Photo credit: @woodwardsmile
In 2008, Gregor Robertson built his successful mayoral campaign around the tragic death of Darrel Mikasko, a homeless man who burned to death trying to keep warm after being turned away from a Kitsilano shelter. But while Gregor was campaigning on a soon-broken promise, low income people in the Downtown Eastside were actively fighting against a new threat of displacement posed by Concord Pacific – this time on a property down the street from Woodward’s. The address was 58 W Hastings, evicted and demolished (“demovicted”) by Concord Pacific that same year.
The empty lot soon became the long-term focus of a demand for social housing in the Downtown Eastside. The lot at 58 W Hastings has been at the heart of numerous campaigns since 2008, including the Downtown Eastside Neighborhood Council’s “Ten Sites” campaign, and more recently the Our Homes Can’t Wait campaign. During the 2010 Winter Olympics the property was also occupied by the Olympic Tent City. Now, almost ten years later, the battle over 58 W Hastings continues. Homelessness and community resistance have now culminated this month in a second tent city at 58 West Hastings.
The tent city erected since Saturday, July 9th – one part direct-action and one part emergency survival – is a critical response to a homeless count and homeless deaths that continue to grow as Gregor Robertson’s expired promise of ending the homelessness crisis fades into the distance. As rents continue to rise in SRO hotels, and with record-high homelessness numbers, the time is now to mobilize around social, affordable and welfare-rate housing at 58 W Hastings.
Greenwich Village plans for the Downtown Eastside
“With the pride of ownership comes a commitment to neighbourhood stewardship that leads to cleaner and safer streets. This is all part of making the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood a more real neighbourhood.”
–Bob Ransford on “Greenwich Village” plans in 2008
For the past decade most people have known 58 W Hastings as an empty lot, with the recent exception of a community garden managed by the Portland Hotel Society. But the address across from Save On Meats once housed music studios, a popular pawn shop, and Field’s discount store before being demolished in 2008 to make way for market housing. Local area resident and housing organizer Wendy Pedersen recalls how fast the buildings came down. “It just kind of happened overnight.”
“Somebody knocked down all the stores, then it was capped and sealed and surrounded by a chain-link fence, and almost immediately a development permit sign went up that read, ‘This project has been approved by the director of planning.’” Later it would be revealed that Concord Pacific was behind the proposal. Titled “Greenwich” after the village in NYC, the City did not view Concord Pacific’s project as a major development because it was deemed to fit within the existing zoning limits and as such did not require additional community consultation.
DTES community residents and the Carnegie Community Action Project were quick to mobilize against the proposed plans for 58 W Hastings Street. In the summer of 2008, CCAP attempted to pay Terry Hui of Concord Pacific several visits to dissuade him from moving forward with the plan to build “swanky condos.” On June 13, 2008, they arrived at his office bearing gifts which included a jar of bedbugs and a giant card, asking Mr. Hui to reconsider the development and instead invest in social housing and name the project after Darrel Mikasko. Each time, the Downtown Eastside residents were denied entry and their requests to meet with Mr. Hui were refused. But the events would launch a decade of struggle around the future of 58 W Hastings.
“Death of The Community”: From Permit Board to Street Theatre
In June organizers moved their efforts to City Hall. On June 23rd, 2008, with 201 letters of support in tow, over 40 activists and residents crowded the Development Permit Board hearing to voice their concerns about Concord Pacific’s proposed 154-condo project. Despite the overwhelming opposition and concern about the proposal, City housing planner Jill Davidson assured the Development Permit Board that the city’s policy of replacing each lost SRO unit with a unit of “social housing” was being met.
In the end the Development Permit Board approved the Concord Pacific plans for the site, with two small considerations in response to the opposition: 1) Request that Concord Pacific work with CCAP staff to educate and inform purchasers of the goal of supporting and retaining low-income housing, 2) Concord and city staff should continue to “consult” with the DTES community prior to the release of the permit. These were considerations, however, not requirements. “We lost at the development permit board hearing,” said Pedersen at the time. But she vowed to keep fighting: “We’re resolute that we want 100 per cent social housing on that site.”
On July 5th, 2008, a mock funeral procession was held in response to the decision at City Hall’s development permit board. The community gathered at Pigeon Park and made their way down to 58 W Hastings, and then finally ending at Concord Pacific’s showroom on North False Creek. Throughout the procession they carried tombstones representing hotels that had already been lost to market development and gentrification.
During the march, Dave Diewert of Streams of Justice performed a piece of street theatre that drew parallels between colonization and gentrification, with developers descending on the Downtown Eastside like neo-colonizers. “Today we have new explorers; they are the large real estate developers who are invading the community of the Downtown Eastside in order to appropriate the land and acquire for themselves great wealth.” The analysis was an accessible way of understanding both historical and structural oppression and repeated displacement on Unceded Coast Salish territory.
Olympic Tent City at 58 W Hastings: “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land”
In 2008 the global financial crisis put a pause on developments underway across Vancouver, including Concord’s 154 units of condos at 58 W Hastings. Before and during the 2010 Winter Games, Olympics planners (“VANOC”) arranged to use the empty Hastings Street lot as a parking and storage space for trucks and Olympics-related equipment. But the community had different plans, and by early February the pieces were in place for a radical alternative at 58 W Hastings that would last throughout the Games.
On Feb 15, 2010, a coalition of groups organized a rally and march under the banner, “No More Empty Talk, No More Empty Lots: Homes Now!” Hundreds of DTES residents and supporters marched through the streets until eventually arriving at 58 West Hastings, where they quickly occupied the site. Organizer Harsha Walia remembers the first hours of the occupation:
Based on a call for supporters to defend the site for the first 24-72 hours, the first night brought out hundreds, including DTES residents and homeless people. Over 80 tents – supplied with tarps, sleeping bags and blankets – popped up within a few hours. Dozens of banners and flags adorned the chain link fences, a sacred fire with sweetgrass and sage was lit by Indigenous Elders…
The Olympic Tent Village was a vibrant site of resistance and popular power, guided by the key role of the Power of Women Group that lasted the entire duration of the games. As Jule Boykoff recalls in his book on Olympics resistance in London and Vancouver, “campaigners descended on 58 W Hastings Street where they took control of the space owned by bête-noire developer Concord Pacific, permit in hand to develop a nest of high-priced condominiums on the plot…In what become known as the Olympic Tent Village, activists didn’t just seize space, they produced it.”
Sympathy across the city surged, building on the nearly 100 groups who endorsed the opening action. But since the erection of the very first tent, the City of Vancouver exerted continued legal pressure as well as police infiltration at the site. In late February the local government escalated its opposition and issued an official eviction notice. While the community was ultimately unable to stand up to police repression, the tent city highlighted the power of self-organized resistance and pointed to the glaring contradictions of a city built on capitalism and land theft. It has also been characterized as a “win” because a short-term demand of the action was met – to house all homeless residents living on the site.
Post-Olympic Years and Today
In 2011, Vision Vancouver freed Concord Pacific from its legal obligation to provide social housing in their planned high-rise condo developments along False Creek. Municipal inclusionary zoning laws require that developers build 20% social housing into all “large developments.” If followed (inclusionary zoning is often ignored in Vancouver), Concord would have been forced to build hundreds of units of social housing. It should be recalled that during this period, social housing was still a real thing – it would still be another few years before Vision’s city council voted to gut the definition.
Instead of enforcing its inclusionary zoning law in 2011, the City decided to grant the developer a special way out through a land swap involving the exchange of 58 W Hastings and another site at 117 E Hastings. Once in city-owned hands, these sites could in theory be used for social and affordable housing – a possible win for the community after years of struggle. But so far no substantive plans for social housing have been laid. In the interim, the Portland Hotel Society has been allowed to run the site, erecting a community garden in 2012 and using the space for much-needed community programing, festivities, and ceremonies.
During the post-Olympic years the downtown eastside community continued to pressure for affordable and social housing at the symbolic site. From 2011-2012 the Downtown Eastside Neighborhood Council organized its “Ten Sites” campaign, citing 58 W Hastings as one its key properties. More recently the Our Homes Can’t Wait campaign has again pushed for housing on the site. In May of this year they organized a “paint in” at 58 W Hastings to demand 100% social housing at ten sites in the Downtown Eastside including 58 W Hastings, measures to improve and save SRO hotels as well as rent control.
Seizing the Moment
Today’s encampment at 58 W hastings builds on the momentum of resistance across BC, with ongoing tent cities in Victoria, Abbostford, Maple Ridge and elsewhere. The tent city was also launched as part of a national day of action coinciding with a tent city in Kitchener and housing actions across Canada. But most importantly, as the residents of the tent city prepare to meeting the Mayor next week, today’s action at 58 W Hastings builds on a history of organizing at the site itself. It is the latest chapter in a principled and sustained campaign for housing justice.
Last summer the City announced 58 West as the home of one of the Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency’s (VAHA) seven sites of “affordable housing.” The preliminary plans indicate that only 15% of units will rent at shelter rate, despite record high homeless counts and an unprecedented loss of SRO rooms in the Downtown Eastside. If these plans are allowed to go through, the overall effect – like Woodward’s – will be displacement and a continued overall loss of affordable housing.
For years the community has insisted on the importance of protecting 58 W Hastings, pointing to the overall affordability failures of the Woodward’s model looming at the end of the block. They have argued that, with or without Harper, Trudeau and Christy Clark, the city can and must protect affordable sites and set aside land for non-market housing. Now it is time for the city to stop deflecting full responsibility onto other levels of government and onto vague economic forces outside its control. It is time to honour the community’s unified demands for housing at 58 West Hastings.
Special thanks to Wendy Pedersen
 Jules Boykoff, Activism and the Olympics: Dissent at the Games in Vancouver and London (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2014) p. 77