To Councilor Jang and Councilor Meggs

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June 5, 2009

To Councilor Jang and Councilor Meggs,

We understand you are meeting with some business owners in Gastown to discuss the behavior of the tenants of the Dominion Hotel. We hear from tenants and management of the Dominion that business owners have been aggressive and rude to the Dominion tenants. One of our organizers, Wendy Pedersen, spoke to the Mandula business owner and her friends two days ago. This is what Wendy said:

Tenants have a historical right to be here and make up 70% of the population of Gastown.

“Gentleness and acceptance” is needed to help those who have been marginalized

We can show we care by asking questions and getting involved to get more supports in place if needed as this can reduce conflict and make life better for everyone.

The business owners got very angry and aggressive and said “How dare you come here on your bike without a business card and setting up an appointment. These people should not be allowed to live here. They are on the slow track. All they care about their drugs. They are ruining our businesses. They should get a job.”

The whole issue is a good example of why the city should re-examine the DTES Housing Plan’s goal of “revitalizing” the DTES by encouraging more market housing. The theory is that richer residents will have more purchasing power and enable businesses to have more customers. This theory seems to be mixed in with a leftover 19th Century poor-bashing one that if you mix the rich with the poor, it somehow uplifts the poor or teaches them better behavior.

In fact, what happens is not a social mix but social exclusion. Even though 70% of the people who live in Gastown have low incomes, they are not considered part of the power structure or community there. At CCAP’s mapping sessions we asked folks what the most uncomfortable and unsafe places in the DTES were. Gastown was listed often in this category because (quotes from Downtown Eastside residents follow):

“They are not really a neighbourhood. They are from the suburbs who don’t live here – and then drive away.”

“They are mainly a commercial centre that is for tourists and not for people in the neighbourhood. High end stores that cater to tourists. I don’t think the business owners are sympathetic to the DTES or our interests.”

“Gastown. Sinister night crowds and swarms of people waiting to get inebriated; their perception of the environment breeds contempt and legitimizes violence against the people here.”

“If you try to walk and look into stores, you are trailed by a rent-a-cop and asked to move along.”

To be fair, the DTES Housing Plan calls for the housing to be affordable and rental which wouldn’t be creating such a large divide in the community. But this is not happening. The vast majority of the new housing in the DTES are condos, which attract a more upper class owner and exaggerate the income divide in the DTES. For several years the city has been talking about creating a rate of change mechanism to control condo development, but no action has been taken.

The kafuffle at the Dominion is not the only example of better off people in the DTES trying to get rid of long time residents who are poor. It happened when Van Horne residents wanted to get rid of the line-ups at the Dugout; when some Strathcona residents opposed having the proposed new library serve the street population on the North side of Hastings; when some objected to arts and crafts store for low-income women at the Rice Block; when the WISH drop in was opposed and now a new site for United We Can on Alexander Street is being opposed by some residents at The Edge.

To us this means that the situation of current DTES residents needs to be stabilized before new condos are allowed to come in. We will be releasing our 2009 hotel survey soon. This survey will show that at least 694 more SRO rooms have increased their rents to over $425 a month in one year! Even though the city has provided shelters, the province has bought hotels, and this year some new social housing is opening up, gentrification is pushing up rents in cheap hotels, the last resort before homelessness.

Gentrification includes more than simply replacing cheap with more expensive housing. It also creates a different power structure in neighbourhoods (diminishing the voice of low income people), changes the businesses and services that low income people need for survival, and creates rising property values which increase rents and gradually push poorer people out. Gentrification changes the whole feel and comfort level in a neighbourhood. People with health and addiction issues who feel acceptance in the DTES now (the first step for recovery) could feel discriminated against and stereotyped by the new residents.

CCAP thinks that the city can solve this problem. In the fall we will present you with a report, based on input from over 1200 low income DTES residents. It will be a roadmap to stabilize the existing DTES community, nurture businesses that are not in a bubble and that genuinely serve everyone and go on to develop it into an amazing low income neighbourhood that is affordable, safe and healthy for its residents, which Vancouver can be proud of and many people will visit. We hope you will consider these points in your future decisions about the DTES.

Sincerely,

Carnegie Community Action Project Organizers