Advocates call for ‘social impact’ assessments of new Downtown Eastside developments

Published in The Tyee | June 12, 2013 | Circulation: 800,000

The city should require low-income “social impact assessments” of all new businesses and condominiums in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, similar to neighbourhood reviews when addictions recovery centres or shelters are proposed for wealthier neighbourhoods, suggests a housing advocate.

Low-income residents, “not bureaucrats,” should be in charge of such a process, said BC Social Housing Coalition spokesperson Dave Diewert at a rally yesterday, organized by the Anti-Gentrification Caucus. The group is a participant in the city’s Local Area Planning Process (LAPP) for the neighbourhood.

“If you try to put a recovery centre in Kits, or a treatment centre in any other neighbourhood of the city, they’ll have a social impact study,” said Diewert. “But when they put in condos here, or high-end restaurants, there’s no social impact study on how it will affect low-income people. Those things need to be in place.”

More than 200 protestors marched from Main and East Hastings St. to BC Housing’s offices, presenting a 3,000-signature petition calling for more social housing and a moratorium on condominium development in the most impoverished parts of the DTES.

Volunteers canvassed street corners and parks, and knocked on hotel room doors in many of the neighbourhood’s Single Resident Occupancy hotels, to collect signatures, organizers said.

Impacts of new development are already thoroughly reviewed, the city councillor responsible for housing told The Tyee, and the area planning process exists for that reason.

“This is exactly why the (Local Area Planning Process) was set up. It says to everyone, all stakeholders, here’s your chance at the table. If we weren’t serious about that, we wouldn’t have started this process three years ago,” said councillor Kerry Jang.

For addictions outreach worker Chris McPartlin, a former longtime resident of the neighbourhood, the process has not given the community a sense of being heard at city hall.

“These decisions are just being made arbitrarily, without that much consultation,” he told The Tyee. “I would like to see actual cooperation with the people who have called this a community for so long. For decades, this was the ‘scary part of town’ — socially unacceptable, stigmatized. But you know what? This is the one place in the Lower Mainland where there is a big sense of community.”

McPartlin said he’s witnessed the “gradual downsizing” of community over the past decade, adding that he fears that once condominium residents move into the area, they will demand the city and police “clean up” undesirable residents — taking away one of the few places where people can safely access services like Insite’s needle exchange, addictions counselling or other low-income agencies.

“How long will it be before the owners of these condos start complaining to city hall: ‘I don’t like leaving my front door with my little child and seeing this type of activity going on. Get the police down here, isn’t that stuff against the law?'” he said. “I can already picture the conversations.”

Low-income participants in the planning process released an alternative plan for the struggling neighbourhood, which would see the city cede to long-standing demands for 10,000 new units of social housing.

For David Hamm, a LAPP participant and president of Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), the problem is that upscale condominium developments continue to raise prices in the DTES, while the city’s consultation process is unfolding too slowly. It will not release a draft report until at least the end of this year.

“What we’d like to see is them listening to us, and getting on board buying properties that need to be bought; they own property that could be used too,” Hamm told The Tyee, just before stepping into a LAPP committee meeting. “They can’t help but hear us.

“But are they going to do anything about it, or have they already made up their minds? Are they just trying to keep us occupied?… We are well aware things could go that way, (but) I try to stay openminded. We are there in good faith, and hope they are too.”

Meanwhile, a months-long picket protest outside the upscale Pidgin Restaurant in the neighbourhood continues. Two activists have been arrested, including Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) executive committee member Kim Hearty last week.

Some business-owners and the Gastown Gazette blog have claimed the protests are linked to a string of crimes in east Vancouver, including arson, vandalism and theft, for which a group calling itself the Anti-Gentrification Front took credit online.

Jang said “extremists” and “special interest groups” on any side of the debate should not direct the work of the area planning process, which he hopes will produce a draft report before the end of this year.

“It’s been an arduous process for all participants, on all sides,” Jang said. “The aim is to provide a balanced neighbourhood, one where nobody who’s poor is displaced, but also where there is opportunity for people to move in as well… We’re not about extremes. Some people are very frustrated with the extremists; some think we’re not extreme enough.”

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