Are social housing requirements in the heart of Vancouver’s DTES working?

Click to play video: 'Is 60/40 housing split working in heart of DTES?'
Is 60/40 housing split working in heart of DTES?
An initiative to prevent new ownership housing in the downtown eastside of Vancouver is almost ten years old. The area around Oppenheimer park is a social housing and rental-only zone. The plan was to prevent gentrification, but some say it's been a failure and it's time for a rethink. Kristen Robinson reports. – Aug 14, 2023

Nearly a decade after Vancouver city council approved the 2014 Downtown Eastside Plan, critics question whether the social and rental housing zone in a key area around Oppenheimer Park is working to improve the neighbourhood – or instead stalling growth.

When Bob Rennie was marketing the Woodward’s condos and social housing development in 2006, he had a bold prediction for the Downtown Eastside.

“This is the new downtown ’cause it’s got nowhere else to go,” Rennie told Global News in March 2006.

Seventeen years later, the Downtown Eastside is far from Vancouver’s new downtown.

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Tragic death following accidental fire on DTES

Many residents are still trapped in a cycle of poverty, homelessness and addiction. Last November, incoming-B.C. premier David Eby went so far as to say he’d not seen the area look worse as he announced the province would be taking over running a coordinated approach to address issues in the Downtown Eastside.

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“I have not seen a worse situation for people than I have right now,” Eby told Global News in an interview on Nov. 9, 2022.

With the benefit of hindsight, Rennie now acknowledges that prediction missed the mark.

“Just, geographically, it made sense,” he said.

Under the 2014 Downtown Eastside Plan, a 30-year vision to improve the lives of low-income residents, no condos are allowed in the heart of the neighbourhood surrounding Oppenheimer Park, or what’s known as the Downtown Eastside Oppenheimer District (DEOD).

“It’s not working,” Rennie told Global News in an interview Monday.

Under city rules, condos are permitted in other areas of the Downtown Eastside, including Chinatown, Victory Square and Hastings near Clark Drive.

New projects built beyond existing zoning in the DEOD or the area bordered by Main Street and part of Columbia Street to the west, East Hastings’ alleys to the south, Heatley Avenue to the east and Alexander Street to the north, must contain 60 per cent social housing and 40 per cent secured market rental.

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It’s a mix developers say is not economically viable without huge government subsidies.

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The city of Vancouver told Global News only one 60/40 project – 288 East Hastings – has been built since 2014.

The 11-storey Anjok building has 68 low-end-of-market rental units and 104 non-market micro-dwelling units, and is managed by Atira Property Management.

“You only see one building built, so that zoning is protected and [has] stopped the area from smart growth or gentrification,” Rennie said.

Proponents of the DTES Plan’s current housing policy for the DEOD – including former senior Vancouver city planner Nathan Edelson – say market development would endanger existing social housing and potentially displace the most vulnerable population.

“Allowing condos would increase property values,” Edelson said.

Henriquez Partners Architects was involved in the Woodward’s redevelopment and is known for inclusive and mixed-use projects.

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Managing principal Gregory Henriquez said the idea of injecting affordable housing into the Downtown Eastside, and making sure the right people get it, is essential.

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“The 60/40 split in the Downtown Eastside Plan has yet to change the lives of the people in the neighbourhood for the better,” Henriquez said.

According to Henriquez the problem is the availability of funding, not the intended housing mix, and that all three levels of government must work together to execute the DTES Plan’s housing policy in the DEOD.

“The partnerships between the city, the province and the feds have not happened to make it a reality,” Henriquez told Global News in an interview.

“It really requires the government to be purchasing strategic sites,” added Edelson, “and to be getting the three levels of government focusing their resources to build it.”

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Henriquez believes there needs to be a strategic partnership between the city and council, the province and BC Housing in order to work with the federal government for funding.

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Rennie said 60/40 is not bringing BC Housing or the development community to the table, and he believes a 30/70 housing mix could work.

“Maybe it’s 30 per cent subsidized, 20 per cent at 10 per cent below market rent and 50 per cent at market rents,” Rennie said.

“It needs a re-address or we wouldn’t have only built one since 2014.”

Global News requested an interview with the City of Vancouver on whether it believes the DEOD 60/40 housing mix requirement is working or if the requirements need to be changed to allow more market development like other areas of the DTES, and the city.

A city spokesperson said no one was available for an interview, but in an emailed statement said “there are not any proposals or directions to reconsider this policy.”

The city said the DTES Plan prioritizes the DEOD for creating affordable rental housing for low and moderate income households, focusing on social housing and the replacement of outdated single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels.

“Staff will continue to review and refine the DTES Plan according to housing and community needs, and Council’s direction,” read the city’s response.

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Global News reached out to the Vancouver mayor’s interim chief of staff, Trevor Ford, requesting comment from Ken Sim or the ABC Vancouver council, but did not receive a response by deadline.

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In addition to 288 East Hastings, the city said it received one other application for a 60/40 project since the DTES Plan was adopted in 2014, but the planned seven-storey building at 436 East Hastings has since been cancelled.

The applicant, according to the city, was Wilson Chang Architect on behalf of PD Moore Homes Inc.

Global News reached out to Wilson Chang Architect in June requesting information on why the project was cancelled, but did not receive a response.

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