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Why developers don’t like the Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan

Plan does not go far enough to solve neighbourhood issues, but a progressive zoning proposal will help control skyrocketing land values

by Tamara Herman

Why developers don’t like the Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan

Also posted by tamara:

This op-ed is a response to two opinion pieces about the DTES Local Area Plan that appeared in the media last week. The Vancouver Sun published a piece by Shelley Fralic that many DTES low-income community members found deeply offensive. The Province published a piece called "Deplorable Downtown Eastside doesn't need $1-billion more for warehousing poor." The piece featured Michael Geller, who has been relentlessly criticising the work of anti-gentrification organizers and repeatedly calling the DTES a "ghetto" throughout the planning process. This piece is directed to readers of the Sun and Province.

Why developers don’t like the Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan: Plan does not go far enough to solve neighbourhood issues, but a progressive zoning proposal will help control skyrocketing land values

The new Local Area Plan for the Downtown Eastside has caused such a stir that you might think it was proposing drastic measures to solve the neighbourhood’s growing housing crisis.

If one reads between the lines, one sees the City of Vancouver is being condemned for a plan that will do little to address the housing and income issues that most of the neighbourhood’s residents face.

Some developers, high-end business owners and critics say the plan will over-invest in creating housing for residents who are undeserving of public funds.[1] Yet many low-income residents say the plan makes too small an investment in a housing crisis that has garnered international attention.

Media reports estimate the cost of the Local Area Plan as $1 billion. The City is only contributing $50 million over 30 years on social housing. This amounts to much less than the value of the City’s gift to a new Art Gallery, which is estimated at $200 million.[2] The senior government and developer contributions to the plan are far from confirmed.

Of the 4,400 social housing units proposed over 30 years, a maximum of 1,467 units will be affordable to people on social assistance and basic pensions. These numbers fall short of the City’s own objectives in its Downtown Eastside Housing Plan, which calls for the replacement of 5,000 Single Room Occupancy hotel units. 

The numbers show that alarm about an over-investment in housing is unfounded. Yet there is one measure in the plan that has developers and real estate speculators justifiably worried.

At the heart of the controversy is a new zoning rule for the 21-block Oppenheimer District that would require 60% of all new housing to be social housing and 40% to be market rentals.

Michael Geller said that the zoning rule would fortify a “poverty ghetto” that will “warehouse the poor.”[3] Many people who live in the Downtown Eastside describe their neighbourhood not as a “poverty ghetto” but as a community with specialized services, amenities, stores and social networks that are a lifeline for thousands of the city’s most vulnerable residents. The City’s own Social Impact Assessment echoes this perspective.

The plan’s housing numbers hardly constitute a “warehouse” for the poor. If the plan is implemented, higher income people will outnumber low income people. For every one unit of housing built at social assistance and basic pension rate, ten more unaffordable units will be built. Meanwhile, 3,350 new social housing units will be scattered in other neighbourhoods for people who want to leave the Downtown Eastside.  

Why, then, is the plan eliciting so much backlash? What the zoning proposal will do is prevent more condominiums from being built in a lucrative area. This will keep property values somewhat in check in a community that has seen average land values rise 303% since 2001.[4]

Rising property values have meant that rents in Single Room Occupancy Hotels have skyrocketed, jeopardizing the housing that serves as the last stop before homelessness for over 4,000 people.  The zoning proposal will act as a modest control on escalating rents and slow the flood of people being priced out of the neighbourhood. The rule will also make land more affordable, which makes securing more social housing in the future more likely. 

Displacing poor people, on the other hand, will not solve the housing and income problems they face. Nor will it diminish our shared obligation to ensure that all people are housed. It will simply move the problems – and the people – to another neighbourhood where the services, amenities and community ties that low-income residents have built and depend on do not exist.  Displacing low-income people to communities without these assets can be harmful to their health and wellbeing, result in social conflict and be ultimately costly for the public purse.

In a similar vein, claims that bringing an influx of wealthier people into the Downtown Eastside benefit the poor are also unfounded. Research shows that social mix often leaves lower-income residents worse-off. Higher-income residents tend to be better equipped to lobby for their interests, and low-income people lose their services, amenities and stores as land values rise.[5]

City staff used common sense, evidence and a best practice approach when it drew up this zoning proposal. Let’s be clear: The zoning rules put the profits of real estate investors and developers at risk in a 21-block radius.  These interests groups are pressuring Council to drop the proposal. But if City Council bows to pressure from profiteers when the Local Area Plan goes to Council on March 12th, the low income community in the Downtown Eastside will be obliterated.

The Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) is a project of the board of the Carnegie Community Centre Association. CCAP works on housing, income, and land use issues in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) of  Vancouver. CCAP has supported low-income members of the Local Area Planning Process Committee throughout since the planning process’ inception. For more information:


[5] August, Martine. Negotiating social mix in Toronto’s first public housing redevelopment: Power, space, and social control in Don Mount Court. Forthcoming in the IJURR Symposium on “Negotiating Social Mix in Global Cities”, edited by Gary Bridge, Tim Butler, and Patrick LeGales.




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