On November 13th, the City of Vancouver announced that it would launch a crackdown on street vendors in the Downtown Eastside (DTES). The City’s director of Social Policy, Mary Clare Zak, informed DTES community groups that “starting next week you will begin to see a larger City presence in the DTES, including VPD officers, as we continue our efforts in the area to ensure it is a safe place for everyone.” According to Zak the objective is to “support and facilitate the movement of street vendors from the [0-300] block of E. Hastings Street and surrounding area.”
This month’s planned crackdown and displacement of low-income street vendors is set to coincide with the early-December opening of one of the most resisted condo developments in the history of the Downtown Eastside: Sequel 138. The condo project is located directly across the street from InSite and sits between two of the City’s largest Single-Room Occupancy buildings, the Brandiz and the Regent hotel. The development presents 79 condominium units and 10 high-end glass storefronts.
According to Nuu-chah-nulth and Nisga’a DTES resident and activist Herb Varley, increased policing at this time is not by chance. “When Sequel 138 is to be occupied, you can be certain that they don’t want a dive bar just across the street, especially not an Indian dive bar.”
BC Housing’s first condominium project
In 2011, nine major Downtown Eastside (DTES) community organizations formed a coalition — DTES not for Developers (DNFD) — in response to the condo plans for 138 E Hastings. Over 3,000 people and 40 community groups signed the DNFD community resolution to stop Sequel 138; every major social housing provider and DTES arts group also promised to not work with the developer. Despite this period of overwhelming community resistance, the development was approved by the Development Permit Board in 2012 and is now set to open in early December.
The two six-storey buildings are comprised of 79 condominium units and 18 non-market rental units, half of which will rent for BC Housing Income limits ($912) and the other half at the welfare rental allowance rate ($375). Some condominium units have been purchased as investments and have already been advertised on Craigslist as “$1,500/1br Bedroom Condo.” The DTES is not mentioned in the craigslist advertisements and it is as though they are already anticipating the future displacement of the community.
In addition to the residential space, there are also 10 high-end retail spaces on the ground floor. The spaces are priced between $500,000 and $1.36 million. Given the selling prices, these new retail spaces are not going to be affordable or inclusive to low-income residents, and, in fact, they exceed prices in most parts of the city.
Despite only adding nine units of social housing to the mostly low-income neighbourhood, the B.C. government gave the developer $21.8 million low-interest loan for construction costs. They also loaned $814,000 to the FJL Housing Foundation, a charitable organisation that now owns the 18 non-market rental units.
This kind of support for a private condominium development is unprecedented for BC Housing. Housing activists have dubbed it “BC Housing’s first condo,” and one journalist called it “the sweetest government deal” ever offered to a private developer. BC Housing defended its decision to bail out the developer, claiming it has a mandate to fund “revitalization” efforts.
The move is part of a larger trend in recent years, with BC Housing taking an increasingly active role in supporting market developments in the DTES and across Vancouver. Last week the City of Vancouver held an open house for another similar development financed by BC Housing at 288 E Hastings. The development will have 68 market rental units, 70 BC Housing Income Limits units ($912 per month), and only 34 social housing units renting at the welfare rental allowance rate ($375). As with Sequel 138, the development will also contain several high-end retail spaces on the ground floor.
Social mix developments in low-income areas, such as Sequel 138 and 288 E Hastings, are often justified because they include a token number of social housing units. The Woodward’s Building added approximately 125 units of social housing, yet about 404 SRO units were lost in a one-block radius of the development. Those affordable options have either been demolished or they have been upscaled, with rents doubled.
Sequel 138 will add fewer social housing units than Woodwards, while putting more welfare-rate SRO rooms at risk of conversion. In fact, the 100 block of East Hastings has the highest concentration of low-income housing in the city and is the home to over a thousand low-income residents living on welfare and disability.
The surrounding blocks also include key gathering places for low-income DTES residents, including: the Carnegie Community Centre, Insite Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre and Aboriginal Front Door. Several thousand DTES residents use these services and spaces on a daily basis. According to Ivan Drury, the block is important because “people who feel discriminated against, harassed, stigmatized and abused everywhere else in the city feel comfortable.”
Social Mix Destroys Low-Income Communities
Sequel 138 boasts its community value: it will have an Urban Agricultural Farm, an Arts and Media Centre, a Social Community Deck, and a Market Breezeway, a pedestrian walk-way which connects to Pender Street rather than an exit on East Hastings. Yet, DTES residents see the development as a threat to their existing community.
Varley sees the design of Sequel 138 as “a very physical manifestation of the ‘normal Canadian’ versus the ‘other people:’ by other people I mean Indigenous people, people struggling with mental health issues, or people struggling with addiction.”
Participants at the SRO Convention in December also voiced concerns that the development will make the neighbourhood more segregated by bringing more upscale shops, restaurants and wealthy residents into the neighbourhood, which in turn will translate into greater police and private security presence as well as rising land values and rents in the SRO hotels. (You can read some of their concerns, here.)
Much like the Woodward’s development, Sequel 138 offers only a small percentage of welfare-rate housing. These developments are euphemistically called “social-mix,” but often create a more segregated neighbourhood. In the Woodward’s case, residents of the social housing units must use a different entrance (also called the “poor door”) than those in the high-end units, while the constant surveillance (video and private security) creates zones of exclusion for poor members of the community, whose poverty and “otherness” is criminalised.
Karen Ward writes of living in Woodward’s, “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.” Ward adds, “It’s a sick feeling to realize that your neighbours probably spend more than your entire social assistance cheque on food for their designer dog.”
The City is holding a meeting on Tuesday, November 17, 4:00pm – 5:00pm at Woodwards, 501 – 111 West Hastings Street, where they will go into more detail about what that larger VPD presence will look like and what they are hoping to accomplish through displacing poor and homeless people from the 0-300 block of East Hastings.