On May 7th the Development Permit Board (DPB) approved the application of a 10 storey luxury development in Chinatown. The project, financed by Solterra Group of Companies, comprises 82 dwelling units above three levels of underground parking. This is the first condo project stimulated by the Vision-NPA gentrification plan for the neighbourhood. In spring of last year, Vision-NPA approved a blanket upzoning of land, which increased the value of 189 Keefer from $1 million to $2.9 million overnight. Through the so-called “Height Review” for the DTES, the predominantly low-income Chinese community and other low-income social groups are gradually being displaced by the incursion of market condos, high-end shops, and cultural amenities catering to a wealthier, predominantly white clientele. If a recent “snapshot” of emerging Chinatown by Scout Magazine is any indication, Chinatown will become the next Gastown.
Conflict of interest
There was an added controversy at the 189 Keefer hearing, in the form of a serious conflict of interest. One of the members of DPB’s “Representatives of the Design Professions,” Foad Rafii (Architect) represented the Developer (Solterra) at the hearing. Rafii spoke on behalf of the applicant, and did not publicly disclose his conflict of interest. When a member of the public voiced his concerns, the Board Chair Vicki Potter and Foad Rafii remained silent, refusing to address the public’s claim.
This is the second time in a month that Foad Rafii has misused his post on the DPB. Two weeks ago, from his DPB seat Rafii spoke out energetically against community members who protested Pantages condos proposal. In retrospect, his decision regarding the Pantages condo project was tainted by his desire to see his own project approved the next week.
Furthermore, Rafii has been providing the media with misinformation on the previous Pantages Hearings. Given that a large coalition of DTES organizations is opposed to both the Pantages project and Rafii’s own Keefer project, it was in Rafii’s interest to vilify low-income members of the community who spoke out against the incursion of market condos. In addition to influencing his industry peers on the DPB, Rafii’s sphere of influence has extended to the equally important realm of the public press, through the columns of the Vancouver Courier. In a recent article attacking low-income activists speaking at the Sequel hearing, Allan Garr admits that his account was second-hand. His proxy, on-the-ground “reporter” was Foad Rafii. The presence of Rafii on both sides of the table reveals the inherent corruption increasingly plaguing various levels of government under the Vision-NPA council.
According to Jean Swanson of the Carnegie Community Action Project, condos at 189 Keefer will have immediate effects on the surrounding low-income community. Swanson claimed, “Hotels we believe are at risk from the ripple effects of gentrification from 189 Keefer include 30 rooms at the Pacific Hotel two doors to the north; 34 rooms at the Arno hotel on Georgia and Gore; 14 at 221 E. Georgia; and 45 units at the Keefer Rooms.” The DTES Housing Plan states that there are more than 500 SRO hotel units in the Chinatown district. More than 200 market low-income housing units are within a block of 189 Keefer.
The influx of market condos in the area is staggering. As stated by Dave Diewert of DTES Not for Developers and Streams of Justice, new condo construction in the area “is equivalent to the new Woodwards development.” The numbers are as follows: 81 condo units at 189 Keefer St., 28 condos are under construction at the Flats project at 219 E. Georgia St., 145 market condos and 26 seniors housing units proposed at the 611 Main St., added to the recently completed 128 condo units at V6A (221 Union St.), the 78 condo suites at the Ginger (718 Main St.), and the 15 condo suites at the Strathcona Edge (663 Gore St.), the number reaches 501 new market condo units within a few blocks of one another.
The construction of new market condominiums in the area is already proving disastrous. As reported by Sarah Berman of Megaphone magazine, residents of the Asia Hotel got notice that they will be evicted for a major renovation sometime this year. Last year, councillor Kerry Jang received verbal guarantee by Chinatown’s Benevolent Societies — owners of 50% of low-income housing in the neighbourhood — that units would not be turned into market condos or upgraded rental. Jang received the guarantee during the Chinatown Historic Height Review Hearings and used it as an argument against anti-displacement activists. Contrary to statements by Jang and members of the DPB, the units at the Asia Hotel (owned by the Mah Benevolent Society) are at risk. Loop-holes in the SRA bylaw allow the landlord to renovate the units and convert them to student and young worker housing — a tactic also known as renovictions.
What is more troubling, however, was the systematic disavowal by the DPB about the ethnic divide marking Vancouver and the low-income Chinatown community. Despite Vancouver’s assertions of a progressive multicultural hub of inclusivity, Vancouver has adopted an old-school white liberal planning approach to Chinatown. In a recent report gathered from the 2012 Census compiled by the National Council of Welfare Reports, more than half of all people living in poverty in Vancouver are racialized (58%), the majority of them are Chinese. The majority of these renters are living in Vancouver’s principally poor, working-class Eastside neighborhoods, including Chinatown. At present, there are no city or provincial policies to stop the loss of these housing units in Chinatown to rent increases or unrestrained real-estate speculation. As was the case yesterday, no members from the DPB were willing to address these concerns.
A strategy of the Vision-NPA dominated council has been to send community concerns about poverty, displacement and gentrification to unaccountable lower levels of municipal government. Since DPB approved the Sequel 138 hearing two weeks ago, members of the public have spoke out against the Board as being undemocratic, illegitimate and ill-suited to address public concerns over housing and homelessness. Astonishingly, members of the Development Permit Board have indicated that they have not read the relevant City of Vancouver housing policies, and since the Board is predominantly white real-estate industry functionaries, each member appears incapable of addressing the social and economic impacts of luxury condo development on the low-income community in Chinatown.
Throughout yesterday’s hearing, non-voting representatives from the “General Public” and non-voting representatives of the “Development Industry” who sit on the Board revealed their ignorance concerning city policy over housing, homelessness and real estate speculation. Jon Stovell (Reliance Properties — Development Industry) and Duncan Wlodarczak (General Public), continually deferred concerns over displacement and gentrification to city staff over the “lack of clarity in city policy.” City staff then proceeded to speak circles around the issue of displacement without specific substance or credibility. When the general members of the gallery quoted specific passages of city policy outlining the city’s housing goals of zero-displacement, homelessness and one-to-one replacement of public housing, speakers were rudely interrupted by DPB Chair Vicki Potter.