Special article to the Downtown East online edition, March 23, 2013
Daniel Boffo is a young developer born into a family real estate development company far from poverty and the streets.
That’s why, at last month’s public information meeting about the condo project he wants to build on the block between Oppenheimer and the UGM shelter, I was astonished to hear him compare himself to people on welfare living in nearby SRO hotel rooms.
Herb Varley, a young Nuu-chah-nulth and Nisga’a man who lived in a hotel down the street for two years, told Boffo that hotel residents are there because they have no choice. “No one wants to live in hotels,” he said, “but the other option they have is the street. If you build a condo here, it will push up land and rent prices and you will push those people out on the street.” Daniel Boffo didn’t flinch. He said that people don’t get to choose where they want to live; “I want to live in a mansion on the water and I don’t get to do that.” Then he said that if low-income people want to be comfortable in other places besides the Downtown Eastside they should get out there and stop being prejudiced against higher income people.
Is Boffo’s attitude a coincidence or is it a necessary pose for a private developer operating in the DTES Oppenheimer District (DEOD)? Although this is a relatively small condo building, 4-storeys with 24 units and a total of 3 social housing units at welfare rate, the Boffo condo at 537 E. Cordova threatens to have a far greater impact on the low-income neighbourhood than someone unfamiliar with the building rules and culture of the DEOD might first think. The truth is that the displacement threat posed by this development is far greater than any possible perks it might bring, and the only way to stop its displacement effects is to stop the project.
Why the DEOD is special
The DEOD is a 16-square block area in the heart of the Downtown Eastside which was identified by planners in the early 1980s as a protected area for low-income people, a refuge from real estate investors. These planners employed a provision seldom used in Canada called “inclusionary zoning;” setting rules that any development in the area must include at least 20% social housing. They came up with the 20% number specifically because at that time 20% of people in the city were in “core need” of housing, meaning they were paying more than 30% of their incomes to rent and living in poor conditions.
The effect of the DEOD’s inclusionary zoning has been that more than 70% of residents are low-income (on welfare, disability or pension); it is the locus of low-income services, health care, and public spaces; there are more privately-owned SRO hotels still affordable to low-income people than anywhere else; and… there are no condos.
Affordable housing and low-income services also create a unique culture in the DEOD. Public health officer Ted Bruce explains that the single biggest health-consequence of poverty is not the direct impact of malnutrition or moldy ceilings; it is the stress of social insecurity and anxiety of social stigma. Life in the DEOD offers a break from some of that stress and anxiety and that break is contingent on keeping the area majority low-income. The Carnegie Community Action Project did a 2-year study of low-income residents of the DTES which found residents value this unique sense of comfort and belonging for people who don’t feel comfortable in the hyper-commodified spaces of much of the rest of Vancouver. This comfort and belonging is not to be sneezed at, and it is threatened by the Boffo condos.
The DEOD is changing
For 30-years the DEOD’s restrictive zoning laws have been enough to hold back the speculators, investors and developers but over the past couple of years, the real estate investment climate in the DEOD has been changing. First came developer Marc Williams’ proposal for condos on the 100-block of East Hastings. Although it was unanimously opposed by low-income people and groups in the community, the city Development Permit board granted Williams a permit in the spring of 2012. His condo project is still limping along and has still not met conditions of that permit to start building, even with public-purse support from BC Housing. But Williams’ effort has emboldened other, more powerful, developers and investors to see the DEOD differently.
With dollar signs in their eyes, some speculators and developers are seeing an opportunity to fulfill the investor-101 rule to buy-low and sell-high. There have been property combinations on the 200-block of East Hastings; along north-Main there are condo tower proposals stalled and waiting on a planning process to finish; another 9-storey condo project is proposed for 150 E. Cordova on the border of the DEOD; the Globe and Mail report condo-king Bob Rennie bought his son a start-up art gallery near the Astoria; the city is supporting a “high-tech centre” at the site of the former cop-shop; and there is this new Boffo condo proposal near Oppenheimer. The message is that 20% social housing development rules are no longer enough to hold off market development and real estate speculation.
Early effects of the Boffo condos
Even before being approved by the Development Permit Board, the Boffo condos are contributing to a runaway train speculation and investment climate in the DEOD. This sensationalist sales pitch from Colliers for a currently low-income apartment building one block east of the Boffo building (sold in November 2012) does the anti-gentrification analysis for us:
“The subject property is strategically located on the northwest corner of Heatley Avenue and East Cordova Street in Vancouver’s historic Strathcona neighbourhood.
“To the north, the Powell Street area is quickly becoming a restaurant hub with such hot spots as Fat Dragon, Big Lou’s, Two Chefs and a Table, the Railtown Cafe, and an exciting new venture soon to open at 261 Powell.
“One block west, at 557 East Cordova, Boffo Properties has submitted an application to build a four-storey, 29-unit residential building that will greatly assist with neighbourhood change.
“To the south, Chinatown is in the midst of an economic revolution with over 350,000 SF soon to be under construction. Thousands of condo owners, tenants, and new retailers will breathe life into one of Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhoods.
“Further east, starting just three blocks from the subject property, an estimated 500,000 SF is in the works by some of Vancouver’s premiere developers.
“Situated only a few blocks from Chinatown and Gastown, and just minutes from the downtown core, 679 East Cordova is well-positioned to capitalize on the flurry of investment activity in East Vancouver.”
What will happen to the low-income residents of this apartment building down the street from Boffo’s building? And what about the 36 residents of the BC Rooms hotel across the street? Will security guards step up harassment of the homeless people who stay at the UGM shelter? Will the cops move along old-timers hanging out in Oppenheimer Park? What will happen to the precious sense of belonging that is so important to low-income residents?
Development Permit Board won’t turn it down, but they should
Currently City Hall does not have any regulations to stop rents from going up in hotels or apartments in hot speculation areas, to keep storefront shops friendly and accessible to low-income residents, or to stop security guards from harassing people who live their social lives on the streets of the DEOD.
Until there are regulations to stop Boffo’s project from hurting the existing community, the Development Permit Board should turn down the permit to build when they meet to discuss it on March 25th. The 537 E. Cordova condo proposal does not meet the spirit of the area’s development guidelines, which are meant to protect the low-income community from the predictable and already visible effects of condo development. The city should stop all development in the DEOD until inclusionary zoning provisions can be brought up to date to protect the vulnerable low-income residents from the displacement effects of gentrification.
But the lesson already over-learned by Downtown Eastside low-income community members and advocates is that by the time a Development Permit or Rezoning Application reach the chambers or meeting rooms of City Hall the only delay is in bringing down the rubber stamp. That’s why, for the first time in years, there will not be an organized contingent of Downtown Eastside residents heading up to City Hall for this hearing. This absence should not be confused for compliance or indifference. We need to come up with another strategy to protest a city planning apparatus that defends the interests of the Boffo’s developer class against the residents of the city who are most vulnerable to violent displacement. And we need a plan to take the matter of stopping these destructive projects into the hands of the affected community ourselves.
Until the existing community can be protected from the destructive effects of the Boffo project, it is irresponsible and reprehensible for the City to allow it to go ahead.