Wednesday, October 2, 2013

My Vancouver Sun op-ed criticizing the City plan for the Downtown Eastside

I wrote this after reading the City report recommending that the DTES plan be approved as soon as possible so that a new zoning bylaw could be implemented in the DEOD, (Downtown Eastside Oppenheimer District) which is the heart of the DTES and the neighbourhood most desperately in need of regeneration, as compared with Gastown, Chinatown and Strathcona.

Opinion: City plan for DTES ill-conceived

 Proposal to allow only social housing and rental units will keep area crime-ridden and impoverished
Opinion: City plan for DTES ill-conceived

Downtown Eastside poverty activists and their supporters rally to decry the gentrification of the DTES and to protest against the impending construction of condominiums and high-end restaurants in the area.

Photograph by: Jason Payne Jason Payne , PNG

Do you think there should be neighbourhoods in Vancouver where new rental housing is not permitted?

Do you think there should be neighbourhoods in Vancouver where new ownership housing is not permitted?

I pose these questions because the recent Vancouver city council report on neighbourhood planning proposes zoning changes in the Downtown Eastside to effectively prevent any new ownership housing for the foreseeable future.

More specifically, new residential developments would require 60 per cent social housing and 40 per cent rental units. This would be a departure from the current policy allowing a broader mix of tenures with 20 per cent social housing and 80 per cent rental and/or affordable ownership housing.

According to the staff report, this recommendation follows extensive planning consultation in the community that has involved the city manager, general manager community services, general manager planning and development services, director of social policy, and assistant directors of housing and planning and staff.

In my opinion, this proposal is outrageous and ill-conceived from a community social planning perspective.

It is extremely poor social engineering, and if approved, would allow the DTES to remain the worst crime-ridden and impoverished ghetto in any Canadian city.

A zoning bylaw prohibiting home ownership would be a contradiction of everything planners know about creating healthy neighbourhoods. To the best of my knowledge, it would be the first time in North America that a municipal bylaw creates a rental zone, where residents are not allowed to buy a new home.

This proposal is also wrong from various financial perspectives.

Today, there are limited senior government funds for social housing, and increases are unlikely. Rich Coleman, the provincial minister responsible for housing, recently told an Urban Development Institute luncheon he intends to limit funding for new social housing projects to only those in greatest need, namely the homeless and others suffering from mental illness and addictions.

Coleman prefers to see provincial funding go toward shelter allowances for needy households so they can be better integrated into existing buildings, without everyone knowing who is living on government assistance. He adds this approach will also house four times as many people for the same dollars.

I also question how much rental housing will be built under the new zoning. While Vancouver politicians boast about the recent increase in new rental housing starts, in nearly every case, these projects have proceeded because the city has granted exceptional density bonuses and/or forgiven the development cost charges that are normally collected to pay for much-needed community amenities.
So one might ask, given the questionable economics and contradiction with professional planning wisdom, why would city staff be recommending this approach?

To answer this question, one needs to examine the politics of the DTES.

From my experience as a founding director of the Building Community Society, a DTES non-profit organization formed to improve living conditions for local residents, a very small number of activists have a remarkable level of influence in the community.

While I was volunteering, they opposed a neighbourhood spring cleanup, which I hoped would have had a positive effect like the successful “broken windows” initiative in New York.

They even opposed asking the government for an increase in the shelter component of welfare, claiming this would simply put more money in the pockets of landlords.

More significantly, they consistently opposed any new condominium housing, even in mixed tenure developments like Woodward’s.

They claimed it would lead to gentrification and attract new residents who would make local residents feel uncomfortable.

Sadly, these same activists appear to have convinced city staff that condominiums should be banned, despite the reality that there is so much government-funded social housing in the area, low-income households will never be forced out to make way for the gentry.

While local residents should have a say in the future of the DTES, I believe the rest of us, especially those who like me are disgusted and ashamed of what continues to be allowed to happen to this neighbourhood, should speak up as well.

Council has now agreed to extend the DTES community consultation until Jan. 31.

Meanwhile, I would encourage every Vancouver resident to take a walk around Hastings and Main and consider whether a ban on allowing people to purchase homes in this neighbourhood really seems like a sensible planning approach.

If you agree it is not, you should instruct council to direct city staff to come forward with a more thoughtful, considered, and positive plan; one which might hopefully contribute to the transformation of the DTES into a truly healthy and diverse community.

Michael Geller is a registered architect and planner. From 1974-77, as manager, social housing for CMHC, he helped create a number of social housing projects in the DTES.


Unknown said...

It must be wonderful to lead a life of privilege, Mr. Geller. Damn poor people. Such an inconvenience to development and profit. You should be ashamed. But that would require you to have a conscience.

Unknown said...

It must be wonderful to lead a life of privilege, Mr. Geller. Damn poor people. Such an inconvenience to development and profit. You should be ashamed. But that would require you to have a conscience.