Published in The Tyee | February 21, 2013 | Circulation: 340,000 unique monthly readers
Vancouver’s housing crisis worsened in the Downtown Eastside in the past year, according to a report released yesterday by an activist housing group, with fewer and fewer Single Resident Occupancy (SROS) rentals within reach of many residents’ budgets.
The survey comes in the wake of media attention paid to daily picket line facing clients and staff of yet another upscale restaurant opening in the neighbourhood. Looking out over Pigeon Park, a longtime gathering place of low income people, activists believe that the arrival of ‘Pidgin’ and businesses like it have bumped property values beyond the reach of some residents, a process known as gentrification.
At a chilly street-corner press conference yesterday morning, members of the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) unfurled a large map of the neighbourhood, with rental building icons colour-coded by price to prove their point. They also renewed their demand for the city to purchase and dedicate 10 buildings a year for affordable social housing.
“We want the city to take immediate action to stop renovictions and the upscaling of hotels — the invisible and covered-up losses of affordable housing stock for low-income people,” said Ivan Drury, an organizer with CCAP who co-authored the 2012 Hotel Survey report with Jean Swanson.
“The biggest problem with gentrification — which is a combination of cultural gentrification that happens with high-end restaurants and boutiques, and condos being built — is that the price of land goes up. It makes it an impossible place for low-income people to remain.”
‘Who’s being displaced?’: Councillor Jang
The report, titled “We’re Trying to Get Rid of the Welfare People” (a quote CCAP attributes to a hotel clerk during their research), found that 426 rooms in the area shifted “from being affordable to being unaffordable to people on welfare, disability and basic pension,” based on social assistance rates of $375 for lodging.
But the report’s findings were questioned by City Councillor Kerry Jang, Vision Vancouver’s point person on housing issues.
“Who’s been displaced?” Jang asked, when approached for comment on the survey. “Any new development being built is in buildings that were warehouses or empty to start with. Where’s the displacement?
“I just don’t buy that. It’s a very extreme, one-sided perspective of [CCAP], for 100 per cent social housing only. It makes no sense; 100 per cent of any type of housing doesn’t work, either rich or poor.”
Jang said that the City has, in fact, purchased several buildings — as well as requiring developers to include affordable units in their plans — and he argued that the conditions of SROs are improving as the province buys and renovates buildings. He added that an inventory of housing conducted by the City disputes CCAP’s claims of displacement.
“There has been no loss in housing in the Downtown Eastside,” he said. “In fact, it’s increased, and there are several hundred units on the way, of both social and supportive housing.
“I disagree with [CCAP] on so many levels… The Carnegie [Community Action Project] has always been very strident against anybody living in the Downtown Eastside unless they are poor. They’ve made it clear to me they want a 100 per cent low-income neighbourhood that is subsidized forever. But mixed communities work best — mixed buildings, mixed communities, mixed neighbourhoods. We’re beginning to see that change in the Downtown Eastside… There’s no longer this class warfare that’s gone on too long — and ghettoized the neighbourhood.”
‘Housing is key’: DTES resident
For long-time Downtown Eastside resident Sandra Czechacze, who several years ago moved from a hotel SRO into subsidized Native Housing, the claims of displacement and increasingly unaffordable establishments are spot-on. She said that her own move was the “best thing that’s happened” for her, and added that safe, affordable housing should be a right for everyone — but too often unattainable.
“Housing is a very, very big thing,” Czechaczek said. “When you can wake up in the morning and you’re happy to be where you are, it’s connected to your health, and to your whole life.
“At the end of the day, you have to go to your house. If you live where there are rats this big, cockroaches and bedbugs, do you really want to go home to that? So housing is key.”
Czechaczek said she is not opposed to rich and poor living and working side-by-side. But with the number of higher-end businesses like Pidgin and Cartems Donuterie — which sells premium, handmade, locally sourced donuts — moving into the Downtown Eastside, she hopes there can be a balance between their needs and interests.
“Slowly, low-cost stores are going out the window,” she said. “Who can afford a $3 donut? That’s crazy! Not the people who live here. What about us?
“The way I see it, the rich people are just pushing us out. I feel like we’re losing our dignity because we can’t afford these places. You can’t even go into some of these stores because they’re watching, just because of the way I’m dressed. If I was wearing a three-piece suit right now, and high heels and a big hairstyle, they’d be just catering to me.”
Dollars and donuts
While he disputes the argument that poor people are being pushed out of the Downtown Eastside, Jang admits that Pidgin’s $5 pickles and Cartem’s $3 donuts may not be within the reach of many.
“Quite frankly,” he chuckled, “there (are) restaurants in this town that even I can’t afford to eat at.
“It’s always about providing a range — that’s what we’re aiming for, not only in the Downtown Eastside but through the entire city. When you have all one thing, either all-poor or all-rich, it creates microcosms of despair or callousness. You can have $3 donuts and $0.90 donuts. I don’t buy $3 donuts, quite frankly. I can buy them for $0.60, or wait ’til 5 to buy a dozen for $3.”