Jeff Sommers, “Beyond the Collar of Blight”

Jeff Sommers, “Beyond the Collar of Blight”, Woodsquat (2004): 20-28.

Until the preeminence of the Coalition of Progressive Electors in the November 2002 civic elections, the received wisdom for most of Vancouver’s political establishment was that the root of the Downtown Eastside’s woes was a supposed concentration of social housing in the neighbourhood. The logic runs like this: social housing is for poor people; if you build it, they will come and, in the Downtown Eastside, they have arrived. A similar line of reasoning has been followed with regard to a perceived concentration of services in the area, which also “attract” poor people. In both cases, the poor are seen as a burden, a source of inconvenient problems like drug use and prostitution that they inflict on the rest of us if they are present in too great a number. The problems of the Downtown Eastside would be fixed, according to this argument, if its low income residents were dispersed, possibly by locating social housing and services in other parts of the city (the humane solution) or, if worst comes to worst, by wholesale redevelopment, i.e., gentrification (the practical solution).

The public proponents of this view included not only The Vancouver Sun’s sometime urban design critic, Trevor Boddy (who advocated it while waxing eloquently over the beauty of a recent social housing project on Cordova Street)[i], but two people who should know better, former Vancouver Mayors Mike Harcourt and Art Philips. Both had been involved with the area more than thirty years ago, long before it was a significant site for social housing. But neither chose to remember that even then the neighbourhood was the poorest in the city. Nor did they choose to remember that the rapid increase in social housing in the Downtown Eastside can be traced to two particular sources with which both should be familiar.[ii]

First, the market housing stock that dominated the Downtown Eastside for decades – single room occupancy (SRO) hotels – was probably the worst in the city and, by the late 1960s, had become a central object of housing reformers. Second, local advocacy groups and their allies across the city demanded that social housing be constructed in the neighbourhood for the people who lived there. Contrary to the claims of deliberate “ghettoization” of the marginalized that have been advanced by people from various parts of the political spectrum, the vast bulk of social housing in the Downtown Eastside was not placed there by government fiat, but as a result of local activism and organization.

Any controversy over the placement of social housing is of recent origin and is related to the gentrification of the area that began in the late 1980s. As the move-in rate of incoming middle class property owners accelerated in the early 1990s, the area became a site of conflict between this new group, often allied with local business organizations, and those representing the low income population. As is now well-known, the conflict, which simmered for most the decade, erupted into open and direct confrontation in 1998, as the gentrifiers and businesses sought to pressure the City to apply police force to deal with the drug situation. Yet, this was only a tactical move. For the better part of the 1990s the conflict had centred, not around drugs, but around issues of housing, services, and development. Because of the panic that ensued when health authorities declared that an HIV/AIDS epidemic was in progress among intravenous drug users, the drug issue provided a key vector for stigmatizing social housing and services for the poor by forging an near-indelible connection between poverty, drug use, and disease (Sommers & Blomley 2003).

It is not clear whether this link will indeed be permanent, given the defeat of the Downtown Eastside gentrifier and business groups, intimately tied to the Non-Partisan Association (NPA), in the civic election.[iii] But, whatever the outcome, such a development is something of an irony given the tortuous history of social housing in the Downtown Eastside, a story that begins with the proposed urban renewal in Strathcona more than 50 years ago.

In the late 1940s, the City commissioned Leonard Marsh, the founder of the UBC School of Social Work and influential member of the League for Social Reconstruction – which played a key role in the formation of the Canadian welfare state – to detail a vision for its plan to clear the “collar of blight” that surrounded the downtown peninsula. His proposal for the urban renewal of Vancouver’s East End district was published in the wake of a housing crisis in the city. Only two years before, returning veterans and their families had moved into newly built houses on Renfrew Heights from the old Hotel Vancouver building at Georgia and Granville, which they had occupied in 1946, demanding adequate housing (Wade 1994).

Marsh proffered an image of a modern, high-rise neighbourhood that would rise on the literal ruins of the old wooden buildings that were then seen as defective slum premises. Yet, when he wrote his report, entitled Rebuilding a Neighbourhood, in 1950 Marsh certainly wasn’t thinking that, half a century later, the houses in the neighbourhood that he had dubbed Strathcona would be selling for close to half a million dollars or that the area that he had envisioned as a paragon of progressive, modernist planning is one of Vancouver’s trendiest neighbourhoods. The still-standing houses that would have been leveled and replaced with concrete, brick, glass, and pavement are now among the most desired in the city and are fetching a fortune. The streets that surround them are green and leafy, lined with SUVs and beemers. The neighbourhood is considered to be a vital centre of Vancouver’s burgeoning arts scene. One Strathcona block was the city’s inaugural “most beautiful block.”

This “renaissance” was only made possible by the revolt against urban renewal that began in the late 1960s as Strathcona residents, most of whom were Chinese-Canadian, were joined by academics, students, community organizers, and westside heritage supporters to derail the City’s plans to level the neighbourhood and push a freeway through it (Ley 1994). Yet, by the very same token, it was this same combination of forces that promoted the vision of social housing and services for the poor (Sommers 2001).

The neighbourhood that is now called the Downtown Eastside, but was then widely known as the city’s skid road district, was also slated for demolition. By the mid-1960s, civic authorities saw urban renewal as a means of dispersing the skid road population, a move that was resisted by the mostly church-based agencies then offering services to residents.[iv] It was not until the area became a site for community organizing and countercultural activities, as well as an object of the burgeoning heritage preservation movement, that a serious challenge was mounted to the City’s plans.

But it was not only urban renewal that was at issue. Students and community organizers swarmed through the Downtown Eastside and Strathcona (as well as all the other inner city neighbourhoods)[v], helping residents set up public housing tenants associations, studying health issues, organizing legal clinics, daycares, and a range of other activities. In 1972 the newly-formed Vancouver Community Legal Assistance Society delivered a report to City Council detailing its investigation into conditions in the SRO hotels that housed the bulk of the district’s population.[vi] The primary reason these accommodations were so abysmal, the report claimed, was that City bylaws were not stringent enough and City building inspectors did not use the bylaws that were there. The City retorted that there was no point in either enforcing or strengthening its bylaws because the people who lived in the hotels were the real problem: if a landlord did repair a building, it would soon be wrecked by the carelessness and neglect of its tenants.

Such a challenge did not go unanswered and by the time the Downtown Eastside Residents’ Association (DERA) was officially formed the following year, the condition of housing was perhaps the key organizing issue in the community. DERA made its name, and changed the public recognition of the neighbourhood, through vociferous activism aimed at slum landlords, shoddy business operators, and neglectful politicians and bureaucrats. When landlords let their buildings slide, DERA picketed the premises and drew media attention to the situation.

This local activism combined with the election of a moderate reform council at the city level in 1973, and a left-wing provincial government, elected the previous year, to put housing on the public agenda. The City began to work with the Central Mortgage and Housing Agency (now CMHC), the Federal government housing group, and BC Housing, to initiate a series of housing projects for senior citizens in the mixed residential-industrial area northeast of Main and Hastings. Changes to the National Housing Act had enabled non-profit organizations to receive Federal funding for housing and by the early 1980s, several groups, including DERA and the First United Church, were either already operating or planning housing projects for the area.

The involvement of non-profits in direct housing provision and management would have a number of implications for the community, not all of them positive. First, local management of housing meant that project operators were more responsive to the needs and interventions of the community itself. As social housing has proliferated in the community over the 1980s and 1990s, SRO tenants have had increasing access to a better quality, low-rent alternative. Second, it began to stabilize the housing situation by taking land off the property market and vesting it in public ownership. However, because most social and cooperative housing in the area sits on land that was either already owned or acquired by the City for housing construction, the community has gained no equity from this process. Third, as landlords, housing organizations are placed in the position of exercising authority over their tenants. Groups that once sought to represent and advocate on behalf of the community to the outside power structure were gradually resituated in the minds of many residents as the local face of that structure. Finally, the requirements of housing provision are such that organizations become more and more preoccupied with project management, effectively diverting their energy and resources from community advocacy.

The emergence of community-based housing organizations thus marked a shift in community institutions, away from activist interventions toward increasing cooperation and mediation with the local state (Ley and Hassan). This took place at precisely the same time that the entire City, but especially the Downtown peninsula and the inner city neighbourhoods that surround it, underwent a profound transformation that was the product, in part, of increasing investment in property development, spurred on by zoning changes.

Since 1970, the inner neighbourhoods of the city had been bleeding their once substantial stock of cheap single rooms. Once estimated at more than 20,000 in 1970, the stock now numbers less than 6,000 rooms (City of Vancouver Housing Centre 1995). The sweep of gentrification that began in the late 1970s in Kitsilano and moved eastward through Fairview Slopes and up to Main Street, in the decade following, decimated much of the stock outside the Central Business District. Meanwhile, fires and bylaw closures in the Downtown and West End during the 1970s and 1980s were soon accompanied by intensifying redevelopment pressure that began shortly before the Expo ’86 world’s fair. As redevelopment proceeded apace through the 1990s, property values skyrocketed, and as home-buyers began looking east for cheaper property, gentrification took root in the neighbourhoods like Strathcona and Grandview, where there had once been a plentiful supply of single and housekeeping rooms.

While it’s true, as civic leaders continue to point out, that since the late 1980s, the construction of social housing in the Downtown and Downtown Eastside has kept pace with the loss of SROs in those areas, it is also true that the situation is more complicated than a simple one-to-one swap. For one thing, there has never been a complete overlap between the tenants of each kind of housing. Some of the city’s early projects were designed for the so-called hard-to-house population – the same people that bylaw inspectors had once blamed for the deterioration of the hotels. However, for the most part, social housing has been constructed for the most stable elements of the low income population – not only in the Downtown Eastside but all over the city.

In the Downtown Eastside, much of the older, longer term population moved out of the hotels into the new social housing projects. A recent survey of the SRO population found that hotel residents were both younger and more unhealthy than had been the case 10 years earlier (Main and Hastings 2001). Many of the people who now live in the hotels require the kind of social and health support, along with decent accommodation, that is only provided in places like the New Portland Hotel and a few other projects.

This situation is made even more complex by three other intertwined elements. One, already noted, is the virtual redevelopment of much of the Downtown peninsula and the inflow of some 25,000 new residents, together with the mostly upscale services they demand. As in Strathcona and the Downtown Eastside, middle income homeowners and renters dwelling in shiny new high-rises and townhouses rub shoulders with the poor, many of whom now sleep in parking lots and doorways because the cheap rooms that once housed such people are no longer plentiful.

The second, related element, in this equation is the reorientation of the Downtown economy away from its old industrial base centre on the Burrard Inlet and False Creek waterfronts. This shift, which actually began post-World War II, was consolidated by the removal of the last vestiges of industrial activity from the north shore of False Creek in preparation for Expo ’86. It has been replaced, as in virtually every other North American city, by an economy based on producer and consumer services as well as tourism and niche sectors like design and software development. While there has been little research on the on the social effects of this service-based economy in Vancouver, some writers have argued that one of the key characteristics of service-based globalizing cities is a tendency toward labour market polarization between high wage professional, technical, and managerial sectors and lower wage workers (Sassen 2000 & 2001). Certainly there is evidence at the national level of increasing income inequality in Canada (Zyblock & Zhengxi 1997; Picot 1998).

The final element affecting housing in the Downtown Eastside is state restructuring at both Federal and Provincial levels. The withdrawal of the Federal government from new housing provision was mitigated for much of the 1990s by the continuing Provincial commitment. However, the provincial Liberal Party also has now abandoned new social housing construction. This is compounded by the ongoing, draconian income assistance regime (initiated under the same New Democratic Party government that kept building social housing, and intensified by the Liberals) that not only cuts rates while making it more difficult to obtain, but is now set time limits that will shortly (as of March 31, 2004) disconnect thousands of people from the social safety net. This has all taken place in the much broader context of the continuing high unemployment that resulted from the abandonment of full employment policies in the wake of the opening of national markets to international competition.

The results of the pressures exerted by all these forces, from gentrification, redevelopment, and the declining stock of SROs, to wider economic changes and welfare state retrenchment, have been visible on the street, not only of the Downtown Eastside, but all over the inner and core neighbourhoods of the city. Marginality is visibly on the increase, as the presence of homeless people, panhandlers, and an open drug market attests. Under such conditions, conflicts over both housing and the presence of marginalized groups on the streets, which have become more familiar over the past decade, will likely continue and perhaps intensify.

Leonard Marsh, the visionary of Strathcona urban renewal, would probably be surprised not only that the neighbourhood is still full of wooden houses but that only a short walk from this fashionable, renovated district are two encampments of homeless people at Strathcona and Creekside parks. Meanwhile, the proponents of the concentration thesis have been conspicuously silent about the Provincial departure from social housing provision. Of course, since there will no longer be any new social housing built, they don’t have to argue that it should be built outside the Downtown Eastside. Fifty years after the first attempt to address it, the housing question in this part of the city still escapes any resolution.

Works Cited

Boddy, Trevor. “Lore Krill Housing Coop Earns Highest Marks.” The Vancouver Sun (17 April 2003); B6.

City of Vancouver Housing Centre. Changes in the SRO Stock in Vancouver’s Downtown Core, 1971-1994. Vancouver: City of Vancouver, 1995.

City of Vancouver Planning Department. Downtown Eastside Community Monitoring Report. Vancouver: City of Vancouver, 2001.

City of Vancouver Social Planning Department (VSPD 1971). Report to the Standing Committee on Health and Welfare from the Director of Social Planning and Community Development, Nov. 18, 1971. City of Vancouver Archives, Vancouver Social Planning Department, Series 178, 85-A-3, File 7. Skid Road, 1971-72.

Harcourt, Mike. “Harcourt offers plan to clean up inner city: A lethal cocktail of homelessness, crime, drug abuse and joblessness has to be counter-acted.” The Vancouver Sun (7 November 1998); A3.

Ley, David, “The Downtown Eastside: ‘One Hundred Years of Struggle’.” In David Ley and Shlomo Hassan, Neighbourhood Organizations and the Welfare State. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.

Main and Hastings Community Development Society. Downtown Core Housing Survey, 2001. Vancouver: Main and Hastings Community Development Society, 2001.

Marsh, Leonard. Rebuilding a Neighbourhood: Report on a Demonstration Slum-Clearance and Urban Rehabilitation Project in a Key Central Area in Vancouver. Vancouver: The University of British Columbia, 1950.

Phillips, Art. “Good intentions go bad: PAST LESSONS: Exclusive public housing projects will doom the Downtown Eastside to continued misery.” The Vancouver Sun (1 November 2000); A21.

Picot, Garnet. What is Happening to Earnings Inequality and Youth Wages in the 1990s. Ottawa: Statistics Canada Analytical Studies No. 116, 1998.

Sassen, Saskia. Cities in a World Economy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2000.

Sassen, Saskia. The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2001.

Sommers, Jeff. The Place of the Poor: Poverty, Space and the Politics of Representation in Downtown Vancouver, 1950-1997. Unpublished PhD dissertation. Burnaby: Simon Fraser University, 2001.

Sommers, Jeff and Nick Blomley. “The Worst Block in Vancouver?” In Reid Shier, ed., Stan Douglas: Every Building on 100 West Hastings. Arsenal Pulp Press and the Contemporary Art Gallery: Vancouver, 2003.

Vancouver Community Legal Assistance Society (VCLAS 1971). Skid Road Housing Conditions. City of Vancouver Archives, Vancouver Social Service Department, Series 454, 107-A-7. Skid Road, 1962-1971, File 5, 1970-71.

Wade, Jill. Houses For All: The Struggle for Social Housing in Vancouver, 1919-1950. Vancouver:  UBC Press, 1994.

Zyblock, Myles and Zhengxi Lin. Trickling Down or Fizzling Out: Economic Performance, Transfers, Inequality, and Low Income. Ottawa: Statistics Canada Analytical Studies No. 110, 1997.


[i] (Boddy 2003). The Lore Krill Coop is located half a block from the Woodward’s building and was constructed with funds that were originally intended for social housing there. When the building’s then-owner, Fama Holdings, reneged on its deal with the Province, the funding was re-allocated to two housing coops in the area.

[ii] The Downtown Eastside has 23% of Vancouver’ social and cooperative housing stock but only 3.2% of its population (City of Vancouver Planning Department 2001).

[iii] Business and home-owner groups in Strathcona and the Gastown tourist district have developed close associations with the NPA. For example, a prominent, long-time member of the Gastown Business Improvement Association, J.P. Shason, was intimately involved with financing the party’s civic election campaigns while another, Grant Longhurst, a communications consultant, ran the campaigns. When the NPA lost the 2002 election, a member of the Strathcona BIA sat on the its Board of Directors, together with well-known Gastown homeowner and gentrification advocate, Lynn Bryson.

[iv] These groups were organized into the Downtown Clergy Committee, which was composed of groups like St. James Social Services, First United Church, the Salvation Army, and Catholic Charities.

[v] Vancouver’s inner city neighbourhoods include the districts surrounding False Creek starting with Kitsilano, on the west, Fairview, Mount Pleasant, Strathcona, and Grandview. The Downtown peninsula includes the Central Business District, Downtown Eastside, and the West End.

[vi] (VCLAS 1971). For the response of City staff see (VSPD 1971), known informally as “The Skid Road Report.”

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