Since we got first involved in the Downtown Eastside Local Area Planning Process (LAPP) in the spring of 2011, low-income community members and groups have been hanging our hopes for broad-sweeping housing policy change on the outcome of the 2013 BC provincial election. The most important part of our participation in that planning work has been our push to prevent a mass displacement and homelessness crisis in the DTES. Throughout the planning process it has been our view that the main tool for preventing this displacement is zoning regulations that stop condo development in at least one sub-area of the Downtown Eastside while slowing it down significantly in other areas of the DTES, in particular the Hastings Corridor and Thornton Park. With zoning protections in place we dream of next-step plans that involve all levels of government:
- The city would buy 50 sites dedicated for social housing at welfare/pension rates needed to replace the 5,000 SRO rooms;
- The province (once the Liberals are gone) would build thousands of social housing governed by the Residential Tenancy Act on those city-owned lots;
- The province (also post-Liberal rule) would change the Residential Tenancy Act to freeze rents and stop renovictions, and;
- The federal government (once the Conservatives are gone) would build thousands of more units of social housing.
To set the stage for this plan, the city would first use zoning as a tool to devalue the land and prevent displacement, then lobby senior governments to come to the table and build the housing. This zoning regulation is in the jurisdiction of the city, but selling it as a feasible tactic to stop displacement would be made significantly easier if the cooperation of higher levels of government seem at all possible. Our hopes have since been dashed by the realities of the NDP’s housing platform, which not only seamlessly continues the BC Liberal legacy but also — Vision Vancouver style — makes it sharper and more sophisticated.
The BC NDP housing platform promises to “Build up to 1,500 units of affordable non-profit, co-operative and rental housing for low- and moderate-income families, seniors and individuals each year by leveraging the existing $250 million Housing Endowment Fund to support partnerships and equity contributions with local governments, the private sector, and the non-profit and co-operative housing sectors.”
Displacement dangers in the Downtown Eastside
The NDP housing platform contains specific dangers for the low-income community in the DTES. Under 12 years of BC Liberal rule the DTES low-income community has suffered a massive, more than 300%, increase in homelessness. Welfare and disability has become more difficult to access and more punitive. The gulf between rich and poor has widened throughout BC, and nowhere is that structural inequality and its accompanying gender, racial, colonial, health, ability and sexual splits more evident than in the DTES. The end result of this decade of austerity, combined with an intensified focus on real estate development as the main economic engine of Vancouver, is that low-income people in the DTES are in very precarious housing and are highly vulnerable to displacement.
Since Vision came into power in Vancouver, the economic, development, gentrification pressures on our community have been intensifying. Vision has joined with real estate developers and boutique entrepreneurs to delegitimize the tenure of low-income people in the DTES under the cover of “social mix” as a development strategy. Dovetailing with the offloading of social programs and responsibilities to junior governments and private charity from the federal government and then BC Liberals, Vision has been the vanguard of adapting instead of struggling against this anti-human agenda. Under their rule, low-income community terrain in the DTES has shrunk rapidly and massively. Victory Square, Gastown, and now Chinatown are in the final stages of liquidating privately owned low-income housing, storefronts, and public space. Today only approximately 5% of 3,500 privately owned SRO hotel rooms rent at welfare shelter rates.
Zoning as a tactic to stop displacement
The DTES Oppenheimer District (DEOD) is one of few remaining sub-areas in the DTES where low-income housing, storefronts and public spaces are not in immediate danger of being lost to gentrification. This blessing is no accident — it is a result of a development policy Vision inherited from previous governments. DEOD development guidelines were set in 1982 as the one residential area in Vancouver with protections against speculation and market development forces. The “inclusionary zoning” in the DEOD demands 20% social housing as part of any new condo; a high bar which no developer was able to leap over for thirty years after the policy was implemented.
This 30-year chill on development pressures in the DEOD has kept property prices lower than in other parts of Vancouver and has kept speculators and developers at bay. Consequently rents are cheaper and there is more social housing. For example, the only two sites of social housing in the DTES built as part of the pre-Olympics promises are in the DEOD at Marie Gomez and the Drake.
However, in the past two years a developer’s spring has thawed the zoning protections in the DEOD. Two condo projects in the DEOD, at Pantages Theatre on the 100-block and near Oppenheimer Park on Cordova, have broken the ice and, if completed and sold, will demonstrate that developers can build and make money even with 20% social housing as part of their projects. These relatively small projects have moved ahead only with the support of City Hall and other non-business groups. Pantages condos depend on a $23million low-interest loan from BC Housing. The Oppenheimer condos depend on grant money from VanCity Credit Union to make their 20% social housing possible and the project still profitable. Without support from the public purse and a significant charitable foundation the developers of these projects would not be any more able to navigate the DEOD inclusionary zoning than any of their predecessors. The NDP’s housing policy will make this partnership problem far worse, unlocking the capacity of developers to make profits even if low-income members of the DTES planning committee are able to reach their goal of raising the mandatory social housing inclusion rate higher than 20%.
Anti-displacement hopes in the LAPP, dashed by the NDP
Low-income representatives at the Local Area Planning table have argued for the future of the heart of the low-income community to be protected with a “Social Justice Zone.” Social Justice means much more than housing-type and rent-level, but our first priority is to stop the displacement of low-income people from the area. The tactic to stop displacement would be new zoning laws setting the DEOD from currently 20% social housing to 100% social housing only, and the Hastings Corridor (from Heatley to Clark) and Thornton Park (the land that will open up when the viaducts are torn down) from currently 0% social housing to 70% social housing. We have argued for more than two years that such zoning regulations would act as a rate of change mechanism. They would accomplish the following: stop development in these protected areas while condo projects rage in all other parts of the DTES; dampen the speculation climate to keep privately owned housing units accessible to low-income people, and; depress land values to make it possible for City Hall to buy 50 lots of land for social housing and for the province and feds to build that housing.
City planners have responded to our demand for major downzoning and speculation guards with reticence, but some encouragement. The primary difference between Vision Vancouver’s approach to zoning laws in the DEOD and ours is that they see zoning as a means to squeeze some social housing out of the market while we see it as a means to stop gentrification. Our interpretation is drawn from the COPE/NPA supported 2005 DTES housing plan, which calls for planners to use rate of change mechanisms to discourage market development if the rate of condo development begins to outstrip non-market housing development. Vision’s reluctance to follow the city’s own policies and the needs of the community means that they will likely push for the a level of inclusionary zoning that is possible for developers to meet with support from other partners.
NDP housing partnerships are the missing ingredient in Vision’s gentrification agenda
The BC NDP housing platform specifically targets such partnerships as the only way to fund and build housing should they take power in Victoria on May 14. Carnegie Community Action Project’s study of the effects of partnership-based housing development in the Woodward’s area shows that, although the Woodward’s mega-project brought 125 units of social housing for low-income singles, resulting gentrification pressures cost 404 units of privately owned SRO hotels hotel rooms in a one block radius around WW. The result of this attempt to build social housing through market development tricks was the net loss of 279 units of housing to rent increases as direct result of the mixed project’s intervention in the surrounding real estate market.
The BC NDP housing platform, calling for “partnerships,” could push forward gentrification and the loss of privately owned low-income units at a higher rate than it produces low-income social housing, leading to major net losses of low-income housing. In the DEOD, the BC NDP partnership platform could be the support developers need to secure their mortgages, ensure their investment risks, and enable them to meet social housing inclusionary zoning rules set through the DTES Local Area Planning Process. Joining with Vision Vancouver policies of “social mix”, the NDP’s housing program could subvert the hopes of the low-income community for protections against the ever-hungry condo market and real estate speculation. Hopes laid in the BC NDP seem to have been misplaced.
Stop gentrification & build homes for the homeless
The struggle for housing in the DEOD is desperate because low-income DTES residents are under intense gentrification pressure from all angles. Storefront gentrification has continued the condo-climate change started by Woodward’s in the Western section of the neighbourhood, while a storm of over 600 condos is coming out of the South in Chinatown, and massive real estate speculation and property combinations are going on in the East. The DEOD is caught in a gentrification vice and low-income residents are getting squeezed out like never before.
Low-income reps on the City’s planning process committee are calling for 100% social housing development rules in the DEOD, 70% social housing in the Hastings Corridor and Thornton Park, and a blanket 30% social housing development rule to support the more than 30% of renters paying over 30% of their incomes to rent citywide. Without NDP support it’s more important than ever that we keep up our fight for strong zoning to keep condos out. It is also clear that our struggle to end homelessness and stop displacement is not going to end with the upcoming election.
Ivan Drury was the DTES Neighbourhood Council’s (DNC) alternate co-chair of the DTES Local Area Planning Process from the time the process was initiated by City Hall in January 2011 until he was removed from the committee by the City Manager in September 2012. He remains engaged in the process as a volunteer and assistant to DNC’s current co-chair Herb Varley and other low-income groups and members of the LAPP Committee.