City’s affordable housing strategy: gentrification

Vision Vancouver, Vancouver’s ruling party, won an election in 2008 by promising to “end homelessness.” But since that time, the party has adopted a housing strategy that only causes homelessness: gentrification of the Downtown Eastside.

City hall is actively pushing condo development eastward. In 2009, the city placed a de facto moratorium on condo development in much of the central business district. Simultaneously, they have been incentivizing gentrification of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) through tax breaks (see our previous article “Lowest corporate taxes in the world at heart of Vancouver’s housing crisis“).

What is most concerning is that this model of gentrification is a major component of Vision Vancouver’s “affordable housing plan.” Affordable housing tops most issue polls, but instead of creating true affordability, Vision has deployed the popular issue of affordability in order to market gentrification. Land is relatively inexpensive in the inner city, so developers can make unprecedented profits building condos for less costs than in the central business district. These condos remain unaffordable, and are far more expensive than the units they replace.

The City’s long-overdue housing plan released this summer highlights the Westbank Corporation’s gentrification project at 60 W. Cordova as a “Pilot Affordable Home Ownership Project.” The city planning department is now expending significant resources to work with developers to roll-out this gentrification model. Here are four examples:

1. After the illegal eviction of low-income tenants from the American Hotel, the city worked with the developer to convert the building into condos and market the development as “Affordable Home Ownership” (see here for an article on the American Hotel conversion). Recently, Vision councilor Kerry Jang has gone on record promoting the redevelopment of the American Hotel as evidence of council’s commitment to “affordability.”

2. The Salient Group is preparing to begin selling condo units at their newest gentrification project called “21 Doors,” at 334 Carrall across from Pigeon Park. The building used to house low-income families, and the owner allowed the site to fall into disrepair. In March 2008, the 20 low-income households living in the building were evicted by developer Robert Wilson. (Wilson had been buying up properties in the Downtown Eastside and ‘flipping’ them for profit. He sold seven buildings to the province for $28 million, for a profit of a estimated $12 million). Robert Fung of Salient Group, developer for 334 Carrall, is now marketing the units as ‘affordable’: “This is really ‘small A’ affordable housing. It’s much more affordable than our other product. The unit sizes are small but livable.” Again, these units of are far more expensive than those they are replacing.

3. This past week, Westbank Corp. announced it is planning a 17-story condo tower at the corner of Main and Keefer in Chinatown. The tower will include 145 “regular” condo units. This is one of many towers that developers and City Council have planned for Chinatown. Westbank claims that their tower will contain 24 units of senior housing in addition to the 145 condo units. It is important to recognize that these token units will not make up for the lost affordable units throughout the neighborhood. There are about 350 Chinese seniors in Chinatown alone, and over 10,000 low-income residents in the DTES/Chinatown area. A recent report by Tsur Somerville, Azim Wazeer and Jake Wetzel of UBC’s Sauder School of Business shows that the need for Chinese seniors’ housing is “overwhelming.”

4. A similar fate faces the old Pantages Theatre, next to the Carnegie Centre and across from Insite. After twice rejecting plans to save the Theatre and build social housing on adjacent lots, Vision City Council has been working closely with developer Marc Williams to build 80 condo units on the site. The low-income community has mobilized strongly against the project (see here for details). This week, COPE candidate Ellen Woodsworth came out against the project, saying “The hundred block of Hastings is not a place for high end condos.” The NPA and Vision have remained supporters of this gentrification project.

It is unfortunate, but not accidental, that ‘Affordable Home Ownership’ has become a codeword for gentrification. The notion of using the concept of affordability to market condos in the Eastside was first honed by condo ‘king’ Bob Rennie. The Woodward’s and V6A developments in the DTES were test runs for the marketing model. In May 2006, Rennie told the Urban Development Institute: “My goal was to establish a marketing model that would allow the fortunate and less fortunate to walk down the street together.” Money was to be made by going where land was cheap – where poor people live. Poor people hold property values down until investors can take advantage of what gentrification scholars call the “rent gap,” defined simply as the practice of buying low and selling high, resulting in a “rent squeeze” and eventual displacement.

The links between Vision Vancouver and Bob Rennie are strong, and have been for years. Rennie donated $75,639 dollars to Vision Vancouver in 2005, and worked closely with Vision founder Jim Green on the Woodward’s project. Some have argued that Woodward’s is not a gentrifying force, but this is patently false. As the project neared completion in the lead-up to the Olympic Games, property values increased and property owners made the decision to evict low-income residents from three SRO hotel buildings directly across from the Woodward’s: the Golden Crown, the Argyle, and Burns Block (which has since been turned into ‘affordable’ micro-lofts). Since that time, gentrification of the area has become near “complete.” Even the Red Gate and its awesome artists have been evicted from the 100 block of West Hastings.

Rennie infamously called on consumers to “Be bold or move to suburbia.” Indeed, displacing poor people is bold, but it is not courageous.

Other groups are calling for a truly courageous response: to join the poor in solidarity, and boycott these condo developments. Through this past week, a group of grassroots housing activists gathered at busy intersections across the city, holding giant banners reading “Boycott Pantages Condos.” Dave Diewert, organizer with the Boycott DTES Condos campaign, told The Mainlander: “The goal of the action is to insert into the public space and consciousness the call for a condo boycott at Sequel 138 [the Pantages condo development]. The leaflet that accompanies the banner provides information on the reasons why purchasing a condo there would be unethical because of the harm it will inevitably unleash on low-income residents currently living on the 100 block east Hastings.”

Of the three major civic parties, only COPE has shown the courage to do the right thing. This past Wednesday, COPE’s Ellen Woodsworth held a press conference in front of the demolition site of the old Pantages Theatre, and COPE says they are “committed to calling for a condominium development moratorium in the Downtown Eastside until sufficient low-income housing is in place.” Unfortunately, COPE is only running three candidates for Council, while their partner Vision Vancouver remains committed to the developers’ gentrification plans.

The choices are clear in the upcoming municipal election. We can join forces with developers and Vision Vancouver, who are committed to using the affordability crisis as a “marketing model” to gentrify the Downtown Eastside. Or we can join forces with the low-income community, boycott DTES condos, call for a moratorium on DTES condo development until the low-income community’s assets are secured, and demand real affordable and ethical options for residents throughout the city. This will include reactivating the city’s feeble Public Housing Corporation, expropriating undeveloped lands, and flooding the market with affordable public housing.