Vancouver’s civic right wing, long hidden in the shadow cast by the Vision Vancouver goliath, is emerging cloaked in outrage against one part of a Local Area Plan for the Downtown Eastside (DTES). Not that they have much to complain about. Except for one section, the DTES Local Area Plan continues Vision’s trajectory of performing government interventions in the capitalist market only on behalf of capital. The rightists expect City Hall’s plan to continue Vision’s so far unqualified support for the free market; they feel entitled to this support. Their entitlement has them outraged by the exceptional clause of the plan that offers one lonesome anchor to the low-income community against the real estate speculator market push: the “60/40” social-and-rental-housing-only development plan for the DTES Oppenheimer District (DEOD). If Vision Vancouver votes to support the so-called 60/40 development plan, this will plan the DEOD as the one remaining majority low-income section of the DTES; it will be their first intervention in the real estate market against developer and corporate demands for perpetual, state-unregulated growth and wealth accumulation.
Coincident with BC Liberal Rich Coleman’s audit and public shaming of the Portland Hotel Society this week, which threatens both harm reduction health policy and government-owned social housing institutions, the rightist attacks on the DTES Plan have pivoted on two axis points. First, journalist Shelley Fralic and the Vancouver Sun editors have recently written poor-bashing articles that highlight drug use in the DTES as warranting heavy-handed measures. They push back against the Vancouver Agreement and 4-Pillars strategy as governing policies that, relative to criminalization, stabilize low-income drug users and people with mental health struggles, giving them space to form self-determined communities. Against harm reduction, they call for more cops, prisons, and stronger sentences for non-violent crimes motivated by poverty and addiction. Second, architect and champion of the NPA, Michael Geller, demands that market forces not be impeded by any government regulation.
Before unpacking rightist attacks, it is important to outline the DTES Plan they lash out against.
Managing displacement to minimize the impact on the market
The great majority of the City’s first ever comprehensive DTES area-wide plan contains familiar themes: incentives to developers for condo development, supports to entrepreneurs for boutique storefronts, subsidies for heritage building renovation and no controls to stop the rent increases and reno-evictions that will result from these government interventions on behalf of the rich. As with other recent city council plans for the DTES, like the Chinatown height-increase plan of 2011 or the Chinatown economic development plan of 2012, you can read the shrug between the lines about the gentrification, evictions, and low-income store closures that are inevitably part of revitalizing higher-end retail and market housing in the DTES. Gone are the days when planners can mouth the myth of “revitalization without displacement,” because the new plans focus on managing, and mitigating displacement.
Following the au courant planner-trends of “social mix,” mentions of low-income communities in the new DTES plans are pantomime celebrations of the ‘vital addition’ they would make to a majority middle-class fantasy neighbourhood. These gestures do not translate into policies with the force to stop violence against low-income and Indigenous communities in the DTES. Instead, every mention of police and security guard harassment and brutality that DTES residents brought to the planning table has been swallowed by the yawning gorge of invisible power that keeps violence against low-income and Indigenous bodies normalized. Neither do these gestures translate into policies that support low-income DTES residents against the other forms of violence they are expected to deal with. Still unchecked is the constant threat of eviction and homelessness so landlords can access legal ceiling-less rent increases; and secure is the sexist and intimate-partner violence that low-income women and trans* people have to navigate in hotels without secure door locks, gender-shared common washrooms, and the ultimatum of threats at home or threats of homelessness.
The DTES plans also do not sound alarms about criminally low welfare and disability rates, lack of access to drug treatment centres, or the vanishing advocates who used to support the rights of tenants and welfare recipients. The policies that concern low-income people serve primarily to tighten their social regulation by mental health policing, to disperse them into the wilds of anywhere-but-here, or force them into a post-welfare-state reality of reliance on charity and “social entrepreneurial” starvation diets and low-wage jobs that get exemptions to wage laws in the name of volunteer honorariums.
The one exception is the 60/40 zoning in the DTES Oppenheimer District, a 16-block area of the DTES that has been protected against market speculators for about 30 years by a similar development bylaw. The new plan would step up these existing development controls to keep pace with development pressure and help protect the residents of the DEOD, about three-quarters of whom are low-income, against mounting gentrification and displacement pressures. The 60/40 clause emerges from the most dire circumstances of gentrification and displacement pressures, where if the state does not intervene to dampen development pressures a mass displacement and homelessness crisis could soon result.
From a bourgeois governance point of view, it has become clear that 1) the real estate development market has reawakened in the DTES; 2) the monster is devouring buildings that used to rent to low-income people and renting them for prices no one, even just a few years ago, would ever imagine they would fetch, like $900/month at the Burns Block or the Golden Crown which used to rent exclusively to people on welfare or disability.
Again from this point of view, this could all be fine, and even good business, except 3) there is not nearly enough replacement housing being built which can house residents on welfare or disability, so; 4) logically, there is a negative-sum end game here where eventually thousands of SRO hotel rooms that house thousands of low-income people will convert to higher-income rentals, and; 5) the unemployed and disabled populations which have been poorly housed for decades in otherwise unwanted and unrentable SRO hotel rooms will be driven out into unplanned chaos and homelessness – a disaster in urban governance which would harm liveability, shopability, tourismability, and international marketability for the Vancouver that buys and sells.
The 60/40 clause hopes to buy some time against this disaster by directing the appetites of the real estate development monster elsewhere. The rest of the plan fills in what they hope to do with this proffered time: “scattered sites” will individually lure, rather than collectively drive, DTES low-income residents out to other neighbourhoods and cities; “supportive housing” managed by psychiatric institutions and surveilled by cops will tighten the social controls that regulate the lives of low-income people still in the DTES; and “social entrepreneur” volunteer-stipend jobs will assimilate some residents into a super-exploited section of the employed working class.
There are two main classes of people who disagree with the city’s plan. The DTES low-income caucus, which formed the majority of low-income resident members of the city’s planning process, agrees that the city should use zoning and development mechanisms to intervene against the real estate development monster. But they disagree with what the rest of the plan wants to do with the bought-time. Rather than plot to control, dilute, and gently displace low-income residents, they want to fight harder for senior government social housing programs and other markers of social, racial, gender, sexual, and anti-colonial justice. Rightists, on the other hand, are differentiating themselves from Vision by disagreeing with all parts of this new plan that pertain to low-income communities in Vancouver.
Vancouver Sun and Shelly Fralic wax nostalgic for a police state
In a Vancouver Sun article published last week, right before council’s vote on the DTES plan report this Wednesday, occasional food writer Shelly Fralic made a moral appeal for the displacement of low-income people from the DTES based on her nostalgia for a time that never existed. Her fond memories – she recalls “stopping for lunch at the Woodward’s food counter” and visits to mid-century Pantages theatre nights – are ahistorical. They are memories not of times and social relations that existed, but of dreams – dreams of a middle-class white social order that can only be constructed by a police state that hammers down difference and disappears outsiders to effect an appearance of flat homogeneity.
In reality, the history of the DTES, and of Vancouver more generally, has always been (for the short 125 years it has been Vancouver) of people struggling against poverty and violence, divided along jagged racial, colonial, and gendered class lines from a fantasy-world middle class. The ‘old days’ Fralic and the Vancouver Sun editors harken back to is better framed as an old set of ideas and power relations, where the fictionalized middle class was saved the sight and smell of the lowest income people in Vancouver. Illicit drug users and low-income Chinese men who were racialized as drug users, were holed up, hiding from police clubs in SRO hotel rooms with secret doors where they could die secretly of overdoses and infected abscesses. In a previous article Fralic called the DTES a “pigsty” to be “swept clean”, shamelessly evoking the image of a pig farmer serial killer who targeted Indigenous women and sex workers on the streets of the DTES – women who had been dehumanized by violent media discourses like her’s. Fralic and the Vancouver Sun prefer Indigenous women and sex workers to be invisible, prefiguring their physical disappearances by discursive erasure.
Fralic and the Vancouver Sun’s Leave it to Beaver fantasy world is a fantasy of symbolic borders enforced by a police state throughout the city, of gated communities and vigilante race, class, gender and sexual policing. In policy terms, this means opposing the harm reduction policies that low-income drug users have fought for and won in the DTES, sparked by epidemic levels of overdose deaths and HIV and HEP-C contraction rates in the late-90s. The right-wing NPA once initiated and supported harm reduction policies to deal with the health-crisis social disorder threat they faced when they were in power – a situation that is ironically comparable to the displacement and homelessness crisis Vision faces today. Fralic and the Sun articles suggest that rightists may be turning back against harm reduction and joining Harper’s Conservatives in proposing police and prisons as their preferred means for managing drug addiction.
Michael Geller and the developer class demand market forces set free
In a series of newspaper and radio interviews that in volume alone demonstrate his commune with power, Michael Geller is making a ‘practical’ appeal for zoning and housing policies that will ‘revitalize’ and ‘normalize’ the DTES. These appeals focus solely on the people-interventionist 60/40 zoning policy in the DTES Oppenheimer District and ignore the capital-interventionist development policies in the other seven sub-districts of the DTES. But this is only the first point of social context and logical framing needed to critique Geller’s neoliberal evangelism.
The empirical evidence collected by both Carnegie Community Action Project’s annual SRO hotel survey and the City’s less frequent (and methodologically more general) SRO survey prove that market development in the DTES has been harming Vision’s goal of ending homelessness. The DTES local area profile drafted by the City’s planning department as reference document for the planning process draws the same conclusions. Shoveling coal into the engine of the runaway train of the real estate market – through massive density, height, and tax subsidy packages to developers and corporations – has indeed moved that train forward, but it is destroying the little remaining housing and resources of the low-income community, pushing them into worse conditions. In the hidden places Fralic is discursively covering and justifying, and because of the laws of the free market Geller champions: gentrification is real.
Geller’s complaint, then, that the 60/40 zoning laws will not support market revitalization and push development, is framed outside the social context of the DTES. He is correct that 60/40 zoning will not automatically result in housing being built without senior government support, and he is correct that the needed BC government money is not available. But Geller’s conclusions are dangerously off base: the 60/40 zoning is exactly what the city can do in order to deal with senior government abandonment of social housing programs. While Vision plans to use the 60/40 policy to slow-bleed the DTES low-income community and delay a more immediate social crisis, for the DTES low-income community and organizers, 60/40 is a means of staving off low-income housing losses until we can change government policy and get back the social housing programs we need.
The social housing designs included in the 60/40 plans do not make the mistake of limiting the potentials of a 30 year plan to the current trends of government provincially and federally. The plan does, however, change the definition of social housing to mostly exclude low-income people who need it the most, which undermines the pressure the plan could help low-income communities place on senior governments for much-needed low-income affordable social housing programs. The DTES plan’s address towards senior governments is an opportunity to highlight the housing crisis and push for provincial and federal funding for social housing for low-income people in Vancouver; it is a chance to break from Vision’s embarrassing record of papering over the housing crisis for their own narrow partisan gains.
Geller’s pleas are for unrestrained market forces, despite the evidence of the destructions they have landed in the DTES and despite the evidence of the 2009 recession that was sparked in part due to unregulated property development and the ideology and practice of perpetual market growth. Development at the cost of low-income peoples’ homes and scarce resources is irresponsible. The government should implement the zoning laws at its disposal to protect the communities harmed by Geller’s free market ideology.
All out to support the DTES low-income community against gentrification & displacement
The right wing is not hesitating to chime in with their confused, ignorant and malicious opinions about the low-income community in the DTES. It’s time for working class, low-income, and progressive people all around the city to demand City Hall intervene in the free market in the interests of people vulnerable to its displacement pressures, and rally together for social housing, accessible to all low-income residents who need it most.
Tweet & Facebook hashtag #StopDisplacementDTES and write to City Council at firstname.lastname@example.org (cc me at email@example.com so I can collect your letters too) and encourage them to stand up against the right wing pressures and include regulations that limit the power of investors and developers in the lowest income urban neighbourhood in Canada.
Register to speak at the city council meeting about the DTES plan, by phone: 604.873.7269 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org by 3:00 pm on Tuesday, March 11, 2014.
For an outline on what the DTES Low-Income Caucus of the planning process is asking for you to support, check out the Caucus vs. City plans outline: http://downtowneast.net/2014/02/14/caucusvscov/