In a recent interview, Mayor Gregor Robertson joked about how cool it will be for tech startups to use former jail cells as offices. He was referring to an active Vision Vancouver project to overhaul the old police station at Main & Cordova, turning it into a publicly-funded “tech incubation accelerator.” This attempt to align City Hall with the interests of the “creative class” is part of Vision’s broader plan to use the city’s real estate holdings to subsidize businesses of their choosing. Or, as Gregor puts it, “to bring a business edge to government and recognize the importance of entrepreneurs to this city.”
A mass “renoviction” is underway at the York Rooms hotel on the Downtown Eastside. The York is a Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotel at 259 Powell in the Oppenheimer District, with 34 rooms of low-income affordable housing. Here at the York, the connection between retail gentrification and residential displacement is made clear. Long-term tenants living directly above the building’s new Cuchillo restaurant faced the threat of eviction immediately after the restaurant opened its doors.
Over the last two months at least seven residents of the York have lost their housing through eviction or by being paid to leave. Housing advocates have knocked on doors in the building and estimate that half of the rooms in the hotel are now empty, an estimate recently corroborated by current tenants. A spokesperson for the landlord confirmed on Thursday that 14 of 34 rooms are empty, a vacancy rate of just over 40%. The average vacancy rate in the rest of the DTES is 1%.
“There was no one in this building for as long as anyone can remember. Then we came along. We worked hard at fixing it up. People moved in upstairs. These guys criticize, but they don’t offer any solutions of their own.” -Brandon Grossutti, President of Pidgin Restaurant Ltd, quoted in the National Post, Feb 21st 2013
As is often the case in public debates on the Downtown East Side, media coverage of the new Pidgin restaurant has been characterized by historical amnesia. Uncritical repeating of the imperative and beneficial claims of gentrification has ignored longstanding issues, their context, and most of the relevant facts. Despite Brandon Grossutti’s proclamation that there was “no one in the building” when he “came along”, the DTES community remembers well that the 21 Doors development which houses Pidgin used to be social housing for low-income families. Until March 2008, that is, when its tenants were evicted for the renovation and conversion of the property into market condos to be flipped for quick profit.