Saturday, November 16, 2013

The future of the DTES: SFU City Conversation November 21, 2013

As readers of this blog are only too well aware, recently I have been deeply troubled by a proposal by the City of Vancouver's Planning Department to change the zoning for a 40 block area in the heart of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside within the DEOD zone. The zoning change would essentially discourage the development of any condominiums, by requiring that any projects in excess of 1 FSR comprise 60% social housing and 40% rental housing.

To my mind, continuing what is currently a run-down, low income ghetto with a high prevalence of illegal drug use and crime for the foreseeable future, seems completely misguided and contrary to good community planning.  I therefore asked to meet with the General Manager of Development Services, Brian Jackson, and Kevin McNaney, Assistant Director of Planning to better understand their rationale for this position.

During our brief discussion, Brian and Kevin advised that they were proposing this initiative, with input from the City's Housing Department, in order to limit an increases in land values in the area. This was necessary, in their opinion, to facilitate the development of new social housing projects in the absence of Federal and Provincial funding.

When I questioned just how many projects might be viable under this scenario, (other than the Atira project which had been approved by Council the previous week at what I considered too much height and too much density), they responded that a study by Coriolis Consulting confirmed that under certain circumstances, projects would be economically viable.

These circumstances included 6 storey wood frame construction, no parking requirments for either the housing or any commercial space, and no requirement for Development Cost Levies. While there would be no need for capital subsidies from either the Federal or Provincial government, there would be a need for limited ongoing provincial operating payments.

Brian added that he has had enquiries from 6 to 8 non-profit groups who are interested in proceeding with developments on this basis; and for this reason, he is confident that the zoning will work and result in the desired housing.

In response to my questions, Brian and Kevin re-confirmed that this proposal is not being directed by either the City Manager's Office or Council. Nor is it a response to pressure from local community activists like Wendy Pedersen, Jean Swanson or Ivan Drury. It is what the Planning Department thinks is the right thing to do to facilitate the development of social housing without capital funding from senior levels of government.

Response from Brian Jackson

Subsequent to this meeting, Brian sent me a note summarizing the City's position which I am setting out below: (Reprinted with Brian's knowledge and authorization)

Hello Michael,
Thank you for coming to see me this week to outline your concerns with respect to the city’s emerging directions on the DTES plan.  Michael, as you know, the Downtown Eastside is a community of neighbourhoods, each with a distinct and interconnected role. As part of the DTES plan, City Council directed us to look for ways to accelerate and implement the DTES housing plan (2005), to maintain the stock of low-income housing and replace deteriorating SROs with self-contained social housing that have kitchen and bathrooms. Despite their inadequacy, SROs are, for many, ‘the last resort’ before homelessness. This is consistent with the positive outcomes achieved in the recent “At Home/Chez Soi” study.


The DEOD is one part of the Downtown Eastside, about 15% of the geographic area of the DTES, with 16 full blocks and 5 partial blocks, where many residents are  facing significant affordability and health challenges. It is a sensitive part of the community that is facing  significant development pressure and it has the potential to change very quickly, which may negatively impact the most vulnerable residents. The City wants the neighbourhood to change for the better without creating more homelessness and where the changes result in improved housing options for many of the existing residents.   We want, and need, more private investment in this area of the DTES.

For the DEOD, the emerging directions from the local area plan are for any additional residential development over 1FSR (the current outright density), the additional units must be 60% social housing and 40% secured market rental. Therefore home ownership would be allowed in the DEOD for those who wanted to develop under the base zoning,  but extra density above 1FSR can only be achieved by constructing rental housing only, with an emphasis on non-profit rental, where affordability is maximized. These emerging directions would create a special innovation zone to bring equity and imagination to the table to assist the city in increasing social housing and affordable rental for low and moderate income households.  The emerging directions rely on changes in land-use policy to enable new market rental housing, affordable rental housing and social housing, but the city cannot meet the need for deep affordability in these new units without a senior government subsidy, either through equity or rent supplement.  We will be monitoring the success of this policy every few years to determine its ability to achieve our housing targets both throughout the DTES and the DEOD in particular.

We are currently finalizing the housing chapter of the plan, and rechecking our assumptions necessary for the successful implementation of the DEOD policy.  This should be finalized in the next couple of weeks, and then will be discussed with the LAPP committee and then the general public prior to Council’s consideration.

The key issue?
Unfortunately, time did not allow a more thorough discussion of what many regard as the key issue related to the downtown eastside.  Namely:

Should the DTES remain a low income precinct, essentially 'walled off' from the rest of the city, with a high concentration of social housing, low income rental housing, and an extensive array of community services?

Or should it become a more 'normalized' community, albeit for predominantly low-income households, with a broader range of households and housing choices (including ownership housing) along with increased commercial activity and an improved physical appearance?

After the meeting I came across the Vancouver Sun account of the Federal 'at home' study which is looking at how various housing options are impacting those with mental illness. The conclusion was generally what I expected.

Those living in scattered housing around the city, rather than in various 'congregate' forms of housing in the DTES or elsewhere in the city appear to have benefitted the most.

This is the approach taken by Toronto's Street-to-home program and something I have been advocating as an alternative to the construction of larger, expensive social housing projects.

The study also noted that many want to get away from the DTES.

This conversation is by no means over. On November 21 at 12:30, I will be participating in a SFU City Conversation with Ray Spaxman at Harbour Centre to discuss the future of the DTES and the local area planning process. Ray has been working with the Building Community Society in the DTES and was co-chair of the local area planning process. Everyone is invited.

I am also hoping that between now and January, when Vancouver City Council will consider the Local Area Plan for the area, others who want to see a successful regeneration of the DTES will also speak up. I know that Council will particularly want to hear from local residents since, as one Councillor has stated, why should she listen to people like me who do not live in the area?

From the responses I have received from my original Vancouver Sun op-ed, I know they are many others out there who feel as I do, including the residents and businesses represented by the Inner City Neighbourhood Coalition whose comments are set out in an earlier blogpost.


Joe Just Joe said...

Thank for Michael for bring this issue to light. I am disappointed that staff have let this plan get to this stage. They did nothing to ensure the committee was welcoming to all. Intimidation was immediate and drove away some good people.
All this plan will do is ensure that not a single non-subsidized project gets built in the dtes. Waiving DCLs will ensure all taxpayers continue to subsidize the few projects that do end up going ahead.
This is the very definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over and somehow expecting a different outcome.
Keeping the DTES the way it is will certainly better the residents lives. *rolling eyes*

Anonymous said...

As always, the question remains is what would the parameters be for social housing in Oppenheimer Park. If It's 40% market rental plus social housing that comes in the form of rent control to make DT living an option for people making 12-14 bucks an hour (as opposed to welfare rates), then at least on the surface, this looks like a good approach to supply low income housing for responsible working people. Not sure if it's all that attractive to a developer though, although the city did say they were consulting developers when devising a new plan for the DTES.

Nathan Edelson said...

Michael, as always, I admire your courage and your ability to speak articulately about what you believe to be true.

However,from my perspective, the Downtown Eastside needs a significant amount of good quality and well run low income housing. Otherwise many people will become homeless and others will become isolated without needed social and health supports.

Without senior government funding the City needs to take extraordinary measures - even on a temporary basis - similar to those that are proposed.

That said, I also agree with you (as do staff) that low income housing needs to be provided elsewhere in the City and the region. It would be helpful if you could put some creative thought and your considerable support into finding creative ways to bring the senior governments to the table and to encourage neighbourhoods throughout the region - perhaps including or near Deering Island - to not just tolerate, but to welcome low income housing.


Michael Geller said...

Thanks Joe Just Joe. Thanks Anonymous...the social hsg will NOT be for people earning 12-14 bucks an hour. It will be for those in greatest need...the homeless, mentally ill, drug/alcohol addicted and dual diagnosis.

Nathan, thanks for the kind words. I have a solution for you. Do what Toronto street-to-home did and lease 2000 scattered apartments around the city. Provide support services which can be phased down over time.

But stop building 140 unit projects like Marguerite Ford house, etc. It's wrong...we know it's wrong. And stop concentrating all the poor in the DTES.

Nathan Edelson said...


I know you have been a long time advocate of rent supplements and under some conditions - for a limited period of time - they can be helpful. But ultimately - as was the case of increases in shelter allowance for people on social assistance - rents rise to match the increase in the supplements.

Purpose built affordable and low income rental housing is ultimately as are increases in the social assistance rates and minimum wage if we are to end homelessness in a humane way and also provide housing for moderate income works and their families so they don't have to commute more than an hour each way while someone else looks after their children.

Cookie Monster said...

Hi Micheal

I'm a land owner in the area. The plan for me is both bad and good as far as i can tell but I'm not an expert. My opportunity to build a 2.5 FSR will be lost in this plan and that seems criminal to me. The last thing I expected was this. I have a viable plan based on this opportunity and have been taxed based on this opportunity for the last decade of my ownership. I am shocked that it may be taken away from me and wonder what i and fellow land owners can do about it. I've watched the city and BC housing build 5 and 6 FSR projects in the area, designated for a 2.5 now an 8.2. They have ignored requirements the private sector have for parking, they have ignored environmental cleanup and they have ignored requirements for commercial on grade. With their new "projects", they have done as they please. In doing this they have further shifted the demographic by excluding commercial on grade and not allowing private development. I find this difficult to understand. As for the large projects they have been building, my thought was they were doing this in anticipation of similar scale private sector projects that would be allowed, as well and i thought that was responsible of them,
but didn't like the lack of commercial on grade.

In reading the plan I noticed that the M-1 zone on Hastings Street has been given a 7 FSR. Is it just a coincidence that Peter Wall and Bob Rennie and other developers bought this small strip up with winning lottery numbers giving them a huge lift on the value of their land while the grass roots small people have their land essentially devalued?
That's a planned community it seems.
Robin Hood is a little out of control to say the least and he has partnered with the very wealthy which doesn't seem very merry for the low or the middle class at the end of the day.

This business of a 60 40 appears to be an opportunity for arranged marriages, with land owners essentially forfeiting control to the dominant spouse. Very unusual! It will be an interesting experiment that i wish i wasn't part of.

The good?? A crumb was hidden in the plan for commercial buildings!! We can build up to a 1.5 FSR previously a 1 FSR. This should be 2.5 or 5 and the tax base should not shift to underdeveloped sites . This would stabilize and create more employment in the area. As long as the taxes are repressed along with the land values, as this plan appears to be doing, small business owners will be saved for slaughter for a later date! If the taxes are not repressed its a land expropriation statagey and another very dark day for the middle class.

I have been asking land owners if they had been consulted about the plan or if they knew about its content,
all Ive asked said no to both questions. Who are they consulting with ? Are we going to have any grassroots development or just BC housing and its non profit partners and big developers saving the people. Having galas and fund raisers and giving themselves awards for selling off our country and housing the fall out. The centralization of social housing has merrit and faults. But it seems to be the only real agenda in the plan and shouldnt be. Very tough job writing this plan, very sad they arent up for the job. I agree with Nathan Edelsons comment on housing needs, but what about the rest of the community??????????????????????????
BEWARE OF THIEVES WITH PENSIONS is what my father always told me.

Nathan Wiens chapel arts

long live the chapel