What the new LAP means for the low-income community

On Saturday, March 15, 2014, City Council voted to approve the new DTES Local Area Plan (LAP), with 25 pages of amendments, after three days of speakers. Over 80 people took the stand to speak in favour of CCAP and/or the Low-Income Caucus position.

The 30-year plan is a blueprint for bringing social mix to the Downtown Eastside low-income community.  In 30 years, if the plan is implemented, most residents will be condo owners or middle income renters, not low income people.  Thousands of low-income people could be displaced with no guarantees of affordable housing in other parts of the city.  The sense of community, belonging, and acceptance that low-income people have now could be gone.  The community that fights for social justice and dignity for low-income people could also be gone.  But it wasn’t all bad news and we do have hope to keep struggling for our precious DTES.

Here’s CCAP’s analysis of what was passed in the DTES LAP, and what it means for the low-income community.

1. The “no-condo” zone

One of the most debated sections of the LAP called for a no-condo zone in the heart of the DTES, known as the Oppenheimer Area. The proposal was that 60% of all new housing in the Oppenheimer District would have to be social housing, and 40% market rental.

dtes base mapThe 60/40 zoning rule faced a lot of opposition from developers, real estate speculators, some business owners and some homeowners. Speaker after speaker at the Council meeting stepped forward to defend the proposal. We were told before the Council meeting that the proposal might not pass, but it did.

The 60/40 zoning rule means that property values will be lower than if the area was zoned for condos. Because zoning out condos holds property values down, the rule will act to keep rents lower in privately-owned Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels. It will also make buying land for more social housing less expensive in the Oppenheimer Area than other areas. To say it simply, it will slow gentrification down a bit. CCAP considers this zoning rule to be a victory that the low-income community fought for in the LAP process.

2.    The definition of “social housing”

IMG_0489The problem with the 60/40 zoning – and the LAP in general – is that social housing is not really social housing. CCAP, the Low-Income Caucus, the Social Housing Alliance, and many other groups working on housing argue that ALL social housing MUST be available to people who are on welfare, basic pensions, and/or have very low incomes. The LAP puts forward a new definition of social housing. For the Oppenheimer Area, Strathcona, the Hastings Corridor, Gastown, Kiwassa, and part of Thornton Park, one third of all “social housing” has to be at welfare or basic pension rate, which is now $375 and known as “shelter rate.” The other two-thirds can be at any rent. Without government funding, it is very likely that rents for two-thirds of “social housing” will be much higher than the shelter rate. This is why people are saying that despite the zoning proposal, only 20% of new housing built in the Oppenheimer Area will actually be “social housing.”

For the rest of the DTES and the city, one third of all social housing units must be at HILS rate, which is about $850 for a bachelor apartment in the neighbourhood right now. In Victory Square, developers can build 10-storey buildings filled entirely with high-end rental units and no social housing.

When we walked in to City Hall when the DTES LAP hearings started on March 12th, there was no requirement for any social housing unit in the DTES to be at shelter rate. The definition listed shelter rate as a “target” for one third of social housing units. The change from “target” to a requirement was probably made when the speakers’ list ended on March 15th because so many people had opposed the City’s “target”.

This new definition of social housing will slow escalating land values – and gentrification – a bit. But it will mean that two thirds of the housing that the City considers to be “social housing” will not be available for people on welfare, basic pension or very low incomes.

It also means that out of the 4,400 social housing units that City plans to build in the next 30 years, only 1,467 will be at shelter rate. For every one affordable social housing unit built, ten unaffordable units will be built. We need 5,000 SRO rooms replaced and housing for 731 homeless people right now in the DTES. A mere 1,467 units over 30 years is not nearly enough.

The City is planning to displace at least 36% of the low-income people who now live in the DTES to other areas through rent subsidies and “scattered-site” social housing. None of the social housing in any other neighbourhoods has to rent at shelter rate.  This doesn’t even account for all those who are continually being priced out of the neighbourhood due to gentrification and the subsequent rising rents. It is very unclear where the City expects these residents to go – except out of the DTES.

3.    SROs

One of the most disappointing parts of the LAP is that the City might be subsidizing the gentrification of SRO rooms. The City is offering subsidies to “upgrade” 1,000 SRO units. If kitchens and bathrooms are added to units, two existing rooms might have to be combined to make one new unit. This would be fine if enough social housing was being built to replace the rooms that will be lost and if Council was considering a municipal rent control program.

Alice in bed-bug SRO wonderland. By Diane Wood

Alice in bed-bug SRO wonderland. By Diane Wood

Yet none of the upgraded SRO units are guaranteed to be at shelter rate. The City has only set “targets” for affordability in SRO rooms. The targets are one third at shelter rate, one third at no more than the average SRO rent (which is $450 now) and one third at above- average SRO rents. Without any form of rent control and no requirement for any units to be at shelter rate, the City could be paying for the upscaling of SRO rooms and the gentrification of the neighbourhood. City Manager Penny Ballem said that the City might consider putting conditions in place for the subsidies, but nothing is in writing yet.

CCAP has been monitoring the rising rates in SRO rooms and the loss of low-income housing, for six years. CCAP has been urging the City to reform the Single Room Accommodation (SRA) bylaw to make converting SRO rooms from low-income to higher income housing illegal. The LAP proposes no such changes. The City is “considering” tying rent increases to the rooms/units rather than the tenants, which would offer a bit of protection against rent hikes, but nothing is confirmed because this requires changes to the provincial Residential Tenancy Act (RTA).

CCAP recommended that Council reform the SRA bylaw to ensure that landlords and the City are accountable for SRO conditions.  Council did not add this recommendation to the LAP. The LAP proposes to offer a one-time $40,000 grant to a non-profit for tenant/landlord mediation, but this amount will not even cover the cost for one full-time staff person and overhead. The LAP does commit to an informal tenants’ rights education program, but gives little – if anything – in terms on making education translate to rights.

4.    Unit size

 The LAP will mean that most of the social housing units built in the next 30 years will be only 250 square feet. If new housing is built in the Oppenheimer Area, the social housing units will be squeezed into 40% of the floor area, with the rental units taking up 60% of the building area. Remember that the zoning for new developments in the Oppenheimer Area is 60% social housing and 40% market rental. This means that even though 60% of the units will be social housing (with only 20% at shelter rate), the rental units will take up 60% of the building space.

The LAP also creates a new category of housing: “micro-dwelling units.” The minimum unit size in the DTES before the LAP was 400 square feet, which could be “relaxed” to 320 square feet if certain amenities were built. CCAP will continue to fight for liveable unit sizes for social housing.

5.    Aboriginal Healing and Wellness Centre

IMG_0494Many of the speakers at City Hall called for creation of an Aboriginal Healing and Wellness Centre, with intergenerational housing on top, to be run by aboriginal people but open to all.  As a result, Council passed a motion to “direct staff to report back to Council with a strategy aimed at engaging needed partners in an Aboriginal Health and Wellness Centre.”  This could be a victory but people will have to monitor it carefully and continue to fight for it. Low-Income caucus members are continuing to work towards the Centre and ensure that it is built and run by Indigenous People and not bureaucrats.

Conclusion

The LAP is a recipe for displacement for the low-income community. That said, without the tremendous show of force over the course of the LAP and at City Hall, the plan would surely have been worse.  Although the LAP itself is passed, the recommendations that deal with business gentrification and the bylaw amendment hearings are still to come. The fight for the DTES is far from over, but the strength and fierceness that the low-income community and its supporters brought to City Council will resonate for years to come.