Learning our lesson at city hall

King-mong Chan speaking at 611 Main condo rezoning hearing

A smaller-than-usual group of Downtown Eastside residents trekked up to city hall in February to speak out against two major condo rezoning proposals. One week it was a 17-storey tower at the corner of Keefer and Main, where the 90%-off everything store is. The next week it was a 16-storey tower right next door to where the insurance place and the Vietnamese sandwich shop are. We went up there to speak out because the two buildings will not bring anything but gentrification and displacement to the low-income community in Chinatown. There were not many of us because this is becoming an old story and a predictable one at that.

The 17-storey tower includes 11 units of social housing that will rent at welfare shelter rate at least for a few years. The councillors unanimously voted in support of the project while fawning over the great accomplishment of housing 11 people at welfare rate. We objected that these 11 units will not begin to make up for the rent increases in the 388 nearby privately owned low-income-affordable rooms that will likely follow in the wake of the great tower of market rate condos and boutique shops.

Some councillors did ask about gentrification and displacement threats. Mayor Robertson asked the city planning staff whether the DTES LAPP Committee had discussed any ways to stop displacement. The LAPP Committee had discussed some easy ways to stop gentrification and displacement, including: put in development controls to hold down land prices; use rent controls to stop rents from going up between tenants; and don’t grant development permits without zero-evictions policies in surrounding low-income hotels. But staff didn’t say any of that. Instead they said the LAPP Committee wants higher levels of government to fund social housing, which is true but does not have anything to do with combating the effects of the 17-storey tower that was under application.

Council unanimously passed the application for the 17-storey tower.

One week later an even smaller group of us went back to city hall for the public hearing to rezone the next-door lots for a 16-storey condo tower.

The 16-storey tower does not include any social housing at all so council could not wax on and on about what a great accomplishment has been done with some miniscule amount of social housing.

With the 16-storey tower city staff recommended that the Community Benefits from the development (about $1.2million paid to some public use) not be decided until after the DTES local area plan was done. Staff explained that some people on the LAPP Committee thought the benefits should be discussed along with a broader plan and not just used as a single project. CCAP did not want the condos at all but some others on the committee thought “deferring the benefits” would be a compromise.

City council flipped out. Raymond Louie publicly chastised the staff for daring to bring the recommendation forward at all. He challenged them to say when council had ever instructed them to defer any part of any Chinatown development. Louie said he wanted the $1.2million to go to benevolent society heritage building revitalization in Chinatown and explained, “it’s not just about housing, there are others who are in need in the Chinatown area as well.”

Clr Carr asked if staff has any tools to stop low-income housing losses through rent increases and one staff person responded that the LAPP is looking at amending the SRA bylaw.

No one from staff or council brought up the main issue raised by low-income people on the LAPP Committee, that giving money to heritage revitalization without rent protections would be directly funding renovictions.

Finally the 16-storey tower was also approved by council, unanimously, and with the public benefits going entirely to heritage building revitalization. There was no motion to protect the hundreds of low-income housing units in those buildings – which could be directly displaced by renoviction – nor the hundreds of units in other buildings which will be indirectly affected by gentrification.

City Hall is continuing their determined plan to displace the poor from Chinatown and they’re deaf to any research, argument, or truth that might get in their way.