Vancouver city council recently voted to move ahead with a Historic Area Heights Review. Essentially a condo towers package, the plan allows for an increase in building heights to nine storeys without an application for approval, and 12 to 15 storeys in Chinatown South and along Main Street, with an application. The lowincome community of Chinatown falls within the Downtown Eastside, located just one block away from Main and Hastings, one of the poorest intersections in all of Canada. The low-income neighbourhood is a diverse one -with Chinese seniors, residential school survivors, pensioners, people with mental and physical health barriers, women and trans people in the sex trade, families with children, people living with HIV, artists, and alcohol and drug users all living as neighbours.
It is abundantly clear that facilitating condo towers in Chinatown would have a negative impact on low-income Chinatown and Downtown Eastside residents. The real estate development associated with increased tower heights would drive property speculation, and hence rents, up. This would displace not only residents, but also small stores, including grocery stores, that the surrounding community relies on every day.
A group of urban researchers wrote in February in The Vancouver Sun that the processes of gentrification pushing out the poor have been welldocumented over the past 30 years: "One new investment significantly increases the probability of a second nearby, and then a third, in a land market like Vancouver's with high levels of demand. Pretty soon, the poor are priced out."
In his presentation to city council, Dave Diewert of Streams of Justice described how "Displacement can result from the dominating discourse of urban revitalization, the dull bureaucratic policies of rezoning, and the tedious procedures associated with granting development permits for gentrifying projects. As banal as these things are, the human displacement they produce is a disruptive, destructive and traumatic experience for individuals and the community as a whole."
The impact of "economic revitalization" is already felt in the western side of the Downtown Eastside where developments like Woodward's, Ginger and V6A have contributed to an increase in rents as well as led to the opening of expensive cafés such as Caffe Brixton, shops like the Land and Peking Lounge, boutiques including Storm Salon, and restaurants such as the London Pub. In these high-end businesses, low-income residents are priced out. Meanwhile, according to a recent study in the Downtown Eastside by the Carnegie Community Action Project, the number of singleroom occupancies with rents of $500 or more increased by over 200 per cent, and more than half of all the privately owned rooms are at rents higher than a person on welfare, disability or a pension can afford.
One of the driving logics of gentrification in the Downtown Eastside is "social mix." Yet every single time "social mix" is proposed in a middle-class or rich neighbourhood, it is rejected. No one wants a social housing project, a detox centre, a methadone clinic, a food bank in their backyard. So why should a low-income neighbourhood accept this logic? Simon Fraser University professor Nicholas Blomley explained that "the language of social mix serves to justify giving the right to space and property to those with wealth, and taking it away from those who are poor. Social mix is a strategy used to expand hierarchical structures and mask asymmetrical power ... It is the wolf in sheep's clothing."
Mayor Gregor Robertson said that he supports the "compromise" to increase the heights because it is what Chinatown unanimously wants. Robertson is wrong and he knows it. A majority of attendees at the public hearings spoke out strongly against the plan and over 1,000 people signed a petition against the height increase. Many of these were low-income residents of Chinatown, including the Chinatown Residents' Committee and 25 smallbusiness owners in Chinatown.
Robertson and city council are deliberately perpetuating a false divide between the Downtown Eastside and Chinatown, when in fact the divide is between low-income residents and capitalist interests. According to Sid Chow Tan of the Association of Chinese Canadians for Equality and Solidarity Society, Chinatown businesses might have been pushing for the condo towers plan but most Chinatown residents were never informed or consulted about the city's plans. Before the public hearings, Ivan Drury of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council organized a month-long door-to-door campaign and found that Chinatown residents were "overwhelmingly against the plan without first guaranteeing the security of their housing, food, businesses, and sense of community that includes affordability, language rights, and low-income, family and seniors services."
Jean Swanson, award-winning human rights and anti-poverty advocate of the Carnegie Community Action Project, introduced a report to city council detailing the demographics of over 1,000 residents in Chinatown. She explained, "Around 64 per cent of Chinatown residents are lowincome. There are at least 10 private single-room-occupancy hotels and two major cheap apartment buildings in Chinatown that would be vulnerable to rent increases from the ripple effects of condo towers."
So what might explain the steamrollering of any facade of democracy and accountability at city hall? A recent article in the Mainlander detailed how one of the city's main researchers and authors of the original 2008 Historic Precinct Height Study, Ray Spaxman, expressed concerns about the plan to increase building heights "overlooking social implications" but admitted that "there is a lot of pressure from developers." According to a report by Monte Paulsen in the Tyee, election funds for Mayor Gregor Robertson's Vision Vancouver party came primarily from corporations, with real estate developers making the largest donations.
In the Downtown Eastside, the glaring hypocrisy of prioritizing profit over people is obvious. Property owners at the controversial Woodward's development, including billionaires Brandt Louie and Jim Pattison, have received tax exemptions ranging from three years to 10 years.
Across Canada, the largest corporations are making more profits and paying less in taxes. A 2011 study by economists at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that the largest 198 companies in Canada were making 50 per cent more profit and paying 20 per cent less tax than they did a decade ago. Despite the popular conception about Vancouver being some socialist utopia, the global accounting firm KPMG named Vancouver as the world's most businessfriendly tax climate. Simultaneously, Vancouver has received the dubious honour of having the world's least affordable housing market.
I was at the city council hearings when Homeless Dave, one of the first speakers, warned that "If city council overrules the people I will call for radical action and uncivil disobedience against this economic violence. If city council overrules the people, then the neighbourhood of the Downtown Eastside will become a little Egypt or a little Tunisia." His speech was met with cheers from the gallery. He could be proven right, with frustration, anger and resentment at the undemocratic political elite and greedy corporate elite growing. As renowned United States historian, author and Second World War veteran Howard Zinn reminds us, "Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience."
By Harsha Walia, Vancouver Sun