photos: The Keefer Block development is one of the newest additions to Vancouver's rapidly-upscaling Chinatown. While its arrival will bring new affluent residents and shoppers to the area, the slow retreat of housing affordable to the neighbourhood's low-income

Housing advocates decry Chinatown's Yaletown turn

"They're not going to be able to afford the new units, definitely, and there's pretty much no social housing for them."

-King-Mong Chan, Chinatown community organizer

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“Located at the corner of Main and Keefer Street in historic Chinatown, a new community emerges that juxtaposes the honest traditional architecture ofthe past with remarkable modern design of today.” So says the photo caption accompanying an architectural illustration of the Keefer Block development on its promotional website helmed by Solterra Development Corporation.

While the Keefer Block is located in Chinatown’s historic heart, it’s clear that new occupants of the commercial-residential condo tower won’t be from around there. The Seymour Street presentation centre for the new condo tower is notably located on the cusp of upscale Yaletown.

Ongoing change in Chinatown is concerning to people like King-mong Chan, who remembers visiting his grandmother in Vancouver’s Chinatown as a child. Now in his mid-20s, Chan is working in his grandmother’s old neighbourhood as a community organizer with the Carnegie Community Action Project.

He has been organizing Chinatown residents to challenge developments in the neighbourhood for over a year. If Chinatown isn’t protected, he says an important cultural resource and bridge between generations could be lost.

“If [Chinatown] changes to the new Yaletown, then the youth will have less and less connection to Chinatown,” he says. “It might cause lost opportunities for other people to connect back with a Chinatown that is current, organic, and living, and not just a tourist or historical place.”

Last month, Chan and several allies presented Mayor Gregor Robertson with a 1,200-signature petition.The petition supported a temporary halt on new Chinatown market developments until residents had a chance to review them. It also called for specialized zoning in Chinatown that required 50 per cent low-income units in future market developments. But the mayor refused to comply.

Chinatown Economic Revitalization Strategy. “And when he says that he actually means only design.” To Chan, the mayor cares more about how the neighbourhood looks than who can afford to live there.

Chinese clan association buildings are a rare bastion of affordable housing, Chan adds—seniors living in them pay less than $500 a month. “If something happens to them and they’re no longer inhabitable, then [seniors] are going to have to move out of the area,” he says. “They’re not going to be able to afford the new units, definitely, and there’s pretty much no social housing for them.”

The slow retreat of low-income housing stock for seniors, Chan says, is something the mayor “doesn’t want to deal with.”

Melissa Fong spent much of her childhood in Chinatown during the 1980s and ‘90s visiting her father’s family clinic where the Keefer Block stands now.

Today she’s researching Chinatown redevelopment strategies and their implementation across North America as part of a PhD thesis from the University of Toronto. She’s also the president of the board of directors of Centre A, the Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

“It is unfortunate that the need for social housing is being downplayed,” she says, “because much of Chinatown, and the history of Chinatown, is working-class.”

Fong also notes that community resistance to Chinatown development doesn’t paint a full picture of the neighbourhood. “Some of the older generation would never support Chinatown residents are also operating from a history of oppression. “When some people were fighting for height increases and re-zoning, that was a response tothe disinvestment that happened for so many years,” she explains. “They saw this [new development potential]as potential for reinvestment.”

The situation in Vancouver’s Chinatown isn’t unique to this city. Other Chinatowns across North America have started to disappear, Fong adds.

“It’s important Vancouver’s Chinatown is recognized for its distinction as a place that was and is known as a place to find work or start a business for a diverse group of racialized and marginalized people,” she says.

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