Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside plan deregulates housing by-laws, fails to include new social housing development

Low income residents taking the street at a Rally against Displacement and Gentrification on June 14th, 2013

Last week the City of Vancouver released its draft report of the Local Area Plan for the Downtown Eastside. Reviews of the report have been mixed. While the city’s planning director Kevin McNaney calls it “innovative, aggressive and achievable,” the Carnegie Community Action Project characterized the draft report as “a recipe for displacement.” What exactly is promised in the city’s brand new 10-year plan for the DTES?

First, the good news: the plan admits that gentrification is taking place, that it displaces low-income residents, and that this displacement has negative social impacts. These acknowledgements mark a change of position for the City and can be attributed entirely to the anti-gentrification struggle of DTES residents.

For the first time in years, the city has admitted that the welfare-rate Single Room Occupancy (SRO) housing in the neighbourhood is under siege. The admission vindicates CCAP’s independent housing surveys which they have been conducting for years. “Between 2007 and 2011,” the City states, “the proportion of SRO units renting at the shelter rate has decreased from 67% in 2007 to 39% in 2009 and to 27% in 2011.” This process is ongoing, and in 2012 CCAP estimated that an additional 427 welfare-rate SRO units were lost to rent increases. This means that over 2000 units have become unaffordable for residents on welfare in the last six years alone, a huge number that approaches half of the total SRO stock.

Deregulation: City declares open season on SRO hotels

While the plan bravely acknowledges this ongoing housing disaster, it offers no solutions to halt the erosion of thousands of affordable units. Instead, the city pledges to continue to allow rents to rise by relaxing existing regulations and providing extensive incentives for developers. Specifically targeted by the plan is the DTES-specific Single Room Accommodation (SRA) bylaw. This bylaw is the primary protection for welfare-rate SRO housing and it prevents landlords from redeveloping units without specific permits, and requires all units to be rented to permanent residents. Costing developers significant fees, these conversion permits in turn provide revenue for the city to support social housing projects.

The Emerging Directions plan promises to “revise the SRA bylaw” to “waive fees and fast track applications using housing agreements with rents for low-income residents.” This means that operators will be required to be in a housing agreement with SRO tenants prior to any upgrading. However, since ‘low-income’ is not defined anywhere in the document, it is unknown at what rate those rents will actually be. And while the city promises to upgrade the conditions in 1500 SRO units, this is a significantly lower number than promised in the 2005 Housing Plan for the DTES, which recognized that 5,000 SRO units needed to be replaced with self-contained units. In addition, the ‘one-to-one replacement ratio’ commitment in the 2005 Plan, where each unit of lost SRO housing was to be matched with a unit of new social housing, is now totally abandoned.

While their proposed revisions to the SRA bylaw show some promise, other aspects of the plan contradict that potential. The plan states it will: “incentivize the upgrade of rooms to include private bathrooms” and kitchens, by “allow[ing] smaller self-contained unit sizes.” Yet, these incentives do not come with the same important conditions such as housing agreements and rents for low-income tenants, allowing developers to target existing SRO housing for re-development. It also signals the City’s intention to replicate the ‘micro-loft’ model pioneered at the Burns Block development, where 291-square-foot self-contained units now rent for $975/month. Without effective rent regulations, these new development incentives amount to nothing less than the active encouragement of gentrification.

On a positive note, the draft report proposed that the city should “request that the Residential Tenancy Act be amended by the Province to stabilize tenancies in SROs by limiting rent increases to the unit.” This raises the question of why the city has not requested this for all rental units in the city. More importantly, instead of using the regulative power of the municipal government to ensure affordability, using zoning and taxation, this sentence passes the responsibility of affordability to the provincial government. While it is a necessary request, it should not be used to offload or bypass the responsibility of the municipal government.

Vision Vancouver supporters have applauded the city’s pledge to create 800 units of social housing over the next 10 years in the DTES. However, while the report has a headlined section for its announcement of these new social housing units, the fine print crucially includes the fact that these units are part of housing stock “currently proposed or under development.” In other words, the 800 units are not new but are part of plans announced by the provincial government more than five years ago. Those plans — the 14 sites — have been deferred for years and remain incomplete. In light of these problems, and in the context of over 2,000 lost SRO units between 2007 and 2012, 800 new social housing units is an absurdly low goal. Furthermore, social housing is not defined and benchmarks or specific proposals are not identified.

City refuses to define social housing

The plan commits to consider a 60% “social housing” requirement for all future rezonings in the Downtown Eastside Oppenheimer District (DEOD). However, the statement is phrased in vague terms and may have ambivalent interpretations in practice.[1] Most importantly, a definition of “social housing” is not specified. Given the city’s track record in providing social housing, it is unlikely that much of these new developments will be affordable at the welfare rate, if they are built at all.[2] At Sequel 138, the CMHC market area rent of $845 for East Hastings, qualified as social housing despite the fact that most residents of the DTES have a aggregate monthly income of $610.

After numerous community battles with City Hall over exactly what “social housing” in the DTES should mean, the lack of a definition in the final plan is inexcusable. The Local Area Planning low-income caucus repeatedly fought to get a specific definition of social housing on paper, and a basic definition is desperately needed for the “60% social housing” requirement proposed for the DEOD. In the past, Councilor Andrea Reimer has supported these community efforts and acknowledged the specific needs of this neighbourhood. At a 2012 hearing she supported a motion for specific social housing definitions, stating that “I don’t see how we can take the average [income] of the whole city and use it for the DTES.” How is it that over a year later, a plan has been produced that is missing this essential component? And where is Reimer’s support now, at this critical juncture?

Mass upzoning of East Hastings will ensure more speculation

There’s a lot of good news in this plan — if you’re a developer. The City has promised to upzone two neighbourhoods, “Hastings East” and “Kiwassa,” for condominium development. Hastings East is defined as the area along Hastings, from  Heatley Avenue to Clark Drive, and contains several low-income SRO hotels, shops, diners and pubs. The area has already undergone considerable speculation and most land along the corridor has already been bought up by developers. The most prominent purchases in East Hastings was the purchase of the Ted Harris paint shop by Bob Rennie’s son and the purchase of part of the 600 East Hasting block by a developer, and the subsequent renoviction of Spartacus (now reversed), Dan’s Brewing and a hardware shop.

Turning to the East Hastings corridor, the new plan allows for residential building heights of up to 150 feet (approximately 15 storeys). In cases where no rezoning is required, buildings are likely to contain 100% condos. If there is a rezoning, however, the CAC money (Community Amenity Contributions) generated from the rezoning will go towards subsidizing market rent “social housing” units. For example, the CACs from the rezoning of Wall Corporation’s 955 East Hastings development were used to subsidize 70 “social housing” units, of which only a third (21 units) rented at the shelter component of income assistance. The remaining units will rent for anything up to $950 per month for a 1 bedroom apartment, effectively going for the same rate as the current market price.[3]

This zone is exempt from the Oppenheimer district’s requirement of 60% social housing for any rezoning, which means that even in cases of significant rezonings for tall buildings (high density), only a minority (25-30%) of homes will be affordable. In the case of 955 E Hastings, only 21 out of 381 units will rent for welfare-rate. Because the plan opens the floodgates for rezonings, land values will skyrocket along the corridor. This will benefit speculators and Vancouver’s most notorious landlords, the Sahota family, which owns land throughout the DTES, including the the plot just east of the Astoria hotel.

Kiwassa is bordered by Raymur and Vernon Avenue on the west and east, and Hastings and Venables north and south. Kiwassa is the home of a large low-income community, including the Stamp’s Place social housing. This area will be upzoned to allow developments from 5-7 storeys. The upzoning will inevitably encourage speculation and gentrification. Both neighbourhoods are only under consideration for inclusionary zoning requirements, ranging from a suggested 20% in Kiwassa to 25% – 30% on East Hastings.[4] The main point here is that currently the area is 100% social housing. BC housing has aspirations to break up the social housing with condos, and the Vision council is working to help BC Housing to that by moving from 100% social housing down to 20%.

There is nothing to stop proposals which are exclusively market-based from going forward anywhere else in the Downtown Eastside. There are no social housing requirements for the viaduct redevelopment (ironically renamed Hogan’s Alley, after the demolished historic and ethnically-diverse community), nor for Gastown, Thornton Park, nor Chinatown. The city only offers unquantifiable claims to “maximize opportunities” and to “encourage delivery” of social housing in these areas through “partnerships.”

Emerging directions: A recipe for developer profit

Kelvin Bee delivering the Social Justice Plan to a City planner on June 14th, 2013                                                                

The city’s “Emerging Directions” draft report has been met with criticism by many low income residents and lacks many of the demands that were included in the Social Justice Plan, proposed and signed by over 3000 low income DTES residents in June 2013.  The Social Justice plan included five demands, that are absent in the city’s draft report: No condos before low-income people’s homes are secured and protected; ensure jobs for low-income residents; reverse the loss of homes and shops for low-income residents; protect residents’ safety; and end discrimination so everyone can access the services they need. The Social Justice Plan is the only plan to date that addresses the concerns of the low-income community. City planners would do well to read it before submitting the final report to council this fall.

On paper, the plan promises to protect the DEOD circle, but fails to broach the primary issue of gentrification. The total lack of strategy against fast-paced retail development, the vague promises to modify the SRA bylaw to allow for SRO conversions, and the mealy-mouthed 60% inclusionary zoning which stops short of actually committing to build welfare-rate social housing; all told, this plan offers nothing to actually protect what little welfare-rate affordable housing remains in the DTES. On the contrary, these changes virtually guarantee that the “heart of Vancouver” will continue to be hollowed out for developer profit. Destination restaurants for Vancouver’s wealthy will continue to exploit the rent gap in the DEOD, and SRO landlords will continue to aggressively gentrify their properties. With these policies in place, what little remains of Vancouver’s privately-owned welfare-rate housing will be extinct in short order.

Even when taking City statistics at face value, it’s clear that the DTES is faced with impending disaster. With this document, the City has finally confessed to what people on the street have known for years: its quest to end homelessness by 2015 has gone nowhere. The city admits that Vancouver’s homeless have “stabilized at approximately 1,600 individuals” in the City, with 850 living in the DTES. All levels of government have stood by and allowed this neighbourhood to be rapidly gentrified, resulting in plummeting vacancies, huge losses of affordable housing, increased social assistance cases, and higher rents than ever before — all while welfare rates stagnated and housing funding evaporated. Affordability has only gotten worse, and now more than half of the residents in DTES pay more than half of their income on rent. The inescapable truth is that Vancouver’s homeless crisis continues, and if anything, 5 years of Vision Vancouver have only made it worse.

Photo credit: p0stcap


[1] Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan, “Emerging Directions Handout” (July 2013): “Consider bonus density for 60% social housing (primarily for singles) with 40% balance as secured market rental housing.”

[2] Welfare rate is synonymous with the $375/month shelter rate component of Income Assistance.

[3] According to the council report, the “remaining units will range from rents geared to income (maximum of 30% of BC Housing’s Housing Income Limits) to market rent (determined by Canada Mortgage and Housing (CMHC)).”

[4] Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan, “Emerging Directions Handout” (July 2013): “Consider mixed-use development through rezoning, with 20% social housing (primarily for families) and the 80% balance as market rental or ownership housing.”