Inside Vancouver's pre-Olympic housing crisis

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"The system we have right now is grossly inadequate for the kind of mass evictions that we are likely to see in the lead-up to the Olympics."

David Eby is a lawyer with the Pivot Legal Society, and the author of a comprehensive report (Cracks in the Foundation) on the housing situation in Canada's poorest postal code, Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Am Johal, the founder of the Impact on Communities Coalition, will be contributing regular feature interviews for rabble.ca.

Am Johal: Can you give a snapshot of what's happening related to conversions since writing the Cracks in the Foundation report?

David Eby: The big change since the report was released is that there is a rapid increase in the number of buildings closing and converting to higher rents. When we released the report, hotels like New Wings and Pender Hotel had been closed by the City, but we didn't see owners actively closing or converting. Those appeared to be isolated closures.

There was a big acceleration, five buildings in six months, including the Burns Block Hotel and many others. Owners were closing their doors willingly in order to sell and renovate, real estate speculation went through the roof for SROs [single room occupancy]. Previously non-profits could buy or operate these buildings. Many of the non-profit organizations, CMHC, BC Housing were able to purchase the SROs, but not any more. With all of that said, there was one positive change, we saw the province purchase eight hotels during that crisis period about eight or nine months ago. But things are getting worse again with the closures.

The City has done very little in addressing the wave of the market. An appropriate intervention to protect these housing units in the context of pre-Olympic Vancouver has not been implemented. There are certain forms of coercion being used by landlords. What can be done to stop these conversions and further evictions that will happen during the event itself?

The system we have right now is grossly inadequate for the kind of mass evictions that we are likely to see in the lead-up to the Olympics.

What can the broader public do? It seems nothing is making a difference.

The one thing that the relentless PR campaign can't erase is the ever more visible homeless population in Vancouver. The public will realize the disconnect between this visible poverty and a government that says it is building thousands of units of social housing. The 10 800 homeless figure province wide is astounding. The government can't paper that number over with thousands of imagined social housing units. Opening emergency shelter beds 24 hours, buying existing hotel units, doesn't create new capacity and people will see that homelessness isn't getting better; it's getting worse.

The public will put pressure on the government to solve this problem, one way or another. There are two potential solutions. Either the government can crack down on the homeless by arresting them and moving them along, or they can deal with the root causes by building housing. I know what I would like them to do, but at this stage a crackdown is far more likely than enough new housing to solve this problem.

What is the problem with current public policy framework? What do you make of Geoff Plant as the city's Civil City Commissioner?

I was worried that he would bring in punitive measures. I think in reality he is a scapegoat for the Mayor for when the City fails to meet the Mayor's goals of reducing homelessness by 50%. Geoff Plant will become the fall guy for the visible poverty that is around during the Olympics, much of which will result from his old provincial government's policies. He's apparently a political tool for the Mayor.

I still do have concerns that he will advance ideas that will increase criminalization of the homeless. His track record on housing as part of the B.C. Liberal government is abysmal. As a former Attorney General, he's not a housing expert, but he is a criminal law expert.

The inner-city inclusivity document was underwhelming when it was drafted. They refused to put specifics in place. The conversion bylaw was also woefully inadequate as a buffer to speculation in the inner-city. Do you think it would be appropriate to call for a review given the existing framework that is in place and the evictions?

We are well past the time for study. It's obvious to everyone what is happening, from the government to the advocacy groups to the people in the hotels: this municipal government is not interested in preserving the Downtown Eastside as a low-income neighbourhood. Their policy has been to ignore the problem of substandard housing in the downtown core and hope the poor people disappear there. If there were going to be a review, it would have to be from an international agency or a federal body to be meaningful. A civic review would not be helpful or meaningful.

What can community groups do to respond in an effective way? Non-profits are rarely outspoken because they're worried about funding streams from government. Our universities are geographically disconnected from the inner-city and our academics rarely enter in to the public sphere to make a meaningful contribution to public debate.

The biggest problem for community groups has been not being able to work in coalition. The government funds certain groups because they're not outspoken and doesn't fund others who criticize. Presenting a united front has been a problem. Politically neutral groups are outraged, but they won't say anything because it will jeopardize their funding. The government can very quickly alienate groups that are more publicly active on issues. Without coalitions, individual groups will continue to be picked off by this partisan and cynical government.

People in the media, government, and city planners say that you can't really tie these evictions to the Olympics.

This critique makes me crazy. It's a total double standard. Every single social housing development in the city is counted as part of the Olympic legacy. However, every single eviction "can't be proven" to be partly the result of the Olympics.

Whether or not the closures are due to the Olympics, the net result is that closures are still happening, people are still being evicted, people are still being made homeless. There is a net loss of housing in Vancouver in the lead-up to the Games, and the exact opposite was promised to low-income inner city residents through the Inner City Inclusive Commitment Statement.

What do you make of the city's 1-for-1 replacement strategy?

The 1-for-1 policy was based on a homeless population of 700 people at the time. We now have 2300 homeless people in Vancouver. If all the city does is replace the low-rent units we have, the homeless numbers will remain the same in Vancouver, and increase as our population grows. We need to replace at a rate of 2 to 1 or 3 to 1 to solve this homelessness problem.

When we solve homelessness, then we can start looking at conversions. How can we say it's okay to have 2300 homeless people on the street, and all we have to do is maintain the number of low-income housing units we have? We need to protect what we have, and build new housing to solve homelessness. Once we're there, we can start looking at converting the SROs to other uses.

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