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Downtown Eastside plan “is at least a start,” say residents

March 18th, 2014 · 10 Comments

It was heartbreaking, for those who were listening to the council delegations Friday and Saturday, to hear some of the stories of people from the Downtown Eastside who came to argue for more from the city’s plan for the area.

They recounted horrific things that had happened to them, as they asked for a red-light district, a native wellness centre, hundreds of units of social housing immediately, a protected bike lane on Hastings so they wouldn’t get hit by cars, and more.

On the other side were people like Michael Geller, arguing that the city was going too far by insisting on so much rental and social housing for the central 12 blocks of the Downtown Eastside, or others who said the plan was simply unrealistic. (I’ve heard people say the city’s estimates for building social housing are considerably too low.)

In the end, a plan got passed — not perfect by any means. Now what everyone’s waiting for is — will anything actually happen?

The Downtown Eastside appeared unchanged Sunday morning, with the usual combination on the streets of the poor, the drug sellers and their customers, cheerful street hawkers, Chinatown shoppers and bemused tourists.

But for people like Richard Cunningham and Jacek Lorek, long-time residents who were spending the day as volunteer managers at the local street market, it was the start of a new era.

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A day earlier, Vancouver city council had passed a comprehensive and controversial plan for their neighbourhood, one intended to ensure a continued home for about 12,000 low-income people there while allowing a limited amount of new development, new residents and new businesses.

In all, planners said, the city’s blueprint is aimed at drawing $1-billion of city, private and high-level government investment in 4,400 new units of social housing over 30 years, along with new services for all residents.

The plan had generated criticism from many sides, with some saying it will perpetuate the area’s reputation as a ghetto, others saying it didn’t go far enough to provide housing and services for the area’s poor and often drug-addicted residents, and still more saying it was just too complex and undefined.

But Mr. Lorek and Mr. Cunningham hope the plan will curb condo mania in 12 key blocks of the neighbourhood, where any developer wanting to build more than one-storey’s worth of condos on a site is limited to a 60/40 combination of market rentals and subsidized housing.

They also hope the plan might bring in a new wave of social housing – some day.

“We were hoping for a little more, but the important thing was to prevent displacement and so we like that part of what they did,” said Mr. Lorek, who lives on welfare in a small hotel room and is a board member of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council. The council’s members worked together with other community groups and city planners in hundreds of meetings to develop the plan.

For Mr. Cunningham, another board member and resident who lived with HIV and addiction in the area for almost two decades, the plan is both a sign of hope and a concern. He’s worried that there’s no tangible money available to build social housing yet, and it’s “going to be built at a snail’s pace.”

But, he said, “It’s promising that we’ve got something to start with.”

In the end, councillors from all three parties, including Adriane Carr of the Green Party, who had tried to have the vote deferred, agreed with the Vision Vancouver majority on moving ahead.

“This is a tough plan to fulfill but I think we need to start somewhere,” said Non-Partisan Association Councillor George Affleck. “So I will support the plan in the knowledge that in a few years we are going to get a report back and we will see how things progress.”

Vision Councillor Andrea Reimer, who lived in the Downtown Eastside as a teenager, became emotional several times during the two weeks of public debate and three days of meetings about the plan.

As she moved the motion to accept it, she added pages of complex amendments in order to provide a guarantee about rental rates for social housing – 30 per cent must be rented at the rate that the province provides for people on welfare – and to put in effort to create a native health and wellness centre at the forefront.

Ms. Reimer said Sunday she believes the plan is the best effort the city has ever made for this unique area.

“I think we were able to find a way to ensure the needs of the low-income community were heard and provide a way forward to a vibrant mixed-use neighbourhood.”



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