Housing activists take over Hastings condo site

Published in the Vancouver Observer news site  |  November 29, 2011  |  Circulation: 100,000 average monthly readers.

Photos by David P. Ball.

A group of more than 20 people took over the Paris Annex condominium construction site for four hours Tuesday, protesting for social housing and a moratorium on new condominium developments in the Downtown Eastside.

Organized by the DTES Not for Developers coalition, a crowd of roughly a hundred residents and supporters rallied outside below the scaffolding at 53 West Hastings Street – owned by Robert Fung’s Salient Group — tying a large anti-condominium banner across the street and effectively blocking it to traffic for several hours, as the activists inside refused to leave as requested by police.

The group demanded the city purchase 10 buildings to turn into income-tied social housing. The demonstration ended at 7:30 p.m.

“We need to stop the condos,” said Joe LeBlanc, a long-time DTES resident and air force veteran who participated in the four-hour building occupation. “I’ll stay as long as it takes.

“We’re trying to stop gentrification from going on down here in the Downtown Eastside,” he added.

Gentrification is the common urban transition process in which low-income renters are displaced by rising prices and neighbourhood development.

“I’m on disability — it’s the only place I can afford to live,” LeBlanc told the Vancouver Observer by phone from inside the building. “There’s hundreds of homeless vets across this country. It’s insanity. Where are we supposed to go? They pushed us out of the rest of the city.”

Jennifer Allen, a spokesperson for the demonstration and board member of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council, said that as condominiums enter the neighbourhood, rents are increasing, forcing many residents to consider leaving.

“Condos are slowly creeping in and pushing the poor out of here,” she said. “The poor can’t afford to live here – they can’t afford condos.

“This whole area’s been gentrified for the last nine years, slowly, slowly.

“I would dream this place could be safe for people, could be affordable, where women don’t have to work the streets to pay their rent or buy groceries, where there’s proper mental health help for people down here, there’s jobs and education that are accessible. Everything that you have in your life should be accessible to people down here.”

Police officers entered the construction site from the back alley – the only un-boarded entrance to the building – sealing the wood boards behind them. Officers would not comment to the Vancouver Observer about their plans to deal with the occupation.

“It’s a construction site, people can get hurt,” said an officer guarding the entrance, who asked not to be named. “We’re not letting anyone else in.”

The call for a condominium moratorium in the neighbourhood is one made during the recent civic elections by outgoing councillor Ellen Woodsworth.

“If we don’t put a halt on the development of condos in the DTES, the value of the land is just going to skyrocket,” she said. “I actually wanted the city to buy that whole block up and develop it (as social housing).

“The city needs to put a hold on this kind of development until an area plan is in place … and we know what’s needed in the community. We keep sliding further and further back if we allow the land prices to soar. We’re definitely going to see more people homeless.”

The protest was advertised as “Occupy Condos, Boycott the Pantages,” the latter a reference to Sequel 138, another condominium development a block east, under construction in the former Pantages Theatre. That development has come under attack from community organizers, who say it will also cause rising prices.

But the developer of Sequel 138 said that it is hypocritical to single out developments like his, when the same activists have also rejected privately owned developments with more social housing.

Marc Williams, who had been expecting a potential squat of the Pantages due to the labelling of the protest, said that the activists do not represent the neighbourhood as they claim.

“These people are a minority within a minority,” he said. “They want us to believe that they represent the ‘community’. They do not. They never have.”

Williams said that the neighbourhood includes thousands of residents who want to see improvements in public safety and housing standards and are supportive of new development projects in the area.

“They want a much better way of life,” he said. “Unlike the small (but noisy) minority within a minority, they do not want the status quo.

“Only drug dealers want the status quo. Their prey are easy to find. Only drug dealers, and certain ‘activists,’ believe in the ghetto.”

Williams disputed the allegation that developments like Sequel 138 will displace poor neighbourhood residents.

“Our project has zero displacement,” he said. “No one lives on site now. You cannot displace what was never there.

“Sequel does not push out the poor. We welcome them. We are building for them. Gentrification is complex and pejorative. Some take it as a sign of progress, and others as a threat to the status quo and the ghetto.”

Woodsworth said she takes issue with references to the DTES being a “ghetto.”

“I’m shocked people would make those kinds of comments,” she said. “He clearly wants to provide some kind of affordable housing, but he knows quite well if he puts it in that area, it’ll put up land values.

“There’s no ghetto in the Downtown Eastside — there’s quite a bit of mixed housing (already). It’s a community where low-income and First Nations people can go. (Losing that) is a tragic consequence if we don’t hold onto what we’ve got and not let prices be driven up by this kind of developer.”

The coalition behind the occupation was recently renamed to focus on development issues across the DTES. It was formerly called the Stop Pantages Condos Coalition, but organizers said that gentrification is an issue from many other developments as well as Sequel 138.

The construction site occupation is only blocks from the Woodwards building, where activists squatted a derelict building for a week in 2002. When police forced them out, they established a three-month tent city which significantly raised the profile of affordable housing and homelessness in Vancouver, and contributed to the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) landslide victory in the 2002 civic elections.

Photo by David P. Ball.

Photo by David P. Ball.

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