Clash of the Classes: Downtown Eastside gentrification fight muddied by willful misunderstanding


When Downtown Eastside residents took to City Hall last month to protest the condominium project slated for the 100 block of East Hastings, the debate over the neighbourhood’s future became muddied by willful misunderstanding. Instead of acknowledging the community’s gentrification concerns, the condo’s proponents have tried to suggest these residents are supporting the status quo. So let’s clarify what exactly the community wants.


Before City Hall signed off on the 97-unit Sequel 138 project (which will include 18 units of social housing and sit right across the street from the city’s safe-injection site), the Vancouver Area of Network Drug Users (VANDU) released this statement of opposition: “Gentrification destabilizes the drug market and that makes it more unsafe for the most vulnerable people on the street.”


The Sequel 138 developer Marc Williams and the Province editorial team ran with the comment and went on the attack. Both suggested that VANDU and the community activists who flooded the city council and development permit board hearings were somehow defending the neighbourhood’s current woes.


“[The protesters] oppose a new condo project in that blighted neighbourhood because, get this, it would disrupt the illegal drug trade,” wrote a condescending Province editorial; ending with, “The best thing that could happen to the Downtown Eastside is already happening—it’s being cleaned up.”


VANDU’s comment was based on the fact that the influx of middle-class people to the Downtown Eastside may push drug dealers out of sight, but they won’t be out of mind for marginalized people struggling with addiction. The development will just sweep the drug market underground— making drug use more dangerous in terms of how users obtain and ingest drugs.


Vancouver has been a leader in North America in changing the way we look at addiction, not as a personal sin but instead as a health issue. So why do some still think that displacing it will solve this health crisis?


Despite what the Sequel 138 developer would have you believe, Downtown Eastside residents have proposed their own comprehensive vision for a healthy neighbourhood. In 2010, the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) released Community Vision for Change in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside—a two-year project that included the input of 1,200 neighbourhood residents.


The report outlines 12 action items that include: a moratorium on market housing until the neighbourhood’s housing crisis is solved, increasing the welfare rates, developing an economy for low-income residents and improving neighbourhood safety (such as having the police target predators instead of victims).


These are reasonable requests. You might not agree with this vision, but it’s misleading to suggest the community isn’t asking for specific changes. It’s important to go back to this document because over the next year we’ll have a lot more condo projects going before City Hall. The fight around gentrification is only going to get more heated.


We know that the increase in market housing in the Downtown Eastside is pricing out low-income residents—only seven per cent of the neighbourhood’s Single Room Occupancy (SRO) rooms are renting at $375 (the welfare shelter rate) or lower; down from 12 per cent in 2010 and 29 per cent in 2009. And we know no one is supporting the status quo. So perhaps we should start listening to what the community is actually proposing.


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