Gentrification and the DTES Chinese Community: By King-mong Chan

Read this article in Chinese here: 華人社群在市中心東端與昂貴化的關連

Ming Sun, 439 Powell St.
Ming Sun, 439 Powell St.

Not much is known about how gentrification is impacting the Downtown Eastside (DTES) Chinese community. There is still much that I have yet to learn but I hope to bring out what I have observed so far.

Many housing activists are already connecting gentrification to lessening the chance of building the social housing we need, as well as the displacement of low-income residents (regardless of ethnicity) through renovictions and other means.

Two significant case examples involving members of the Chinese community have recently come to light. The first is the situation of the Ming Sun Society building at 439 Powell St. Demolition of the neighbouring building (at 451 Powell St.) in July caused the displacement of eight low-income seniors at 439 Powell St. due to safety and access concerns. Most of those displaced were ethnically Chinese. The low-income housing still has not been restored, and developers would like to redevelop the entire 400-block threatening this low-income housing permanently.

The second case example is just starting to become public. Low-income seniors (majority of which, if not all, are ethnically Chinese) at the 82-unit Chau Luen Tower (325 Keefer St.) are fighting rent increases above 40%. The landlord’s application to the Residential Tenancy Branch to raise rents is based on the reason that the rents are “significantly lower than the rent payable for other rental units or sites similar to and in the same geographic area.” To “prove” this, the landlord then compares Chau Luen to gentrified buildings in the private market in the neighbourhood.

This sets off huge alarm bells because it shows that non-profit housing is not protected from market forces and that the same threats of economic displacement can actually occur in non-profit buildings. One tenant has reportedly already moved out due to this process; others have talked about having to move.

Private owners will continue to capitalize on gentrification by raising rents to the level that the market can bear. By this reasoning, non-profit housing societies would then be able to apply for dramatic rent increases and justify the increase simply by comparing their units to similar units in the private market. This would only further worsen the existing housing crisis.

Gentrification not only affects one’s housing but also impacts one’s access to food and low-income shops. Members of the DTES Chinese community regularly shop at low-income shops such as Sunrise Market and Army & Navy. As various areas of the DTES face redevelopment pressures, the continued existence of such shops for the low-income community are in jeopardy. Further, as gentrification continues to cause the low-income community to pay an increasingly larger portion of their already meager incomes toward shelter due to ever rising rents, the need for charity will continue to increase. This would mean even longer food-lines, even for seniors, or not enough food.

These are only some of the stories that I have gathered through my work in the community; I am sure that there are many other struggles that the DTES Chinese community faces due to the forces of gentrification. These struggles are also worsened by factors such as language barriers. Indeed, there is a huge need for more community organizers to work with members of this ethnic community (and other ethnic minorities as well) because the issue of market forces affects everyone and everyone can be part of the fight for social justice.

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