INTRO | In November 2017, members of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) interviewed Vince Tao, organiser with Chinatown Action Group (CAG). They discussed the recent victories of the Chinatown community at 105 Keefer, drawing lessons for the ongoing fight for 100% social housing at welfare rate at 58 West Hastings.
Vince Tao: So you may have heard about the recent Chinatown victory against the 105 Keefer condo development.
[Applause & cheers]
For those who haven’t been following, the condo project was proposed by Beedie Living. Ryan Beedie is a millionaire who has a bunch of developments all over the city. A while ago Beedie Living bought the land next to the Chinese Workers Memorial; right now it looks like a empty parking lot. For the last four years they’ve been trying to pass through an application to build a thirteen storey condo there. The last four times they’ve tried to do it they had to go to City Council because they wanted to build higher than the Chinatown building height restriction. To generate mega profits on the site, they’ve been trying to build thirteen stories.
Each time the developer goes to City Hall our groups – Chinatown Action Group, Chinatown Concern Group – have mobilized along with our DTES allies, like CCAP and VANDU. As a result of our fight the developer has lost four times already, so just last week Beedie tried to push through yet another application. This time around was really bullshit. Previously they were trying to build thirteen, but now they tried to push through a condo that’s nine levels, making it below the height restriction so that it wouldn’t have to go to City Council for rezoning approval. Another detail here is that in the last few applications, because of community push-back, they included 25 units of social housing. First, that wasn’t enough; and second, only seven of those units were actually available for people on welfare and pensions, so their idea of “social housing” was a lie the whole time.
But with the latest proposal, Beedie took out the social housing component, which meant zero social housing and all luxury condo units. Their aim is to screw the poor, so we decided to organize a disruption of their hearing. They had to defer the decision, and then finally under community pressure the City folded, rejecting the project – for now.
Chinatown and all the people who have been living in poverty, struggling for their lives, fought for that victory and we won. So thank you guys so much for that.
So that’s what happened up to now. But the thing is they’re going to keep trying to push through this application, so we need to stay vigilant. We’re not going to let them do it until it’s 100% social housing on that site, which means ten floors of welfare- and pension-rate housing.
Nathan Crompton: Can you tell us about some of the strategies and alliances in Chinatown? How did you connect with seniors especially, and how did you convince people to come out?
Vince: We’ve been working on this for four years and it took a long time but we’ve gotten really strong together. With each victory we get stronger. It has taken a lot of on-the-ground work, we had to go door knocking and work with seniors over a long period. Already in 2010-11 Chinatown seniors were opposed to City Hall’s early plans, so it was a question of how to build a sustainable movement out of that. The thing is that seniors are super marginalized and often super isolated, and they don’t really have any language access to any City services. At this last meeting, the City just didn’t provide translation and guess who this condo effects? People who speak mainly Chinese. So they didn’t provide translation and put us in a separate room. I wasn’t allowed inside yesterday’s hearing because I disrupted the last one. The security guy was just like, “not you buddy.”
But yeah we had to fight for the right to get translation. We actually tried to put our own whisper translator into the room but they kicked us out because they said it was too disruptive to the hearing. We have to provide our own services for ourselves and fight for our right to have them until the city folds and provides them for us.
So that’s the seniors, but another part of the struggle has been building an alliance in the DTES, and refusing to accept the City’s attempt to separate Chinatown from the DTES. They want to pit us against each other but the thing is we’re tight in those relationships, even if Chinatown still has a lot of work and a lot of learning to do in order to genuinely support the people of the DTES and drug users. VANDU and CCAP have been incredibly supportive of Chinatown, and that alliance is essential.
Another thing is that the City was in talks to buy the land back from the developer to build social housing with BC Housing, but three days before the last hearing they dropped that negotiation. But now that we have pushed another win, the Mayor has said this morning that buying 105 Keefer is again on the table.
Delilah Gregg: It says here about language interpretation: despite tonight’s outcome, CAG and CCG demand the City provide language interpretation of the proceedings the City again did not provide language interpretation of the proceedings until today, and only due to the public pressure. Interpretation was counted as part of the overall five minutes given to speakers, and volunteers who interpreted for Chinese speaking residents were accused of being distracting and disruptive by DPB [Development Permit Board] members.
Vince: Yeah, it really shows whose voices are being prioritized. For those who weren’t there, you all should have seen the public hearing. All these people who identify as yuppies, young urban professionals, came and said “I want this condo built because I don’t want to see syringes on the ground.” Those are the people who are moving in, they’re not going to change their minds, they want us out of here, all of us. DTES and people in Chinatown, they just want all of us out. That’s why as people in Chinatown we have to teach ourselves and learn in order to deepen our solidarity with VANDU, because we’re all in this shit together.
Delilah: Strength in numbers!
Johnny H: Chinatown is multicultural, there’s all kinds of different cultures there. We need to get a whole group of different cultures to help out in this.
Vince: For real, this is my point about Chinatown that I’m always trying to push, Chinatown is not just for Chinese people. Since the beginning it’s always been for immigrants, the working people, the marginalized, Indigenous people, and everyone’s trying to fight to live and make a home in their own image.
Flora Munroe: The City is always segregating people out to certain places, that’s the reason why Chinese people have this area. In the beginning the City said you go here, you go there; it’s always white people segregating everybody out, and then trying to get them to fight amongst each other for any little bit we can get.
Dave Hamm: Do you think the moment now would be for us to put our energy towards 58 W Hastings? That’s a real thorn in our side, because the Mayor lied and we’re just getting double talk all the time right. So we should look to the way you guys organize and made this happen, take a page from that, and use your techniques too.
Vince: We got a lot to learn from you guys too.
Dave: We all got good points and things we can get better at and we only become stronger as a group, right. The only reason we’re still here is because we’ve been fighting twenty years and beyond, like way back. There are groups in different cities now that don’t have areas like this, they lost it because they couldn’t fight gentrification. We’ve been lucky that we’ve had the heart, the will and the drive to keep doing this and keep on doing it. Doing it smart so we don’t waste our time and energy and fall into their trap of fighting amongst each other for different things.
Vince: 58 West Hastings! That’s next — we all have a stake in that! And he signed the piece of paper, we have the paper. So we have to fight for what he promised us. For Chinatown Action Group, that should be our next battle. Because 105 is going to keep going forever probably until the City buys it, but right now we all gotta organize together. Chinatown, DTES the rest of us in the zone… We need 58, and it belongs to us. We are going to have to take it if they don’t concede it to us.
Carol N: They did an unveiling of the plan for 58 W Hastings at Woodward’s, with the housing for low income people – how many spaces were they gonna have?
Flora: It was 50%, and now it’s even less, down to 30%! So yeah they promised 100% social housing, then it went down to fifty, and now it’s thirty!
Vince: That’s bullshit — they don’t want the poor to live here.
Wade: Yeah I guess I’m thinking, Gregor seems to get off like pretty much scott-free, we need to hold him a little more accountable. He charmed everybody back when he came in, but not so charming anymore.
Flora: The province too, they’re not moving fast enough. We’re sending emails and letters, but they’re just looking at it from this side of their eye, and hoping we eventually we give up.
Malcolm Tourangeau: Our coalition needs to take the signed piece of paper to the media and say, “hey it was supposed to be 100% social housing, and then it went to 80% and now it’s 30% according to Gregor Robertson.” Vancouverites and everybody else needs to know exactly what is happening and how he went from a promise to a lie. The actual signed piece of paper, by him – we need to put it out there again, once again.
Jenn Allan: If the government just keeps ignoring their promise at 58 W Hastings, let’s have a tent city on city hall lawn. Let’s say, “we’re bringing homelessness to your front door, here it is and here we are.”
Vince: You guys are right! And we gotta get that contract Gregor signed out there. We gotta occupy their offices, occupy their front yards. That contract — if rich white men in suits know anything it’s contracts. We have a contract that he signed, we gotta put that out there make it known that he signed it and lied
Nate: Vince I have one more question about the Chinatown victory, at 105 Keefer, and the lessons for our fight at 58 W Hastings. Everyone is saying that the Chinatown victory shows some kind of shift, and that the City is somehow waking up and paying attention. But the actual lesson is that our collective organizing works – the tactics, the strategies, and the depth of the organizing in Chinatown, rather than a benevolent awakening of the capitalist class in Vancouver. Can you talk about that, because the City has just issued an apology for the historic wrongs in Chinatown and towards Chinese Canadians, so can you address this perception that somehow the City is genuinely transforming itself from within?
Vince: Right now, at the same time as this 105 Keefer stuff, the City is passing an official ‘apology’ to the Chinese community. A hundred years ago the Chinese people came here and were exploited for their labour, with a head tax put on them – and now fast forward to today, when similar dynamics of racist exclusion are here in the relationship between City Hall and the Chinatown seniors. What the City wants to do is separate this long history from the present. That’s what the Mayor attempted to do at his recent press conference, basically saying “the Chinese reconciliation is over here and 105 Keefer is over there; these are separate things.” But they aren’t, they’re the same! Same with the overdose epidemic, or with the colonialism taking people’s lives: all the way up to now these are all interrelated things with long histories that continue into the present. This is all one history that we’re struggling in together and the fight continues, we have to keep pushing them.
And Nate’s right, the City wants to say they’re enlightened now. But in actuality they’re scared, and that’s different. If you keep organizing and force the issue, they don’t have a choice, it becomes too much of a public issue and the injustice is put in the open, they are forced to deal with it. They have the money, but the people have the power – we got the power and that’s why they’re running scared.
There needs to be a lot of education in our community, because there is an ingrained kind of stigmatism towards drug users and poor people, even though a lot of Chinatown residents are drug users and poor people. That stigma rips us apart.
Vince: You guys are the best crowd. I love you guys; you’re heros. If you guys see me in the streets say hi. My name’s Vince.
Vince Tao is a librarian and organizer in Vancouver.
The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) is a group of users and former users who work to improve the lives of people who use illicit drugs through user-based peer support and education.
 In 2014, the City of Vancouver changed its definition of ‘social housing’ in the DTES, to refer to a rental property owned by a nonprofit or government agency that rents at least 30% of its units at welfare- or pension-rate. This new definition allows the City to get away with providing fewer welfare-rate rentals while still employing the label ‘social housing.’