Wednesday, March 5, 2014

More on the DTES from the National Post

On Monday I received a polite email from Brian Hutchison, a journalist with the National Post. Could he speak with me about the DTES?

I was familiar with Hutchison's writing since he's one of the few journalists who has written about the excessive waste of government money spent on renovating buildings like the Marble Arch, the Pennsylvania Hotel and others in the DTES. The Vancouver Sun's Jeff Lee is another.

I had a lengthy and frank conversation with Hutchison and shared with him my concerns about the planning process. We discussed the experience with Marguerite House, a City of Vancouver social housing project that has been described as a war-zone because of the City's desire to concentrate too many formerly homeless or hard-to-house residents in a building that's too large. I told him I feared this project was a microcosm for what might happen in the DTES under the current planning proposals.

Yesterday I received another email from the National Post. This time they wanted to take a photo of me in the DTES. I knew this would probably lead to no good....but I agreed. :-)

The photographer Tijana Martin was a young creative who, with her piercings and outfit, might well have been a friend of my daughter Claire.  She was very, very diligent and when I complimented her on how hard she was working she shared that this was her first National Post assignment, and didn't want to disappoint.

What was interesting is that during the 20 minutes that she was taking photos on three corners of Hastings & Main, I could watch various drug deals taking place. Maybe I'm getting old, but I'm disturbed to see this happening, especially when some of the clientele are people without proper shoes, and obviously suffering from mental illness.

At any rate, here is Brian Hutchison's story, and the accompanying photos by Tijana. I suspect she didn't disappoint her client!

Brian Hutchinson: City proposal ignores ‘deplorable’ reality of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside
Tijana Martin for National Post

Vancouver's Downtown Eastside area is not a wonderful community, developer and architect Michael Geller dares to say in response to a new city proposal.

 “What I’m saying is not allowed,” notes Vancouver developer and architect Michael Geller. Not allowed, because his observations and opinions about the largest urban slum in Canada run contrary to the official view peddled by Vancouver City Hall.

“We’re supposed to say that the Downtown Eastside is a wonderful community,” Mr. Geller explains. “But it’s deplorable.”

You don’t get that impression, reading the city’s latest proposal for its perennially distressed, highly subsidized neighbourhood. This is the big one, years in the making, some 200 pages long. The Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan was released last week, and calls for $1-billion — yes, $1-billion — in new spending, most of it for 4,400 new social housing units to be built over 30 years.

Well, forget it, says Mr. Geller. That kind of cash is never going to come, not from the provincial and federal governments who are supposed to put up half, with the rest from the city and other sources. The government cupboards are bare. B.C.’s deputy premier and minister responsible for housing, Rich Coleman, offered the Vancouver Sun this blunt response to the city’s new DTES plan: “We don’t build ‘social housing’ any more.”

The long-anticipated plan falls off the mark in other ways, says Mr. Geller, a former city council candidate. It was influenced — “highjacked,” he claims — by special interest groups, especially those whom he calls the DTES “poverty activists.” For reasons of their own, they want a neighbourhood exclusive to the poor and the marginalized. A ghetto, one might say.
Examine closely their objectives. The new neighbourhood plan is meant to “ensure that the future of the Downtown Eastside improves the lives of those who currently live in the area, particularly low-income people and those who are most vulnerable which will benefit the city as a whole.”
Who are these vulnerable persons and groups? “Aboriginal communities, children, women, youth, drug users, homeless, people affected by mental illness, disabled, seniors and sex workers.” Many would argue that any resident or visitor in the DTES can feel vulnerable, it’s that bad. Regardless, the goal is back-assward. In the real world, a neighbourhood’s success depends on its residents, not on community plans and social engineers.

Like some other notable Vancouverites, including left-leaning former mayor Mike Harcourt, Mr. Geller says he’s fed up with the area’s criminal activity, especially the open drug peddling and drug use. The DTES has its share of law-abiding, productive residents, to be sure. It’s home to many of the city’s hard-working poor and their children. But the fact remains, and it’s plain as day, the place is also a quasi-sanctioned outdoor shooting gallery filled with cut-throat drug dealers, and addictions, despair and disease.

The city’s response is the same, year after year. Spend more public funds attracting the afflicted, and those teetering on the precipice. Build new subsidized housing, purchase and renovate 100-year-old tenements at ludicrous prices, stuff the mentally ill and “hard to house” into them, and have them fend for themselves in the mean streets outside. Pretend to ignore the predators who lurk everywhere and sell everything, including the flesh of young girls. Celebrate the “diversity.”

The new plan doesn’t diverge. It is “filled with platitudes,” says Mr. Geller. It fails to address the neighbourhood’s core problem: Addictions-related activities and crime. Instead, the document carries on about the DTES’s “complex ‘local economy’ related to the survival livelihoods of at least half its residents who are dependent on income assistance and pensions. Activities that make up this realm include self-employment through micro-enterprise, binning, vending, bartering and volunteering for income supplementation.”

Tijana Martin for National Post

“There is too much concern to keep [Vancouver's Downtown Eastside] as a low-income community,” developer Michael Geller says.

It’s bafflegab. Worse, says Mr. Geller, the plan recommends a strategy to exacerbate the neighbourhood’s troubles. “There is too much concern to keep [the DTES] as a low-income community, and to exclude any new condominium development in certain areas,” he says. What the area needs is more investment from all corners of society, and from people living there.

But the plan would, for example, isolate a particularly squalid piece of the neighbourhood, which it identifies as the Downtown Eastside Oppenheimer District, effectively blocking any new, multi-family private residential development from the area. Proposed rezoning would promote social housing only.

Another example: Old tenements that are presently in terrible condition would be purchased from their owners, renovated, and the tiny rooms rented back to people on social assistance. This is already common practice in the DTES, and it’s very expensive and inefficient. Approximately 900 hotel rooms — most of them around 350 square feet — have already been purchased and are targeted for renovation and improvement, at a cost of $128,888 per room. In specific cases, renovations have cost taxpayers more than $1,000 per square foot, far more than the city would have spent simply building apartments from scratch.

What’s more, the new city plan proposes to cram single occupants into rooms as small as 250 square feet. And in concentrated districts. There’s a term for it: Warehousing the addicted and the poor. But you won’t read that in the 200-page report, because like other uncomfortable truths, it’s just not allowed.
National Post

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