When Dave Rouleau and Monika Benkovich accepted a position from Living Balance to manage 36 SRO (Single Room Occupancy) units in the York Rooms, they had no idea what to expect. “We thought we were totally going to help out all the people in the building,” Rouleau describes in an online interview, “we’d been to rallies on the DTES and looked at it as an opportunity to get on the inside and really tell the truth.” The building’s history in the Downtown Eastside was rife with petty crimes, impoverished living conditions, and a general state of disrepair.
Rouleau and Benkovich’s work involved cleaning up used syringes, evicting at-risk tenants, and dealing with anti-gentrification protests in response to John Cooper’s new upscale Latin-American restaurant below, Cuchillo. It appears that when they accepted the managerial position, they were expecting a certain type of resident with a specific kind of poverty. Those tenants who agreed with their ideology, or who worked with them against opponents of the York, they befriended. “His name is Roger. We are still friends, I talk to him regularly,” Rouleau posted on Facebook, regarding of one of the York Room tenants he bought lunch for, keeping Roger from attending a press conference about his impending eviction. “I was like, look at this fucking crazy press conference, lets get the fuck out of here,” Rouleau replied when questioned.
But when tenants failed to abide Rouleau and Benkovich’s expectations, improve their lot, uphold the law, or follow Living Balance’s new policies, they were gone – evicted without concern for their history, health, or well-being. “We were shocked to find that one of the biggest drug dealers in the building was also on disability,” Rouleau states, attempting to justify an eviction. “She was elderly and letting in dangerous people to the building, and then crying out to protesters when we evicted her.”
The primary result of Living Balance’s ownership of the building, and Rouleau and Benkovich’s management of the building, was that the rents of all their suites skyrocketed at an extraordinary rate. Suites that would previously rent for $375-425 received a paint job, a mini fridge, and new cabinets, and were resold for between $550-700 a month. The turnover rates were high. One former tenant, Eric, describes multiple instances where tenants vacated after staying for only a single month.
After six months of this work, during which Rouleau and Benkovich were accused of assault against community members, driving up rental rates, harassing at-risk tenants, and “renovicting” the community, Rouleau and Benkovich called it quits. “Honestly – the job just got to us. It was hectic. We’re into other things, media, art, boarding. The job was eating us up,” Rouleau says of their predicament. However, first, they recorded their last two weeks as managers on film, to support of their belief that the tenants were being helped.
They took footage of the tenants and their belongings, through personal crises and enforced transformations. They coerced their tenants and other street people with small favours. Eric was given $20 and a six pack, for example, to sign a waiver of rights to allow film documentation of himself buying heroin. Other tenants were likewise filmed binning, being transferred to shelters, or having a mental breakdown.
And then they posted the screenshots and a description of the documentary to Kickstarter. The Kickstarter campaign was launched to fund an unrelated venture, $7,700 for them to tour behind Gnarcore, their online skate zine. They asked for donations of $50 and up just to watch a trailer featuring these tenants. Many obliged, but only 26 of the 86 financial backers pledged enough to watch the trailer.
“Our intention with the building from day one was to educate people like ourselves – young artists, students etc. to the world of the DTES,” their Kickstarter states, positioning them in a privileged status as educators, “We treated each tenant as a special individual case.” Their message was clear. They were outsiders who came in to a community of low income people and took control of their housing, in order to educate other outsiders. They were going to display their tenants’ most personal and vulnerable moments on film, for the supposed benefit of an external audience
Their numerous backers either missed or agreed with the paternalistic message of their campaign’s write up, and as of March 17, 2014 Gnarcore’s tour was successfully funded. To date, nothing written about their tour indicates any kind of support for low-income people, or any intention of giving back to their community. Additionally, various tenants have claimed that Rouleau and Benkovich were dismissed, or urged to quit, by Living Balance after being accused of assaulting community organizers and tenants.
The whole series of events is a manifestation of a larger problem. Rouleau and Benkovich were mere employees informed by outsider opinions and the policies of an uncaring housing organization looking to post the maximum possible profit per square footage. They even “went behind their employers back,” according to Rouleau, to keep some of their tenants in the building, suggesting that Living Balance intended to have all their previous tenants removed in order to charge higher rents.
It could be that Rouleau and Benkovich held an idealized, fictional version of poverty when they began their short employment at the York Rooms. When confronted with the blunt reality that people in the Downtown Eastside are not homogenous and live completely autonomous lives, they were also confronted with a choice: undertake the challenging work of building solidarity with diverse tenants, or escape into the realm of fantasy. It is unfortunate that they chose to film the finale of their disturbing adventure, and further exploit the tenants they evicted by charging spectators $50 to see a clip.