A memorial service for the three men who died in an East Van house fire was held Saturday at the Longhouse Council Native Ministry.
Garland McKay, Dwayne Rasmussen and Steven Yellowquill died on Dec 22 when the porch they were living in at 2862 Pandora St. caught fire.
On Saturday, the Longhouse was filled to capacity with friends and family. The service began with a song led by Traditional Mothers. Morris then asked the mourners to stand up and share memories of the three men. For friends and family, it was a day to honour the men and their strengths. A picture emerged of the men as compassionate, respectful, and selfless.
At Saturday’s memorial, a broad picture of the men’s journey and challenges also emerged. There were many preventable factors creating the conditions for the tragedy.
The three men came from First Nations across the country (Rasmussen from Mount Currie, McKay from Kelowna, Yellowquill from Manitoba) to Vancouver looking for opportunity, but were unable to access appropriate non-market housing. As a result, the only housing that was accessible to them was the unsafe and inadequate “rooming-house” at 2862 Pandora St.
A house fire on Pandora Street took three lives last Thursday. The event instigated the right-wing NPA to call for an inquiry. However, to ensure tragedies like this do no happen in the future, it is necessary to abandon anti-tenant rhetoric in favour of a more proactive approach that empowers tenants.
No one wants to live in poor housing conditions like those of the Pandora Street house. But in the absence of safe and affordable housing options, renters must choose between inadequate housing and homelessness. And in the absence of strong tenant protection by-laws, fear of eviction condemns tenants to an intolerable status quo.
Several media outlets have drawn attention to the requests for an independent inquiry. Some argue the lives would have been saved had the City shut down the home on account of the illegal living situation. But this would have led to eviction of the nine people living inside, and there were many opportunities for the City to take more proactive action to assist the tenants. Further, it is difficult to ignore that many of the proponents of this ‘eviction solution’ are inspired by intolerance rather than compassion for the tenants themselves (e.g. see the comments at the bottom of this Sun article.)
Last month City Council adopted the Mount Pleasant Community Plan (MPCP). The MPCP, the culmination of three years of community feedback and consultations, is the first city-sponsored community plan for the area since 1989.
Many residents of Mount Pleasant are concerned about what is happening to their neighbourhood – and with good reason. There have been significant demographic shifts since the last census was performed in 2006. Condos have been popping up along Kingsway, Broadway and Main. Mount Pleasant is a traditionally working-class neighbourhood, the average income in Mount Pleasant being thousand dollars below the citywide average. 23% of people living in the neighborhood are low-income and 67% in the neighborhood are renters.
Mount Pleasant residents have been becoming more active in recent months – many concerned about gentrification and affordability, others concerned about height of new buildings in the abstract.
This summer, these issues came to the surface in a debate about a development at one of the area’s hubs – a social housing and rental development project at Broadway and Fraser. The City Council meeting dealing with the rezoning had to be extended to three days to accommodate the more than 70 speakers. Some members of the community argued that the proposed 11 story development was too tall, where others argued that the neighbourhood is in dire need of more rental and social housing units. In the end, the project was approved with minor adjustments.
The MPCP passes over many of these issues, and attempts to reconcile the wishes of existing residents with developers’ desire for increased density.
We previously reported that on Jan 20 2011, Vancouver City Council will consider a proposal to build seven condo towers in the Downtown Eastside, and that there is significant community opposition to the plan. The City calls the plan the “Historic Area/Precinct Height Review/Study,” while critics call it a “gentrification package” for the Downtown Eastside.
This week, Ray Spaxman spoke out about the plan. On Dec 13, he told The Mainlander that he was more amenable “to getting an area plan going before we do this rezoning.”
Then on Dec 15 Spaxman was interviewed by CKNW’s Phillip Till about the Height Study, where he reiterated the problems of developing a rezoning plan without a community plan: “there seems to be a lack of attention to the impact of that density on all the facilities and services that are needed in the city as a consequence of those extra heights.”
The comments are significant because not only was Spaxman Vancouver’s Director of Planning from 1973 to 1989, but he was also hired by the City in 2007/8 as main researcher and author of the original Sept 2008 Historic Precinct Height Study.
Spaxman told The Mainlander that his contract with the city “was defined to focus on the question of height.” However, he noted his team’s concern that “by talking only about height instead of density and people, the City risks overlooking the social implications of development.”
In addition to rent increases caused by the upscaling and renovation of dozens of low-income buildings around the city, Vancouver is losing affordable housing through the outright demolition of buildings. Last month, City Council approved the demolition of the Cecil Hotel. Two months ago, Vancouver City Council approved the loss of almost all low-income housing at the American Hotel, whose tenants were illegally evicted in 2006. Last year saw a drastic loss of housing, with City Council allowing for the closure of low-income hotels surrounding Woodward’s while granting the demolition permit for the 224 housing units at Little Mountain.
Today, however, the provincial and municipal governments jointly proclaim a “partnership of excellence” in the fight against homelessness. Some journalists have written of the “tight bond” between the Province and City under Mayor Gregor Robertson, and it has recently been reported that many Vision councilors were favorable towards Rich Coleman’s leadership bid for the BC Liberal Party because of “all the progress he has been able to make with the City of Vancouver on social housing during this Vision Vancouver term.”[i]
More than anything else, the proclaimed successes of the “partnership” revolve around the construction of fourteen sites of social housing in Vancouver, known as the ‘Vancouver sites.’ The myth of these fourteen sites can be traced to the destruction of housing at Little Mountain.
Vancouver City Council will hold a special meeting this Tuesday, Dec 12, to look over the proposed municipal budget. An administrative report distributed November 15th outlining the budget can be found here. Last Thursday, December 2nd, a public meeting was held, with 18 of the 20 speakers speaking against the proposed budget.
Over the past few months, the city has been engaging the public through telephone, web and paper surveys (around 1300 were completed). According to the report, the most pressing issues in the city for residents are Homelessness, Affordable housing, and Public Transit. The popular focus on poverty and affordability was one of the reasons Vision Vancouver concentrated so much on homelessness during their campaign. Over the past two years, there has been a significant increase in homelessness and more communities are feeling the pressure of a lack of affordable housing. The most valued city services for residents, according to the survey, were Public Libraries, Fire Services, and Garbage Collection.
Longtime Downtown Eastside advocate Jean Swanson has written a letter to City Council and City staff strongly urging them to “hold off on giving developers added density in the DTES…until the Social Impact Study & the DTES Vision are done, [and until] the tenure and assets of the low-income community are secured.”
The letter, sent Dec 10 2010, comes in response to Vision Vancouver’s apparent commitment to finalize an NPA-initiated rezoning package for the Downtown Eastside. The rezoning package, which the City calls the “Historic Area Height Review,” and which others call the “DTES Gentrification Package,” calls for 7 condo towers at particular locations in the Downtown Eastside, as well as a general rezoning of the area to make it more affordable for developers to tear down buildings and replace them with condo developments.
The final policy document will be coming to City Council for approval on Jan 20 2011.
In anticipation of this rezoning policy, developers are already well underway with plans to build condo towers on the old BC Electric building at Hastings and Carrall, as well as at the corner of Abbott and Pender. The general upzoning has led, for example, the owner of the Pantages theatre to replace plans for a preserved theatre flanked by social housing with new plans for an 80% condo development adjacent the Carnegie Centre…