Vancouver's high-end retail shops pushing out long-time residents in Downtown Eastside

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In an area where over 13,000 people live in poverty having to survive on social assistance, gentrifying businesses are selling $138 mink eyelashes and $11 bottles of juice. Those are some of the findings of the Carnegie Community Action Project's new retail gentrification report.

On Wednesday, February 22, CCAP released The Retail Gentrification Mapping Report, the result of a year-long project in which low-income residents surveyed over 450 retail stores in the neighbourhood.

The report found that 20 new gentrifying/zone of exclusion businesses have opened since the Summer of 2015. In total, there are now 156 gentrifying retail zones of exclusion businesses in the neighbourhood, which the report defines as retail stores that seek to attract and cater to higher-income residents or visitors and exclude low-income community members.

CCAP and the Chinatown Concern Group held a press conference on Wednesday afternoon outside one of the new gentrifying businesses, Dalina, an upscale grocery and café in the heart of Chinatown. "What we found through the study was that there is no such thing as low-income retail," said Maria Wallstam, Coordinator at CCAP. "If you are on social assistance, you're too poor to afford anything at market rates."

Erica Cynthia Grant, a member of the DTES community who suffers from lupus says she is no longer able to afford anything in the rapidly changing neighbourhood. She receives $800 in disability assistance with most of it going towards her $570-a-month rent leaving very little for anything else. Without cooking facilities in Single Room Occupancy Units (SROs), she is unable to cook and relies on whatever food lineups are available and whatever food she can afford.

"When I don't eat right, it really affects my daily living," said Grant. "We won't be able to afford a cup of coffee close to home let alone clothing or medical supplies."

CCAP's report says zones of exclusion are sites marked by increased surveillance and policing where only those with status, privilege, and wealth are welcome while others are criminalized.

"When we come to any one of these restaurants or shops, security guards follow us like we are going to steal. We are not down here trying to steal stuff, we are just trying to get what we need," said Grant.

Mrs. Luu, who has lived in Chinatown for 30 years, says many of the shops that are crucial to Chinese culture in Vancouver's Chinatown are being replaced by expensive businesses many Chinese seniors can't afford to go to. Photo: Lenée Son

Mrs. Luu, a resident of Chinatown for over 30 years, also spoke about retail gentrification in Chinatown at the press conference. "Over these past few decades, I've seen all the changes. One after another, all these shops are closing," said Mrs. Luu, through translator and Chinatown Concern Group Coordinator, Beverly Ho. "A lot of the Chinese shops like Lee Loy BBQ meats have moved. Where will we buy groceries in a few years if this keeps happening?"

The Retail Gentrification Mapping report includes several recommendations such as addressing the root causes of poverty, implementing measures to stop new zones of exclusion, reversing the loss of shops that cater to low-income residents, stopping the criminalization of poverty and all survival work, expanding and supporting non-market food services in the DTES, and ensuring jobs for low-income residents.

"We need higher welfare rates. We need housing," said Wallstam. "How are you supposed to get a job if you're staying in a shelter?"

"Most of the city's community economic development strategy is focused on bringing market retail into the DTES," continued Wallstam. "But what we know down here, is that market retail doesn't help low-income people and gentrification is pushing up the rent. SRO hotels are pushing people onto the streets and these places are displacing the low-income shops that use to serve the low-income community. These new shops are not welcoming to low-income people."

Lenee Son is a freelance multimedia journalist based in metro Vancouver. She also is the Administrator & Community organizer at Carnegie Community Action Project. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @LeneeSon.

This article originally appeared in the CCAP Newsletter. It is reprinted here with permission.

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