“Nobody knows what they’re going to do. Nobody has anywhere to go, and nobody has any family they can go to. They don’t know what they’re going to do with their stuff. This is their home – it’s our home.”
I meet Sadie and Destiny Morris just a few days after a plan to re-zone Metrotown – the town centre of a suburb to the east of Vancouver – was approved despite protests. They and their neighbours, most of whom have low or fixed incomes and rent controlled tenancies, expect eviction soon, but do not yet know when.
The re-zoning plan approves the demolition of almost 3,000 units of older and cheaper apartments, along with one of the largest malls in Canada, to build taller and more expensive condos. It will increase the density of the area, which some say will be the solution to the housing crisis. Others, however, dispute this, claiming a greater housing supply will not necessarily help locals on lower incomes.
Sadie explains she will not be able to afford the new apartments or others in the area because of rising rents. She may be eligible for social housing, but will not know if this is the case until after she and her daughter have been evicted. “Destiny is turning 19, so she’s going to be an adult”, Sadie explains. “I might be the only one to get re-housed, and then what do we do?”
“It’s really affecting my future,” Destiny tells me. “When I was in high school I wanted to go to college and become a child and youth care worker. Right now I’ve got to worry about bills and rent and finding a home. These are big barriers to accessing my education”.
Another worry is about becoming part of the hidden homeless, coach surfing from room to room, and being separated from her mother.
According to local activist Zoe Luba, ‘demovictions’ – booting out tenants to demolish buildings – are taking place across the region. Demovictions are pushing lower income tenants from one zone to another, with some being evicted up to three times.
Listening to Sadie and Destiny’s story is a painful reminder of the human cost of development and the precarious nature of private renting for lower income people. It also shows how policies aimed at addressing the housing crisis, such as the recent announcement of over 100,000 units of affordable housing over the next ten years, are failing to address residents’ immediate needs.
Another reminder of the costs of these developments is the homelessness that characterises Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Here I meet Jean Swanson, a housing activist. “I used to work down here 40 years ago,” she tells me. “We didn’t fight against homelessness then because at that time there hardly was any.”
She goes on to explain that the neighbourhood is also home to a significant number of welfare and pension recipients in single-room-occupancy hotels.
“People live in single rooms, with a bathroom down the hall and no kitchen. These rooms are usually 10×10 or 10×12, and a lot of them are ridden with mice, rats, cockroaches and bedbugs. Management can be bad, and the hotels can be dangerous for women. There’s 3,500 units of them down here. They’re the last stop before homelessness.”
Jean blames low welfare rates and the end of social home building for the homelessness, and new developments and demand for cheap accommodation across the city for pushing up rents. “According to our most recent hotel report, the average rent in a privately owned hotel is $548. This leaves [welfare recipients] $2 a day for everything else.”
Seeking to improve the situation, Jean co-authored the Community Vision for Change report in 2010 based on two years of consultation with 1,200 lower income residents. This report was a declaration that people on lower incomes have the right to exist in the city and to seek self-improvement. It put forwards 12 key actions, of which Jean declares “building social housing, tackling systemic poverty and stopping gentrification” as the most important.
Since the report’s publication, a small section of the neighbourhood has been re-zoned with strict quotas of affordable, social, welfare and pension rate rentals. However, Jean questions the definition of affordability and claims that only 20% of housing will actually be set aside for the very poorest residents. Despite this, she remains defiant on homelessness. “Everyone I know is going to fight like hell to reduce it and get rid of it.”
Gentrification is also a concern for Beverly Ho, a campaigner in neighbouring Chinatown. She describes how new businesses catering to more affluent residents create zones of exclusion that low and fixed-income residents can’t afford to live in and don’t feel welcome in.
“If you walk down Main Street you’ll see a lot of condo developments. They’re really unaffordable, maybe half a million each, and that’s for a small apartment.”
Beverly also highlights problems with the current plans to allow both a greater number of and higher developments in Chinatown. Some argue the plan will bring necessary revitalisation to the area, but others fear the existing community and its small businesses will be pushed out. Residents are calling for their communities to be protected, for an equal ratio of social to market rate developments and more community space.
Beverly is optimistic after the city recently rejected an application to develop a condo project 105 Keefer. She credits outreach work and the use of social media for voting down the project. “I think the public is more aware now, and social media has been really useful for engagement. #105Keefer was trending twice, once around the public hearing and the second time when the vote was made against it.” However, in her and other campaigners’ opinion, this alone is not enough, and there is much work to be done.
I would like to acknowledge that Vancouver stands on unceded Coast-Salish territories, and to thank the Carnegie Community Action Project, the Chinatown Concern Group and the Alliance Against Displacement for their help in researching this article.