” of housing, meaning they were paying more than 30% of their incomes to rent and living in poor conditions.

dtesmap

The effect of the DEOD’s inclusionary zoning has been that more than 70% of residents are low-income (on welfare, disability or pension); it is the locus of low-income services, health care, and public spaces; there are more privately-owned SRO hotels still affordable to low-income people than anywhere else; and… there are no condos.

Affordable housing and low-income services also create a unique culture in the DEOD. Public health officer Ted Bruce explains that the single biggest health-consequence of poverty is not the direct impact of malnutrition or moldy ceilings; it is the stress of social insecurity and anxiety of social stigma. Life in the DEOD offers a break from some of that stress and anxiety and that break is contingent on keeping the area majority low-income. The Carnegie Community Action Project did a 2-year study of low-income residents of the DTES which found residents value this unique sense of comfort and belonging for people who don’t feel comfortable in the hyper-commodified spaces of much of the rest of Vancouver. This comfort and belonging is not to be sneezed at, and it is threatened by the Boffo condos.

The DEOD is changing

For 30-years the DEOD’s restrictive zoning laws have been enough to hold back the speculators, investors and developers but over the past couple of years, the real estate investment climate in the DEOD has been changing. First came developer Marc Williams’ proposal for condos on the 100-block of East Hastings. Although it was unanimously opposed by low-income people and groups in the community, the city Development Permit board granted Williams a permit in the spring of 2012. His condo project is still limping along and has still not met conditions of that permit to start building, even with public-purse support from BC Housing. But Williams’ effort has emboldened other, more powerful, developers and investors to see the DEOD differently.

Herb Varley, then president of DTES N’hd Council, “speaking” a full-5-minutes of silence at DP Board about Pantages

Herb Varley, then president of DTES N’hd Council, “speaking” a full-5-minutes of silence at Development Permit Board about Pantages

With dollar signs in their eyes, some speculators and developers are seeing an opportunity to fulfill the investor-101 rule to buy-low and sell-high. There have been property combinations on the 200-block of East Hastings; along north-Main there are condo tower proposals stalled and waiting on a planning process to finish; another 9-storey condo project is proposed for 150 E. Cordova on the border of the DEOD; the Globe and Mail report condo-king Bob Rennie bought his son a start-up art gallery near the Astoria; the city is supporting a “high-tech centre” at the site of the former cop-shop; and there is this new Boffo condo proposal near Oppenheimer. The message is that 20% social housing development rules are no longer enough to hold off market development and real estate speculation.

Early effects of the Boffo condos

Even before being approved by the Development Permit Board, the Boffo condos are contributing to a runaway train speculation and investment climate in the DEOD. This sensationalist sales pitch from Colliers for a currently low-income apartment building one block east of the Boffo building (sold in November 2012) does the anti-gentrification analysis for us:

“The subject property is strategically located on the northwest corner of Heatley Avenue and East Cordova Street in Vancouver’s historic Strathcona neighbourhood.

“To the north, the Powell Street area is quickly becoming a restaurant hub with such hot spots as Fat Dragon, Big Lou’s, Two Chefs and a Table, the Railtown Cafe, and an exciting new venture soon to open at 261 Powell.

“One block west, at 557 East Cordova, Boffo Properties has submitted an application to build a four-storey, 29-unit residential building that will greatly assist with neighbourhood change.

“To the south, Chinatown is in the midst of an economic revolution with over 350,000 SF soon to be under construction. Thousands of condo owners, tenants, and new retailers will breathe life into one of Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhoods.

“Further east, starting just three blocks from the subject property, an estimated 500,000 SF is in the works by some of Vancouver’s premiere developers.

“Situated only a few blocks from Chinatown and Gastown, and just minutes from the downtown core, 679 East Cordova is well-positioned to capitalize on the flurry of investment activity in East Vancouver.”

What will happen to the low-income residents of this apartment building down the street from Boffo’s building? And what about the 36 residents of the BC Rooms hotel across the street? Will security guards step up harassment of the homeless people who stay at the UGM shelter? Will the cops move along old-timers hanging out in Oppenheimer Park? What will happen to the precious sense of belonging that is so important to low-income residents?

Development Permit Board won’t turn it down, but they should

Currently City Hall does not have any regulations to stop rents from going up in hotels or apartments in hot speculation areas, to keep storefront shops friendly and accessible to low-income residents, or to stop security guards from harassing people who live their social lives on the streets of the DEOD.

Until there are regulations to stop Boffo’s project from hurting the existing community, the Development Permit Board should turn down the permit to build when they meet to discuss it on March 25th. The 537 E. Cordova condo proposal does not meet the spirit of the area’s development guidelines, which are meant to protect the low-income community from the predictable and already visible effects of condo development. The city should stop all development in the DEOD until inclusionary zoning provisions can be brought up to date to protect the vulnerable low-income residents from the displacement effects of gentrification.

Tracey Morrison, WAHRS, speaking during an occupation of council chambers against Pantages condos

Tracey Morrison, WAHRS, speaking during an occupation of council chambers against Pantages condos

But the lesson already over-learned by Downtown Eastside low-income community members and advocates is that by the time a Development Permit or Rezoning Application reach the chambers or meeting rooms of City Hall the only delay is in bringing down the rubber stamp. That’s why, for the first time in years, there will not be an organized contingent of Downtown Eastside residents heading up to City Hall for this hearing. This absence should not be confused for compliance or indifference. We need to come up with another strategy to protest a city planning apparatus that defends the interests of the Boffo’s developer class against the residents of the city who are most vulnerable to violent displacement. And we need a plan to take the matter of stopping these destructive projects into the hands of the affected community ourselves.

Until the existing community can be protected from the destructive effects of the Boffo project, it is irresponsible and reprehensible for the City to allow it to go ahead.

By Ivan Drury, special to the Downtown East online edition, March 23, 2013

11 Responses to Proposed condos next door to Oppenheimer Park already hurting low-income residents

  1. Lenore Clemens says:

    “Then he said that if low-income people want to be comfortable in other places besides the Downtown Eastside they should get out there and stop being prejudiced against higher income people.”
    At first I thought how ignorant can someone be? But you know what? This could be a good plan. Every weekend, get thirty or forty so-called “poor people”,walking around West 10th, Kerrisdale Shopping District, Oakridge, where-ever we aren’t normally seen or welcome. Then we will have people “with money”, the ones City Hall listens to respectfully, up in arms, telling City Hall to keep the keep the poorest out of their neighbourhood, “keep them in the DTES!” Or not, but no hiding. You want to destroy our community, then be prepared, as Jean Swanson told City Hall.

  2. Lenore Clemens says:

    (And maybe take Mr. Boffo or others along; dressed appropriately of course and let them experience for themselves, how “welcome” materially poor people are in areas where money breeds ignorance, the looks, the treatment, etc.)

  3. Brendan Caron says:

    Weren’t the boffos a mob oriented construction company? Creating billionaires to be able to buy up the low priced land of the DTES.

  4. Allister Bigrig Parker says:

    Wow, Daniel Boffo really believes in this “reverse racism” stuff, huh? I mean… i get it where he’s coming from though, cause when will start thinking about the developers who just want a mansion on the waterfront!? It’s almost like he’s homeless & hoping to one day find himself in an SRO or something.

  5. Boffo sounds like a bozo.

  6. skippy says:

    I get it, poor is good, everything else is bad. Why don’t you just make this the slogan, save us all the bother of reading your stuff.

  7. Michelle says:

    Love it! I have often thought this should happen anyway. I was once walking along the West Van Seawall and a couple who definitely looked out of place there were walking. They were admiring the view and really enjoying themselves. But the looks they got. Oh my. I remember thinking at the time I’d like to hire a bus and bring people out of their DTES or Surrey (Whalley) neighborhoods to these beautiful areas. People have to assert their rights and freedoms as Canadian citizens. I do understand the discomfort in going out of your neighbor hood but it is a shame that simply taking an innocent walk along a public beach results in rude stares.

  8. Lenore Clemens says:

    note: My response was misinterpreted a bit.
    Like many, I grow up middle-class so I still have my different “uniforms if necessary. It is not about discomfort for me personally, I go where I want. But it is true about the reality of not being wanted, about shoving “the poor” out of eyesight, which occurred during the Olympics and which the City with help, is trying to do right now.
    Those stares which Michelle pointed out are everywhere. Maybe in some ideal world the whole city is supposed to belong to everyone but it does not. For many it’s about not having basic bus fare to go anywhere.
    And when people make it clear you are not wanted, why on earth, along with all the rest of the abuse our society puts on people who are materially poor, would you subject yourself further to that psychological abuse even though you know the people are completely off base?
    It is not just simple discomfort. People who are poor in Canada do not even the same rights & freedoms as those with money.
    As for Skippy, someone has to point that being poor is NOT bad, because almost every other media treats people who are poor with bashing or condescension of some kind and reports on “poverty” as if it were a sin & not a legislated part of our culture.

  9. Kenji says:

    Two questions

    1. Is there such a thing as being visibly poor? Assuming that it costs almost nothing to have a razor and a clean shirt, is it the poorness or is it something else that attracts hostility?

    2. I understand the author’s point that feeling included and not disrespected is nothing to sneeze at. Even harmless middle class me has been to places in the world where my appearance/gender/age created alarm and suspicion – it is a terrible feeling and I can’t see how that would lead to any positive mental attitude if it went on indefinitely.

    Therefore, I understand the value of living in a place where one feels welcome or at least not constantly, brutally judged.

    The question is, who pays for that value? Blocking the developers out of the DTES is leaving money on the table for them and the city. While articles like this one are beneficial to helping people who aren’t in the low income residency situation understand your point of view, there has to be a business case and preferably a win-win solution whereby the profit minded get some – perhaps not all – of the money they sought and the rest of us also get what we need.

    I would like to think that there is common ground that can lead to win-win resolutions. Whatever our hurts and fights — and I don’t underrate anyone’s feelings — at the end of the day we are neighbours. We breathe the same air. The same rain falls on us. Our kids ride the bus together. We *have* to get along – it is intolerable, unthinkable that we battle each other.

    • Nick says:

      “1. Is there such a thing as being visibly poor? Assuming that it costs almost nothing to have a razor and a clean shirt, is it the poorness or is it something else that attracts hostility? ”
      Proper dental care costs a fairly tidy sum. Also, the effects of chronic stress (which eventually results in immune system depression, making it easier to get sick) plus the horrible living conditions kind of, um, take a toll. Even asking this shows that you have a lot of checking to do — you don’t come close to, say, thinking of what it means when you can’t afford adequate food.

      Yes. Can’t afford adequate food. I have friends on welfare and that happens to them all the time. I order pizza almost every time I go over so I can share half of it and most of a 2L of pop with them, and part of the reason I don’t go over more? They’re constantly stressing over stuff, mostly money because they don’t have it but need it lots, and that makes it stressful for me and others to hang out there too much. Razor and a clean shirt, nothing — my friends had to scour for dead wood and even illegally chop down trees in the park this January because BC Hydro cut them off rather than wait until welfare check day for the $500 owed.

      Does this feel like strange stuff to worry about for you? If it does, congratulations, you’ve found your own unchecked privilege. Now check it. Think about your life if you had to worry about having your power cut and thus no heat in the dead of winter. If you came home hungry, opened the cupboard to eat and only had unappetizing canned food to look at — if anything at all.

      Start with that, and you’ll find an answer to your question — though I doubt you’ll like it.

      (I’m going to jump around a bit in your comment now. Bear with me.)

      “I would like to think that there is common ground that can lead to win-win resolutions.”
      I also like to think we can have our cake and eat it too, but that doesn’t make it possible. Which leads me to a previous point of yours…

      “Blocking the developers out of the DTES is leaving money on the table for them and the city.”
      This presumes that the developers have some intrinsic right to said money* in the same way that the residents have a right to housing. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes housing as a human right. It does not recognize any sort of right to profit, for anyone.

      Your turn.

      * – As a side note, money represents an ability to access resources. Profit means gaining money, thus gaining resources. As such, right to profit does not merely recognize a right to access resources; it recognizes a right to access -increasing amounts of resources-. Given that we only have this one planet, any attempt to recognize a “right” to increase one’s access to resources will eventually result in infringement on others’ rights to access any resources so they can survive. Insisting on “win-win resolutions” in this case only results in subordinating the needs of the poor to the whims of the well-off, by simply ignoring reality and pretending that we will always find more resources somewhere else.

  10. Kenji says:

    Well thanks for the scolding and the deprecation. It is a good thing to be kept humble.

    I checked the Declaration of Human Rights. It does not guarantee housing per se, but income sufficient for basic needs including housing.

    I do not feel that the income support is at all reasonable for living in Vancouver. I also doubt that it is reasonable for living in Duncan or Chemainus, but that is certainly where I would go if I was obliged to live on the dole indefinitely, as a matter of quality of living. The declaration, after all, says no more about a right to choice of housing than it does to profit.

    As for taking my turn…I am not entirely sure what we are debating, nor that I am necessarily on the opposite side. I will say that I have been thinking about this topic quite a bit since posting my two questions. Later that day, in fact, I was walking to lunch (not Pidgin!) when a fellow met my eye at a streetcorner and announced that he had just been thrown out of the library for being homeless, which he felt was a great injustice compounded by what he felt was an excessive quantity of Chinese books in that facility. (I believe I look Chinese to him.) He then made a number of nonsense remarks of a racial quality, challenged me to a fight, observed that I was not particularly afraid of him and backed away, continuing to utter racial remarks, and went off in the direction of Gastown.

    This seemed to me to be a relevant illustration of a situation whereby people think that they are being discriminated against because of their income level, whereas it may be other factors – in this case, mental illness – that cause them to be sources of worry to overly delicate people.

    This leads back to your side note point about resources. I agree with you that resources are insufficient. But what resources? The fellow that I met needs a home, but does he also need counselling, treatment, a different environment altogether? When you speak of the “needs of the poor,” is it just to speak of “the poor” as a homogenous mass whose needs are uniform?

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