Downtown Eastside residents sound the DISPLACEMENT alarm
By Ivan Drury
UNCEDED COAST SALISH TERRITORY, VANCOUVER: On Tuesday April 10th more than 100 Downtown Eastside residents gathered for a rally in the theatre of the Carnegie centre to sound an alarm: Displacement, they said, is happening. And, worse, if city council does not take immediate and serious action, it will quickly become a desperate crisis.
The rally was motivated by developer Marc Williams’ proposal to build 79 quarter-million-dollar condos on the 100-block of East Hastings Street, between the Regent and Brandiz hotels and across the street from North America’s only legal supervised injection site. The proposal is years in the making and was rejected by two separate city bodies last year but is back and scheduled to go to vote at the city’s Development Permit Board on Monday April 23. That board, made up of developers, business investors and other political appointees, will vote on the project based on its measure within existing building policies. The DTES Not for Developers Coalition has been organizing against the project for about a year, and Tuesday’s rally continued their call for City Hall to turn the project
Sixteen community groups gathered with the DTES Not for Developers Coalition to speak in one voice from their diverse specific perspectives and demand that the city say no to “Sequel 138” condos and to buy the site and dedicate it entirely to welfare and old age pension rate social housing.
The rally was opened with statements from people who live in SRO hotels on the 100-block of East Hastings, where the condo project is proposed. Washington Hotel residents are “illicit drinkers, drug users, and we struggle with our mental and physical health. We are the people who are not wanted by developers and condo owners.” Their statement was read by John Skulsh, who said, “We don’t have housing options, we have housing ultimatums: Live in this 10X10 room without the privacy of your own bathroom, and without the health, food, and hygiene choices of having your own kitchen, or go back to the street.”
The sentiment was echoed by the Balmoral hotel resident statement, but with greater urgency because the Balmoral is a privately owned hotel. If land prices increase on the 100-block the rents of the Balmoral will go up and “as bad as the Balmoral is, it’s better than being homeless. If we lose our rooms here because of rent increases or if our landlord starts renting to a a higher class of people we will have no where else to go,” said Balmoral resident rep Charles Sanford, “If we had somewhere else to go, we’d be there already!” And although the Asia Hotel is owned by a benevolent association, residents there expressed similar anxieties because earlier this year they received notice of a planned mass eviction and renovation of their home. John Douglas, Asia resident and community poet, said “Most of us in the Asia used to be homeless and we’re really afraid of that happening again.” As shops and housing in the neighbourhood becomes increasingly oriented towards higher income people, Asia residents are afraid of being “collateral damage.”
Jean Swanson from the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) explained resident anxieties about displacement through CCAP’s research. There is also a technical and legal precedent problem with the Sequel 138 proposal in the DTES Oppenheimer District (DEOD), Swanson explained. “The DEOD has no condo developments yet because it is protected with a requirement for 20% social housing in new developments. If Sequel can make a profit in the DEOD, then other condo developers will move in, gentrification will take over the heart of the DTES low income community and low income people will be pushed out by high rents, SRO closures, SRO renovictions, and land that will become too expensive to buy for new self contained social housing.”
Many of the community organizations that spoke pointed to how gentrification will affect them and how their communities will be displaced by the breakup of the low-income community in the Downtown Eastside.
Kelvin Bee from Aboriginal Front Door Society explained the displacement threat in the context of Canadian colonialism. And Tracy Morrison from Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society (WAHRS) explained, “We are already displaced people who have fled the violence of Canadian colonialism. This is the only place where we can come together as we are, as damaged as we have been by Canadian colonialism, and accept and love each other and support each other to heal… and if the city pushes us out of our homes in the Downtown Eastside they will be pushing us right into Harper’s housing plan for Aboriginal people and especially Aboriginal drug users – PRISON.”
Eastside Illicit Drinkers Group for Education (EIDGE) said, “When we suffer violence from the police who target us because of discrimination against low-income, Aboriginal, illicit drinkers it re-traumatizes us… and we drink more and harder. Condos on the 100-block will mean more cops and more security guards on the 100-block and on the corner near First United and more violence against illicit drinkers. Condos in our community are a threat to our lives.”
And Michelle Williams and Scott Short from Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) explained how police sweeps of drug scenes results in violence against the most vulnerable people on the street. The said, “Gentrification destabilizes the drug market and that makes it more unsafe for the most vulnerable people on the street. When the cops do sweeps and clear streets for condo projects and boutiques, that’s when Aboriginal women get thrown out of hotel windows, that’s when women have to do more sex acts to line up new dealers, that’s when the lowest end men in the drug trade get beaten or killed over new turf wars.”
Karen Ward from Gallery Gachet explained that Sequel developer Marc Williams’ claim that his project will be for DTES artists is disingenuous because the Downtown Eastside already has the second highest proportion of artists of any area in Canada. Gentrification from Sequel threatens to displace those low-income artists. And Gena Thompson and James Pau of the Carnegie Community Centre Association said that, for them, displacement is about cutting into low-income peoples’ “living room” space and food security. “We fear that our food services could be strained by newer people who are not low income,” Thompson said. “If City Council allows Sequel to go ahead with 79 new condos, the mandate of our Centre to serve low income people could be challenged.”
The DTES Neighbourhood Council homeless shelter committee, which has been organizing a committee of residents of the shelter at First United, raised the fear that “new condo residents will displace the current population, will complain about the food lines, and the homeless shelter population, and the very existence of the shelters, and attempt to eliminate or relocate these services,” causing the displacement of the most vulnerable and precarious people first.
Stella August from the DTES Power of Women group called up women in the room to stand together and show their power in the face of the displacement threat. And Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council speaker Richard Cunningham placed these displacement pressures within the context of four previous great displacements that the city has engineered out of the Downtown Eastside area: the original displacement of the Coast Salish nations, the displacement of women sex workers in 1913, the Japanese community in 1941, and the Black community from Hogan’s Alley in 1970. Gentrification pressures, he said, are the “prospect of a fifth great displacement.” And he echoed the coalition’s call to action and the community’s pledge to struggle, saying “this is our Hogan’s Alley moment. Our Helmsdeep.”
Low-income residents and their organizations stood together in the Carnegie Theatre against these displacement threats. And they were not alone.
Dave Diewert spoke for the coalition and explained that they had collected more than 3,000 signatures against Sequel 138 on petitions and letters since the proposal was launched last summer, and that more than 40 community organizations and dozens of community workers and dozens of more artists and arts organizations have signed resolutions against the project and for social housing on the 100-block. Some of these workers were also at the rally as part of a new group called Social Workers for Social Justice. “Services are under increased stress as a result of gentrification. Struggling to provide housing and shelters and gentrification only makes it harder as upscaling and renovictions result in a loss of the affordable housing stock,” their speaker Lauren Gill said. “In the midst of trying to provide day to day services gentrification is yet another barrier.”
Perhaps even more significant than the specific things said was the powerful tone that drove through the entire meeting. Those in the crowd packed into the standing-room only theatre cheered every speaker, stood and applauded their boldest statements, and chanted “Homes now!” and “We won’t be priced out, policed out, or pushed out!” when the banner with those words was dropped from the rafters. When Kelvin Bee, the elder from Aboriginal Front Door, closed the meeting with a drum and called for the names of people lost to the violence of colonialism, poverty, homelessness, drug criminalization, and displacement, the room was filled with the names of those who were not there in person but who, as Latino social justice fighters say, were present nonetheless.
Despite receiving invitations neither staff nor city council managed to show up at the rally. If they had they would have felt the power of Downtown Eastside residents and organizations and their determination to stop this condo project and defend their community at any cost. If city staff and council had been there and if they could have listened, they might have been convinced on the spot to stop Sequel 138 condos and build the housing that people so badly need. But they were not there, so the rally ended with one more declaration: To rally again on Tuesday April 17, 1pm at the Pantages demolition site, and send the message again. As the WAHRS statement concluded, “We were here yesterday. We are here today. We will be here tomorrow.”
NEWS COVERAGE OF THE CARNEGIE RALLY AGAINST SEQUEL 138 AND DISPLACEMENT
Stephen Thompson. “Critics of Pantages development rally in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside,” Georgia Straight, April 10, 2012. http://www.straight.com/article-656641/vancouver/critics-pantages-development-rally-vancouvers-downtown-eastside
Eli Mills, “They want to turn the 100-block into Snob Hill,” Vancouver Media Coop, April 10, 2012. http://vancouver.mediacoop.ca/story/they-want-turn-100-block-smallville/10499
(Video) Lauren Gill, “Downtown Eastside is not for developers.” Vancouver Media Coop, April 10, 2012. http://vancouver.mediacoop.ca/video/downtown-eastside-not-developers/10501
STATEMENTS AGAINST SEQUEL 138 CONDOS
Washington Hotel residents’ statement
Balmoral Hotel residents’ statement
Asia Hotel residents’ statement
Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users Statement
Carnegie Community Action Project statement
Carnegie Community Centre Association statement
Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society (WAHRS) statement
Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council statement
DNC Homeless Shelter Committee statement
Eastside Illicit Drinkers Group for Education (EIDGE) statement
Social Workers for Social Justice statement