It may not be a castle, but to Sonny Kenich it is home. The 67-year-old former construction-supply salesman has lived in the same third-floor room in Vancouver’s Dodson Hotel for the past 14 years. Forced onto welfare when he was laid off from his job in the mid-1980s, Kenich now lives on $14,000 a year in old age security and Canada Pension Plan benefits. For $320 a month, he shares a sparsely furnished 218square-foot room in the city’s Downtown Eastside—the neighborhood with the lowest per capita income in all of Canada—with cockroaches and mice. Leery of wandering out after dark for fear of being mugged, he carries Mace to ward off junkies, who have transformed his shared bathroom up the hallway into a shooting gallery.
Until recently, Kenich could at least take some comfort in the spectacular view of the harbor and the North Shore mountains outside his window. But this spring, he stares directly onto the back of a controversial new eight-storey condominium complex—surrounded by surveillance cameras and a security fence—whose marketers invite buyers to “Get aloft in the real world.” Kenich is unconvinced that good fences make good neighbors, and indignant about the fact that the newcomers have begun to complain about the Dodson. “Let them close their drapes,” he says. “We were here first.” Gentrification is beginning in Vancouver’s
grittiest neighborhood—and social activists warn there is much more at stake than views. In recent years, developers and real-estate speculators have been eyeing the Downtown Eastside because of its high-density zoning and cheap real estate prices: less than $70 a square foot compared with $600 to $900 in the downtown centre only a 10-minute walk away.
Condo culture threatens a poor but close-knit community
Some predict that the area, still considered undesirable by some Vancouverites because of its poverty, crime, prostitution, alcoholism and drug abuse, is poised for a boom. Others say its 15,900 residents, nearly 75 per cent of them low income, could be headed for catastrophe.
Already, several of the neighborhood’s 185 hotels, home to nearly 5,900 single-roomoccupancy units—or SROs—like Kenich’s, are up for sale. A few have been converted to modest tourist accommodation; others have raised their rents. The consequences are proving dramatic. According to the 4,500-
member Downtown Eastside Residents Association (DERA), a nonprofit community advocacy group, 400 units of affordable neighborhood housing have been lost to conversion, demolition or fire in the past five years. And a recently released study by Vancouver city planners reported that only 52 per cent of area SROs are priced at $325 or less—the maximum welfare allowance for shelter— compared with 74 per cent five years ago.
Around Victory Square, near the new downtown campuses of Simon Fraser University, the B.C. Institute of Technology and the Vancouver Film School, the number has fallen to 27 per cent as an influx of students, along with trendy cafés and shops, has sent prices skyrocketing. “The rental market is getting squeezed tighter all the time,” says DERA president Ian MacRae, who worries that unprecedented homelessness may ensue. Adds Nick Blomley, a specialist in urban geography at Simon Fraser: “My sense is that we are one step away from disaster.”
The community was dealt another blow on April 4, when developer Fama Holdings revised its plans for a $75-million revitalization of the abandoned Woodward’s department store on Hastings Street. The project, originally designed to house 400 market-value condos and three floors of retail space, was altered to 200 condos and 200 social-housing units under a deal brokered by the provincial NDP early last year. But Fama, citing deadlocked negotiations over how to finance and build the units, has decided to revert to its original scheme. The company even declined an offer of mediation by Mayor Philip Owen, who called the public-private venture a “concrete example of the partnerships required if the displacement of low-income residents is to be avoided.”
Anti-development graffiti plastered the boarded-up site last week as community activists vowed to take the Woodward’s battle to the streets. ‘We are going to have to make it as difficult as possible for them to sell those units,” said Tom Laviolette, head of the Carnegie Community Action Project, one of several local groups outraged by the developments. Many area residents say they are offended by the view of some middleand upper-class Vancouverites that their vital neighborhood, home to more than 170 grassroots community organizations and social service agencies, is a hopeless skid row. “I think the developers want everybody out of here,” says Karl Schmidt, 51, who suffers from arthritis and lives on $221 a month in social assistance after paying the rent on a tiny room in the Alton Hotel. “They think that everybody down here is just a transient. But this is a community. It is a neighborhood. There are actual people living here.”
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