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Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories – March 30, 2012 – The Low Income community won at least a partial victory on Wednesday when the city passed a set of Interim Rezoning Guidelines for the Downtown Eastside. These guidelines, originally meant to last for a year, were supposed to provide breathing space for the DTES while the Local Area Planning Process (LAPP) committee, co-chaired by the DTES Neighborhood Council, found creative ways to protect the DTES from an ongoing condo invasion and preserve it as a low income neighborhood.
At the last minute, however, the city altered several provisions in the potential legislation, forcing low income community members to go to city hall to challenge them. In the ensuing hearings, which spanned two days, the low income community won at least a partial victory and demonstrated its power and commitment.
Perhaps the most crucial issue for low income community members was a proposed new definition of social housing that would have halved the number of welfare rate units going into a given new development. The DTES' inclusive zoning laws require that every new development have at least 20% social housing, but this has never previously been defined. The interim rezoning guidelines would have changed this, defining social housing as a set of units, half of which are available at welfare rate ($375) and half of which could be upwards of nine hundred dollars and thus completely unaffordable for low income DTES residents. Suspiciously enough, the new definition was essentially copied and pasted from the proposed condo development at the former Pantages theatre. If it passed, it would have made the fight against this gentrification bomb in the heart of the DTES all the more difficult.
The response from the DTES community was an overwhelming presence at city hall to demand that this definition be either sent back the the LAPP or, ideally, that it be immediately amended to correspond to one hundred percent welfare rate. Groups as diverse as the Carnegie Community Action Project, DTES Neighborhood Council, Power of Women, Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, Gallery Gachet and the Vancouver Renters' Union all sent representatives. On the first day alone, over a hundred people crammed the gallery and the lobby. More than thirty low income and allied representatives made presentations to city council.
DNC Board Member Harold Lavender explained that gentrification was “creating a fantastic amount of stress, anxiety and despair” among people like him who had only $906 a month from their disability pension. “The definition of social housing is a fundamental issue. The community needs to be heard. The median income [in the DTES] is only $12,000 a year, very far below the low income cutoff (about $21,550 a year).”
Karen Ward, who lives in the new social housing at Woodwards, told Council, “Reducing social housing from 20% to 10% will destroy our community.” She explained how “social mix is a code word for gentrification. As soon as I leave [my home] I face obstacles. I can’t afford an $8 sandwich. I’m followed by security guards. Feelings of exclusion pervade our very souls.”
In the end, the result was at least a mixed success for the low income community. The definition of social housing was sent back to the LAPP to consider, where it will almost certainly be amended. By doing this, not only did the city stop a devastating measure that would have given a huge financial incentive to developers, but it also provided extra leverage for the low income community's fight against the Pantages project, since city council has now explicitly voted down its proposed social housing scheme.
There were, however, other concerns with the proposed legislation brought forward by the low income community that were not heeded by city council. One of the biggest of these were exemptions to new rezoning guidelines for Chinatown and Victory Square, lowering barriers to potential gentrification in these areas, where several condo projects are already in the pipeline.
This being said, the hearings showed just how powerful the DTES community is when fighting for its own interests. Speaker after speaker passionately stated just how proud of their community DTES residents were and how much they desired to see it strengthened, not displaced by a wave of new, expensive market housing. Krista-Dawn Kimsey told Council that her children “are excited to walk on Hastings St. because of the generosity of people toward them....The sense of welcome and neighbourliness is one of the most beautiful things about the neighbourhood.” Wendy Pedersen read Victoria Bull’s letter to Council: “The DTES is not really a horrible place. It’s a community. What you’re doing is gentrifying a neighbourhood completely without us in it.”
Thanks to these and other impassioned voices from the DTES Low Income Community, the LAPP will have a chance to make a sustainable plan to preserve and strengthen the neighborhood. In the meantime, the fight continues against gentrification. The Pantages Project is coming up for a hearing at the Development Permit Board on April 23 and the community is already mobilizing to fight it. On April 10th at 11:00 am there will be a rally and town hall in the Carnegie Theatre and there are more actions on the way. The low income community has shown its determination: it will not be pushed out of the DTES without a fight!