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Definition of social housing a sticking point in DTES plan

More than 100 people signed up to speak at what became a rowdy city council meeting yesterday. From 1:30 to 10 p.m., council heard opinions on its 320-page Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan, and overflow is scheduled for tomorrow.

While numerous individuals and organizations praised the plans proposal to make the Downtown Eastside Oppenheimer District a 60/40 split between social housing and market rental housing, many current DTES resident felt that was the only measure in the plan from which the low-income community could actually benefit. The need for an Aboriginal wellness centre that includes intergenerational housing came up again and again throughout the night.

Others were opposed for different reasons, including developer Michael Geller, whose brash assertion that even more condos than the plan proposes are the solution to the neighbourhood's problems elicited jeers from the gallery and a few eye rolls from council members. A common concern among developers and representatives of business associations was the large portion of funding that has yet to be secured from senior levels of government.

A sticking point for many was the proposed change to the definition of social housing. At the top of the report, the general manager of planning and development services recommends that council replace the current definition of social housing -- defined as housing owned by government or a non-profit organization and intended for seniors, people with disabilities or low-income families or individuals -- to match the definition under the Vancouver Development Cost Levy Bylaw.

That definition says social housing is housing in which 30 per cent of the units are occupied by households with incomes below the core-need threshold; housing owned by or on behalf of the city, the province or Canada; housing owned by a non-profit corporation; or housing owned by a non-profit co-operative association. The plan also proposes striking altogether the definition of low-income housing.

Tami Starlight told the room she came more to take up space as a non-straight, non-cisgender member of the community than out of any real hope for change. She said she doesn't understand why the plan hanse't defined social housing based on welfare and pension rates.

"The low-income community in the LAP [local area plan] has asked it since day one and it still has not been done and we feel it's a great injustice to our community."

When Councillor Elizabeth Ball asked Starlight's opinion on the proposed change outlined in the plan, Starlight said any change to the definition that didn't come directly from low-income residents wasn’t good enough.

"I think the changes do not reflect the need of the community," she said. "Even if it's close it's still not good enough. If it's not defined in the Downtown Eastside as welfare or pension rate, we'll continue to lose people of lesser means in our community."

The province hasn't increased the current amount of $375 per month since 2007, in spite of rising rents and a continued demand from the low-income community to make the number commensurate with riding cost of living.

Ivan Drury said any loopholes in the definition leave the low-income community vulnerable to less-than-generous interpretations. He added that the city can address the issue of affordable housing by using bylaws to control social housing rents to coincide with welfare rates, invoking the name of notorious Vancouver developer Steven Lippman, who Drury said is know for buying up SROs and evicting tenants via loopholes in the Residential Tenancy Act.

"The city could call such a rent control bylaw a Lippman Law."

Erin Flegg is a Vancouver-based journalist.

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