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July 25, 2012
City council is poised to accept the recommendations in a new report on Vancouver’s Chinatown going to council on July 25, 2012. Carnegie Community Action Project recommends the plan be deferred to be coordinated with the rest of the DTES community, particularly as key aspects of the plan, especially housing for low-income people, hinge on cross-sector cooperation.
The Chinatown Neighbourhood Plan is rooted in 11 “Vision Directions” which treat low income people as though they don’t even exist in the neighbourhood. They are implicitly referred to as impediments to economic revitalization and development.
The low-income community is mentioned in when the report tells us that the median income in Chinatown is $17,000 a year; that 67% of the population is low-income, and over half of the residents live in single-person homes. (p. 11) It sums up the demographic sketch by explaining the “neighbourhood has been and continues to be predominately low-income.” And it asks, in a way that seems to set the question for the rest of the report to answer, “How will the existing low-income community and new residents define a new vision for the neighbourhood?” Unfortunately this question is not answered. Nowhere are low-income residents’ voices audible nor are their interests represented.
The explanations of issues and visions for each section of the report are totally missing any sort of low-income community perspective. And worse, the record of actions already taken and recommendations for future actions consistently overlook the needs of low-income people or contribute to their displacement from Chinatown altogether.
The Heritage and Culture section is focused on a “Society Building Strategy” that aims at the heritage and real estate renovation of Benevolent Society owned buildings that will also help with the gentrification of Chinatown. Two key tools have been used to accomplish this “revitalization” of privately owned buildings. The “Transfer of Density” heritage incentive policy helped renovate Bob Rennie's Wing Sang building into an exclusive art, real estate office, and now museum space. And 5 out of 11 society owned buildings have received $100,000 each to support their “rehabilitation plans” (p. 19)
One of these buildings is the Asia Hotel, owned by the Mah Society. The Mah society recently informed its 34 low-income tenants that they will all be evicted sometime this year to allow a major renovation. The society has been tight lipped about what the rents will be in the building after the renovations are complete. Has the city directly funded a major renoviction of a society owned hotel? Are there any measures the city is using to stop renovictions from the hotels in Chinatown under the guidance of this report?
The 2005 Downtown Eastside Housing Plan's section on Chinatown says to “recognize housing objectives when implementing heritage policies in Chinatown, and vice versa.” (2005 Housing Plan, Pg 56, section 9.3.4) This is suspect because the AECOM consultant report on economic revitalization in Chinatown and commissioned by the City of Vancouver, written in November 2011, recommends easing SRA bylaw restrictions so that societies can get rid of tenants because “rents that can be charged for the ground floor retail spaces and the market orientation of the retail tenants will be influenced by the residents living upstairs.” (AECOM Project Report, “Vancouver Chinatown Economic Revitalization Action Plan.” November 2011, Page 9.)
The AECOM report also lists, under the category of “threats” to revitalization, “The presence of population attracted to the social service facilities on Hastings Street,” (Page 45) And finally, the report argues that it is important to renovate heritage and SRO buildings despite restrictive city guidelines that will not allow for the demolition of SRO rooms because, “additional pedestrian activity, particularly in the evening hours, will dilute the influence of the underprivileged population.” Imagine how it feels to be underprivileged and know that some business people think your presence has to be “diluted.”(Page 53) This report clearly sees the displacement of the low-income community as a precondition to and also a positive consequence of the economic revitalization of Chinatown. A lot of the recommendations of this report pop up in the Chinatown Neighbourhood Plan with amendments only to the language that has fallen out of fashion for Vancouver planning because it is too strong and outwardly poor-bashing. The ideas, though, appear throughout the city report in a shallow code.
The Built form and Urban Structure section celebrates the Historic Area Height Review's success in attracting to Chinatown between 600 and 700 new condo units and their residents to support the business, street and shopping climates (p. 12). It is not concerned with the effects of these condo developments on land and rent prices for tenants in hundreds of privately owned SROs or rental units, nor on the effect of a sudden massive increase in higher income residents on the cultural and social assets of the existing low-income community.
The Land Use: A living and working community explains “Chinatown has traditionally been an affordable neighbourhood with a mix of rental, SROs, non-market housing and limited owner occupied market housing.” And it explains the DTES Housing Plan calls for the replacement of “existing SROs with better quality housing targeted to low-income and aging residents” and also, at the same time, to “encourage market housing with a focus on affordable market rental and ownership housing.” (p. 33)
How does this report deal with this policy contradiction of both protecting the existing low-income housing stock (until it can be replaced) and encouraging market developments that threaten to erode that low-income housing stock through gentrification? It provides actions to encourage market development and defers the low-income housing action plan to staff “working on implementing the Housing Plan” through the DTES LAPP committee.
The Housing Plan says that 1 for 1 SRO replacement in Chinatown is unlikely and to expect for replacement to take place in other DTES sub-areas. (pg. 56, 2005 HP) Replacement then, rather than destruction, requires that the city ensures that the housing is replaced before it is lost, not just that low-income housing is offloaded to another area due to economic expedience and dropped. The Chinatown Neighbourhood Plan is plotting the destruction of SRO hotels before there is even a plan for their replacement.
The Public places and streets section. It calls for the expansion of throughways with a rail line and to open up the alley to market development in order to make the area distinctive (competitive) and attractive to “modern” entrepreneurs and consumers. It specifically targets the “clean up” and “safety” improvement of the streets, sidewalks and alleys in and around Chinatown. A pilot alley revitalization project in “Market Alley,” which runs parallel to Hastings and Pender between Main and Carrall will set the “tone for commercial revitalization in the future.” The planned “upgrade not only increases the recognition of this unique historic place, it also sets the tone for commercial revitalization of Market Alley in the future.” (page 39) Again there is no concern for the low-income communities who currently call these alleys community spaces. There is no concern for the gentrifying impact of connecting the Market Alley to Hastings St. where hundreds of low income people live.
The Community and economic development and Economic revitalization strategy focus on attracting new entrepreneurs, cleaning up and tenanting storefronts, and developing a more tourist friendly heritage based and walkable Chinatown.
The active storefronts program has already given incentives and support to six new businesses in Chinatown. The only one mentioned, as a model candidate for the program, is the high-income and non-resident oriented Bao Bei boutique restaurant on Keefer near Main St.
The conclusion of the report is as telling as the introduction. The challenges, taken from the AECOM consultant group's report, include:
Where are the low-income people? Why is the city not recognizing the assets and legitimate tenure of the low-income community? This report could represent a serious step backwards in Downtown Eastside planning.
For more info contact: Ivan Drury (604-781-7346) or Jean Swanson (604-729-2380)