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Vancity in the Downtown Eastside: The gentrification drive of B.C.'s largest credit union

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Vancity provides funding both to large-scale gentrifiers and to anti-gentrification groups in the DTES. This is due in part to the fact that Vancity seeks to best reflect the diversity of their membership, and to bolster the “diversity of opinions and voices around the table.” Vancity clients range from low-income renters all the way up to global corporations and developers. Currently, however, one side is increasingly shoved aside by the other. As Nathan Crompton and Maria Wallstam write in this article, DTES residents are being pushed away not only from the negotiating table, but from their very neighborhood.    

Vancity, B.C.’s largest credit union, was started in 1946 in response to the lack of financial services available to working class Vancouverites living east of Cambie. Since then, Vancity has cultivated a tradition of honouring its roots and providing financial funding to working class and poor people’s cooperatives, grassroots movements and organizations across the province. In B.C.’s poorest neighborhood, the DTES, Vancity has provided financial backing for essential services such as Pigeon Park Savings, United We Can and community groups such as the DTES Women’s Centre, Purple Thistle and the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP).

Recently, the relationship between Vancity and community groups, particularly CCAP, have been strained by increasing conflicts over gentrification. Vancity’s own financial interests in the neighbourhood, combined with pressure from business lobbyists and corporate media, have pressured the credit union to go bat for the cause of gentrification. The tensions culminated last week in the release of a Vancity statement on CCAP funding, declaring that Vancity will no longer be supporting CCAP in activities other than research and participation in planning processes. The unnamed source of the rift is the ongoing picket of the Pidgin restaurant, despite the fact that residents have organized the picket independent from CCAP.

Slowing gentrification has long been one of CCAP’s top priorities. CCAP’s current mandate emerged from two years of extensive research and consultation with 1,200 DTES residents who were surveyed about the needs and expectations of their community. The work culminated in 2010 with the founding report, “Community Vision for Change in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.” In the spirit of Vancity’s “solution-focused” agenda, the report outlines 12 prioritized Action Points for community change. Of those twelve points, the construction of social housing and stopping gentrification are among the top priorities. Towards the latter goal, the report makes the following recommendation: “develop and implement a plan to preserve the assets and secure the tenure of the existing Aboriginal and low-income community before more unaffordable condos are built, which increase property values and speed up economic and social forces that displace low-income residents.”

The recent controversy around CCAP coincides with a significant shift in Vancity’s portfolio and philosophy. The shift can be summed up as a move away from working class and grassroots cooperatives towards social enterprises and startups. Nowhere is this more true than in the DTES. In the last two years, Vancity boasts partnerships with luxury developerWestBank, joint collaborations between Concord Pacific and mining shell corporation Radcliffe Foundation, as well as financing for business mogul Mark Brand.

What all these projects have in common is their position on the gentrification frontier. Unless the gentrification push is reversed or slowed, Vancity’s investments will be sure to provide financial returns. On the other side of the equation, partnerships with Vancity provide gentrifying businesses with the progressive image-building necessary for the sensitive goal of making profit in the DTES.

Vancity’s “catalyst” investments

Given the profit-making potential of the property market east of downtown, Vancity has developed an investment agenda for the neighbourhood. In Vancity’s own words, entrepreneurs like Mark Brand are capable of opening up the new market to further investment: “Mark Brand is out to develop a business empire in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside,” and his investments act as “a catalyst that kick-starts a number of other businesses.” The Vancity-funded commissary on the second floor of Save on Meats is in this sense not unlike a military camp commissary, supplying gentrifying businesses in the area -- including upscale Boneta -- with a “good money” label in their ideological and spatial war against the poor. The gentrification press has long spoken about new restaurants in precisely such militaristic terms.

Another Vancity-supported business operating out of the Save on Meats building is the farming company SOLEfood. SOLEfood proclaims itself to really be “in the business of growing people. Plant a seed in fertile soil, provide it with everything it needs to thrive and it will produce abundantly and deliciously.” In contrast to their positive language -- and in sharp contrast to Vancity’s own living wage mandate -- most workers at SOLEfood’s are paid minimum wage, without benefits. One former worker, Laura House, was paid even less as an intern with Solefood. The internship paid $300 dollars a month for 200 hrs of work. Despite the exploitative remuneration, House accepted the offer because she was hoping to learn more about agriculture. Instead she learnt about gentrification and how SOLEfood is used as a tool to “escalate gentrification,” in her words, by “selling a product that capitalizes on the DTES and the idea of charity.”

The SOLE in SOLEfood stands for Sustainable, Organic, Local, and Ethical. Despite their ethical mandate, SOLEfood receives the bulk of their funding, $475,000, from mining giant Frank Guistra’s Radcliffe Foundation. In the mining world it is common-knowledge that Giustra owns the world’s largest mining companies through a series of shell corporations. TheRadcliffe Foundation is one of Guistra’s shell corporations and, like many other shell corporations, is tax exempt due to its status as a charity.

While Guistra shelters his mining money by channeling it through SOLEfood, Concord Pacific saves thousands in municipal tax exemptions thanks to SOLEfood’s urban farm at their North False Creek property. Concord Pacific sits on the land and continues to speculate as the surrounding neighbourhood gentrifies, using the farm to save up to $17,000 in taxes per year. Vancity is on board with SOLEfood’s operations and provides grant funding, ongoing guidance and technical support, as well as a business loans.

Companies like SOLEfood and Save on Meats have been praised for their ‘social enterprise’ model and especially for hiring local residents. However, exploitative minimum wage positions are nothing new. This marks the emergence of a stark form of reasoning: precarious employment and low-pay work -- the very causes of homelessness -- are being touted as solutions to poverty. As a “solution” rather than cause of poverty, this new form of low-paid work is subject to all the boosterism and hype that goes along with gentrification. Images of happy workers have circulated in promotional materials, and the ideology of benevolence and boosterism runs so deep that even some low-wage employees, who say that they are living “on the cusp of poverty,” praise the industry and its advances.

Financing condos at the expense of low-income housing

At 60 W Cordova, Vancity partnered with luxury condo developer Westbank to provide “affordable ownership” condos. The same developer is responsible for “countless local sites of exclusion and gentrification including Woodwards, the monstrous Shangri-La, and the Fairmont.” At Woodward’s, for example, Westbank’s development resulted in the loss of 400 low-income SRO units within a 1-block radius.

The 60 W Cordova project further extends Woodward’s radius of gentrification to another block of vulnerable low-income housing. When Vancity writes of 60 W Cordova that “at first blush, it seemed too good to be true,” they are right -- it is too good to be true.

On the 28th day of Homeless Dave’s Hunger Strike, DTES residents joined Dave on a march to Vancity’s headquarters. A senior who lives in social housing told Vancity representatives: “I live near the condos [60 W Cordova] and I notice there are stores nearby now that sell $12,000 couches. The message I get from that is ‘you don’t belong here’. There is something jaded about how these stores advertise. It’s like the contrast been rich and poor is charming.”

Why would Westbank want to provide affordable housing? Beneath benevolent gestures the answer is simple: the project is a trojan horse for gentrification, legitimizing the advance of the frontier. In Vancity’s language, it is “a catalyst that kick-starts a number of other investments.” Stanislav Kupferschmidt refers to the practice as Home Washing, equivalent to the familiar practice of green-washing: “Real estate giants like Westbank corp, whose entire basis and existence relies on displacement, partner with the likes of Habitat and PHS in an attempt to both gain some front of legitimate entry into a neighborhood and control backlash.”

Vancity has also agreed to extend affordable loans to future home-owners at Sequel 138. Initially, Vancity was listed as a partner on the project’s website -- now the credit union will be funding mortgages for the project. Sequel 138 is a controversial condo project on the 100-block of Hastings that literally thousands of residents and community groups have opposed and organized against over the last 2 years. Currently the project is being pitched to social workers and employees of advocacy groups. Workers in the neighbourhood need affordable housing, but not at the expense of the low-income residents they work with.

Vancity speaks to “social impact” but denies gentrification

Vancity has high stakes in the gentrification of the DTES. In Vancity’s most recent statement on CCAP funding, the word “gentrification” is conspicuously absent. This omission is ironic, given that CCAP has consistently provided the most reliable annual data on the displacement of low-income residents and the disappearance of affordable housing in the Downtown Eastside.

Vancity proclaims “social impact” as one of the key pillars of its community engagement model, and on the Vancity website you can read multiple “impact stories” from across the region. According to “BC Partners for Social Impact,” of which Vancity is a central partner, social impact is defined as the “measured improvements to our social and environmental challenges as a result of business, government and civil society partnerships.” Yet their most recent partnerships in the DTES contribute to the gentrification of a neighborhood that yet has to have a serious social impact study, despite the fact that they Mayor promised just such a study, even promising a now-passed date of completion: December 2011.

If Vancity is serious about measuring the social impacts of development, they would continue funding CCAP’s research on the social impacts of gentrification in the DTES. The problem is that CCAP has moved beyond an exclusive research function and is already acting on their own findings. The “CAP” from CCAP means Community Action Project. Now the group is challenging Vancity’s raw bottom-line in the fastest-growing investor paradise of Vancouver: the Downtown Eastside. Will Vancity stick to their roots as a community bank, or will they seek to muzzle groups like CCAP in the name of profit-making and social enterprise?

Photo: DTES delegation talks to Vancity VP Linda Morris (Credit: Murray Bush, VMC)

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