For years, an empty lot at 58 West Hastings has been at the centre of a fight for social housing in the Downtown Eastside (DTES). Since 2007, it has been the place of numerous actions including the 2010 Olympic Tent Village, when women- and Indigenous-led tent city forced Concord Pacific to abandon its condo plans for the site, followed by a four-month tent city in the summer of 2016.
The “battle for 58” finally seemed to be won in August 2016 when Mayor Gregor Robertson capitulated to community and tent city residents, committing to 100% welfare- and pension-rate social housing on the site. This commitment was the outcome of relentless DTES organizing. It was also a chance for the mayor to deliver on a 2008 promise to end homelessness. But like all of Vision Vancouver’s housing promises, it was made in bad faith. Much like the sellout of social housing and developer bailout in Olympic Village, Robertson’s lofty promise to house the poor has butted up against the priorities of landlord and developer profits.
The present article picks up where a previous investigation published in The Mainlander left off. It covers the years from 2016 to 2018, detailing the City’s efforts to defer and ultimately dismantle the promise of 100% welfare- and pension-rate housing at 58 West Hastings. Today there are more than 1,200 people without homes in the DTES. Yet both the City and the Province have responded by doubling down on the very policies that produced this crisis in the first place: more gentrification, more austerity, more “social mix,” more criminalization of the poor—all on unceded Indigenous land.
Tent City 2016: Taking the Fight to City Hall
In July 2016, in the wake of earlier tent cities, homeless and precariously-housed residents of the DTES established an encampment at 58 West Hastings. The tent city came as the culmination of a multi-city Day of Action for Housing Justice called for by the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), the International League of Peoples’ Struggle (ILPS) and the Anti-Colonialist Working Group. The Day of Action included a march in Vancouver to 58 West Hastings, an occupation in Metrotown by the Alliance Against Displacement (AAD), and the establishment of a tent city in Kitchener, Ontario.
The mayor and the City of Vancouver responded immediately with a demand for residents to “decamp” at 58 West Hastings, but tent city residents and supporters from the Our Homes Can’t Wait coalition (OHCW) refused to be moved. A week into the tent city, they marched to 12th and Cambie and occupied Vancouver City Hall, demanding a meeting with mayor and council and asking them to provide basic services to the tent city.
On August 2nd, 2016, Mayor Robertson finally met with residents of Chinatown and the DTES at the Carnegie Community Centre Theatre, having refused to hold the meeting at the tent city itself. The people’s call for 100% social housing at 58 West Hastings was mounted with two clear goals: to prevent the further gentrification of the 00 block of West Hastings and its attendant effects of displacement, and to house the 1,200 homeless residents of the DTES. After more than two hours and calls for justice by one community member after another, the mayor committed to 100% welfare rate social housing, run by and for the community.
As if to dispel any doubt that the promise was real, the mayor signed a written statement based on his verbal commitment. The full text of the statement read: “We commit to 100% welfare/pension rate community-controlled housing at 58 West Hastings, working with the community to develop a rezoning application to proceed to council by the end of June 2017.” In a follow-up statement, the mayor’s office committed to “working with the community to bring forward a proposal for rezoning by June 2017 to build 100% subsidized social housing, at welfare and old-age pension rates, on the City-owned site at 58 West Hastings.”
From the Streets to the Back Rooms: Enclosing Peoples’ Movements
Shortly after signing the written agreement on August 2nd, the municipal government invited OHCW into a special committee process to plan and implement the project at 58 West Hastings. Throughout the DTES Local Area Planning Process in 2013-14, the City tested closed-door meetings as a strategy of neutralization – taking movements off the streets, isolating leadership from its base, and pitting organizers against each other behind the closed doors of the board room. OHCW approached the meetings with guarded skepticism, aware that “due process” has routinely been little more than good PR.
Throughout Fall 2016, OHCW met with City staff every two weeks. After several meetings, it became clear that the City was attempting to backtrack on two key promises contained in the mayor’s statement of August 2nd: that housing management would be resident-controlled and democratic, and that 100% of the housing units would rent at welfare- and pension-rates.
Eroding the Resident-Controlled Model of Housing
Throughout the consultation process, OHCW representatives emphasized the importance of resident-controlled social housing, as outlined in the August 2nd agreement and in the coalition’s Community Vision For 58 W Hastings. As the group put it in a 2016 open letter:
The BC provincial government has recently shifted its small social housing budget towards ‘supportive housing,’ built with policing, medical, and surveillance mechanisms to control the lives of residents. We hope that the project at 58 West Hastings will be a model of a different vision of social housing – a vision for a genuine place of support and solidarity where low-income residents feel they belong and want to live.
Despite Mayor Robertson’s stated commitment to this model, the City of Vancouver and Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) announced plans on October 6, 2016, for an “integrated health centre” on the ground floor. OHCW continued to participate in the City’s process but raised concerns about the new proposal, which was understood by many as a continuation of the problematic supportive housing model.
The concerns of OHCW about the supportive housing model were confirmed by news of the proposed management of 58 West Hastings by the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation (VCF), with said management to be appointed by the Foundation’s board of real estate and business elites. Contrary to its agreement to build social housing with meaningful resident control, the City quietly pushed through a partnership with VCF in the fall of 2016 without consulting the community or OHCW.
Evicting the Tent City
City of Vancouver Director of Strategic Initiatives Tobin Postma attempted to use the meetings with OHCW as a means to strategize an eviction of the ongoing tent city at 58 West Hastings. Postma frequently inquired about leadership at the encampment and how best to pressure them to decamp. In the midst of the consultation process, on November 17, 2016, the City succeeded in obtaining a court-ordered injunction to dismantle the tent city at 58. While the City cited unsanitary conditions and fire safety as the reasons for decampment, it flatly refused to provide washrooms, garbage collection services, and adequate fire safety equipment to mitigate their “concerns” leading up to the injunction.
The order imposed by the Court allowed campers one week to collect their belongings and vacate the site, and obligated the City to make “best efforts” to house residents. Recognizing the City’s failure to provide even the most basic supports, the Court also ordered the City to provide portable toilets and garbage disposal in the interim period. Following the forced eviction, residents of the tent city and their supporters marched from 58 to a new location at Thornton Park in front of Pacific Central Station.
Within 24 hours of setting up tents at the new site, the City deployed police and bylaw officers to remove them. At the time of this second eviction, only one resident is known to have been offered accommodation. Officers threw tents and belongings into the backs of trucks, dismantled a tent with food, water, and naloxone, and arrested multiple supporters and one homeless resident, who linked arms in opposition to the eviction.
Social Housing Reduced from 250 to 77 units
By November 2016, it was evident that the City would not provide funding from civic coffers to build the project. BC Housing and VCF secured partial financing for the estimated $90 million construction of the proposed project. However, the combined funding from these two bodies only accounts for two thirds of the total cost of the development. This alleged deficit is now being weaponized to justify the reduction of affordable rental units at the site.
By early 2017, the 250 units promised by the mayor were reduced to a meagre 77 units – 33% of the overall project. Amidst a sea of condos, less than one hundred welfare- and pension-rate rental units are now planned for 58 West Hastings according to the City’s latest documents. These units will not be built until 2021 at the earliest.
Numbers are important – in the brutal calculus of housing, they are a matter of life and death. The reality is that in the overall balance, several hundred units of affordable housing will be lost by 2021. The story of Fall 2016 for 58 West Hastings is one of political deceit. Despite a signed and highly-publicized promise from Mayor Robertson, the City has instead insisted on its cynical reworking of “social housing”, crafted by Vision Vancouver in 2014.
After a determined effort to pressure the City to fulfil its August 2016 promise, OHCW made a principled decision to withdraw from the consultation process, as outlined in their official statement in February 2017.
Organizers Head Back to the Streets
Since officially withdrawing from the City’s bureaucratic process, OHCW has returned to its grassroots base and marched back into the streets where the movement was born.
On June 27th, 2017, OHCW organized a convergence on City Hall that brought together Chinatown Action Group, Chinatown Concern Group, the Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative, OHCW, VANDU, AAD, and members of the Ten Year Tent City. The groups pushed through the doors of City Hall and disrupted council proceedings. After taking over both the council chambers and the councillors’ seats, they staged a People’s city council meeting.
The purpose of the action was to bring together some of the different movements in the DTES: the fight to protect Chinatown, preserve the Balmoral, defend the Ten Year Tent City, and win 58 West Hastings. A motion for each of these flashpoints was drafted and passed by the symbolic People’s government, including a motion to make $30 million from the City’s housing fund available to build social housing at 58 West Hastings.
Later that summer, on the first anniversary of the mayor’s broken promise, OHCW hosted a Roast of Gregor Robertson, marching to the empty lot at 58 West Hastings. Around the same time, there were indications that the City would be presenting its plans for reduced social housing to the public.
Finally in Fall 2017, the City announced an official open house to “consult” the public on its plans for building the site. When OHCW announced a public action to coincide with the open house, the City cancelled its plans, but eventually rescheduled for October 25th, 2017. When the rescheduled open house was held, OHCW arrived en masse under the banner “City Screws the DTES,” drawing attention to the broken promise in the midst of an escalating crisis.
Provincial Funding: NDP Shortchanges DTES
Summer 2017 saw the election of a new provincial NDP-Green coalition government in B.C. Some pinned their hopes on the new government, but NDP Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Selina Robinson, has made it clear through her party’s decisions and budget that ending homelessness – much less dealing with its root causes – is not the NDP’s priority.
The reality is that the current funding on offer by the province is dramatically inadequate and will not begin to address the problems of homelessness and displacement across B.C. This is especially true in the DTES. According to Carnegie Community Action Project’s 2017 Hotel Survey and Housing Report, the government’s planned housing at present will “not be nearly enough to make up for units lost through gentrification and building closures.”
In January 2018, the women of Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre (DEWC) and Power of Women (POW) released a statement outlining their support for 100% social housing at 58 West Hastings. “We are talking about the cost of lives,” said Carol Martin. “The impact [redevelopment] has on people living in the area, and people who were depopulated for these buildings to go up – I’m seeing all this through Indigenous eyes.”
DEWC sent the letter to Minister Robinson reiterating the demand for 100% social housing. In response to the letter and the DEWC/POW statement, the Minister extolled the virtues of social mix while sidestepping its harmful effects:
Half [of the units at 58 West Hastings will be] rented at income assistance and pension rates and half rented at Housing Income Limit (HIL) rates targeted to low-income workers currently struggling to find housing they can afford in the private rental market. This mix of rental levels encourages a mixed community model which studies have shown not only benefit the tenants but also the surrounding community by providing a diversity of options for housing to meet the needs within the neighbourhood.
HILs rates are essentially average market rents in Vancouver. In 2018, the monthly HILs rate for a bachelor apartment is approximately $1,037. For a one bedroom, it is $1,200. Even for the low-income workers Minister Robinson references, these rates are unaffordable, let alone for homeless and precariously housed people living in the DTES. While such statements are aggravating, they are not surprising. They are consistent with the NDP government’s emphasis on market-based solutions for the housing crisis, with its strong reliance on state-supported gentrification (or “social mix”) as a model for redevelopment.
Vision Vancouver councillors have also historically insisted that the operations of social housing must be subsidized by the adjacent market rental units. However, mixed-use developments deploy the mere optics of social housing to make incursions into low-income communities. This sugar-coated real estate development undermines the affordability of existing low-income housing. It also alienates low-income tenants from their communities and support networks, while reinforcing their status as second-class citizens who access their units through a separate door from the main building entrance or a “poor door.”
Social mix ultimately spikes property values, accelerates gentrification, and produces the displacement it claims to redress. In short, social mix is poison being sold as a cure. Tired of the City’s deceit and deferral, the organizers and residents of the DTES have showed no signs of backing down from demanding the 100% social housing they were assured in August 2016.
Zoning Out the Poor
On January 16, 2018, the City held a public hearing to review the rezoning application for 58 West Hastings put forth by Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency (VAHA) and VCF on behalf of the City and VCH. The application was for a 10-storey mixed-use building, three floors of commercial and medical offices and 231 total units of social housing.
“Social housing” under Vision Vancouver’s definition is not necessarily state-operated or funded. Instead, an entire housing development can qualify on paper as social housing if only 33% of the units are priced at welfare- and pension-rate. This means that in Vancouver, many buildings classed as “social housing” have as many as two thirds of their units rented at market rates. This definition of social housing also permits the outsourcing of management to non-profit and for-profit organizations alike.
Indigenous women, working class residents, tenants, and community organizers all signed up to speak at the hearing in solidarity with homeless residents of the DTES. Among them were many of the same people that surrounded Mayor Robertson back in Summer 2016. OHCW’s demands were supported in letters from allies across the city and province, including the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) and DEWC.
During the applicant’s period of remarks, Carol Lee of VCF stated that 50% of the units would be rented at HILs rates and the other half at welfare- and pension-rates, and that such rents would ensure that the project “exceeded affordability guidelines.” Lee and other supporters of the application appeared bewildered that anyone would reject what they clearly perceived as a grand philanthropic gesture. The very community the application claimed to be serving was out in force to oppose it, but Lee was unmoved by the lived experiences of DTES residents.
Presented with only a fraction of what was originally promised, speakers continued to grill Mayor Robertson about a litany of broken promises since the start of his political career. Community members spoke to an accumulation of distrust for the mayor and council. They presented real alternatives to a paternalistic housing model, funded by reallocated police budgets and the imposition of a mansion tax. The majority of registered speakers opposed the City’s proposal, and the council motioned to defer the decision for two weeks.
Despite the opposition, on January 30, 2018, Vancouver City Council approved the rezoning application enshrining only 77 units (30%) at welfare rate, with the rest of the so-called “social housing” units at HILs (market) rates.
May 1st Action: Barricade City Hall, Stop Business as Usual
Two months later, on May 1st, 2018, City Council was convened for the umpteenth time to discuss its “Response to Homelessness.” In response, members of OHCW blockaded City Hall, preventing City workers from entering the building and forcing the closure of office activity for the morning.
City Council’s closed meeting between councillors only, without the the voices of the homeless, perpetuates a system where elites manage the poor. It also perpetuates the delirious media perceptions that Vision Vancouver is “taking care of business.” The message of OHCW on May 1st, International Workers’ Day, was no more business as usual! OHCW issued a statement that included the following:
The City’s lies and inaction on 58 W. Hastings will claim the lives of hundreds unless Mayor Robertson’s promise is followed through. We, the poor and the homeless of the Downtown Eastside will not sit idly as our elected officials deprive us of the housing we need. We are not a statistic; numbers to be counted and shuffled around in the attempt to remake the city for the rich. We will fight for our lives and our right to live with dignity. There will be no business as usual at City Hall on May 1 unless our demands are met.
History tells that the terrain on which social housing has been won is militant action, whether through tent cities, protests, or blockades. While the future of 58 West Hastings remains unwritten, it is here that the fight for housing justice will be won or lost.
 In May 2018, the BC Supreme Court upheld a Residential Tenancy Branch decision that found a guest policy in one of Victoria’s supportive housing buildings violated tenant rights. The decision was important because the Court affirmed the rights of tenants living in supportive housing under the Residential Tenancy Act.
 A March 2018 notice posted by S.U.C.C.E.S.S. Housing Society advertised a focus group for feedback on the proposed redevelopment of 58 West Hastings. The notice identified Vancouver Chinatown Foundation as the “landlord” of the site.