When real estate developers pack a public hearing at Vancouver’s City Hall and the head of the Urban Development Institute shows up, you know the development industry wants something real bad.
That’s what happened last week at a city council hearing on a proposal to upzone swathes of the city — much of it in east and south Vancouver. City planners proposed allowing four- to six-storey market rental housing in commercial zones and on side streets near parks, schools and shopping. City council approved the plan.
This might sound like a win-win initiative. Policy makers are incentivizing rental housing and developers can profit at the same time. But in a city where an “affordable” market rental two-bedroom apartment is now $2,400 or more a month, who will be suffering the “unintended” collateral damage from the mass upzoning this time?
When Leo Yu, a new father who lives in a small studio with his family in East Vancouver heard about the new zoning, his thoughts immediately turned to his mother Susana, who relies on her East Side community to thrive.
“I worry that the new policies will create housing that favour wealthier tenants, while lower-income folks like my mom will keep getting pushed out of the city,” he said. “It would be devastating for my family if my mom was evicted.”
The upzoning targets large portions of the commercial and side streets of east and south Vancouver where many working class and racialized immigrant families like Yu’s live.
Go along Kingsway and Fraser and you’ll see the diversity of Vancouver. There’s Little Saigon between Fraser and Nanaimo, Filipino eateries, affordable Chinese grocers, Hong Kong cafés, bakeries, hair salons, laundromats, dentists, hole-in-the-wall bubble tea shops, Indian and Pakistani restaurants, temples, churches and more.
Unlike most of the newly developing areas of Vancouver, you’ll notice that there are few chain stores. Most of the businesses are mom-and-pop and people-of-colour-friendly businesses.
Winnie Kwan, who grew up and still lives in southeast Vancouver with her multigenerational family, gushed about her neighbourhood. “I love my neighbourhood of South Hill that spans from 50th Street to 41st Street along Fraser. There is literally everything you could possibly need. It is, in my eyes, a star example of neighbourhood planning.”
Many working-class, minority families like Kwan’s and Yu’s own houses and live near those important commercial arterials. Pro-development activists call them “millionaire homeowners” and argue they can simply cash out and move wherever they please.
But here’s the reality.
“My mom almost choked when she saw what the increase in property tax is going to be next year. She is a full-time server in a diner restaurant and my dad a full-time chef in a Chinese restaurant. You’re calling us millionaire homeowners?” Kwan said in disbelief.
“My family isn’t looking to sell. That’s our only home. We’re staying. We don’t have anywhere else to go. So what the upzoning translates to is ever higher property taxes that my family needs to pay off on top of the mortgage we’re still working off.” (Upzoning can result in higher property assessments and taxes due to changes in the potential uses of the land and speculation.)
Yu concurred. “My mom’s landlords, who live upstairs, are low-income earners who barely get by,” he said. “They are a recently widowed mom and teenage son.”
Not surprisingly, these on-the-ground realities were missed in the 236-page city policy document. Jargon like C-2, FSR and “residential rental tenure” obscure the richness and challenges of the people and businesses in these neighbourhoods. Instead, the city simply calls them “low density transition areas.”
Kwan said the zoning means changes for the neighbourhoods that will erase their character.
“This kind of zoning is often a precursor for gentrification,” she said. “I’d hate to see the cultural diversity, and what I see a key characteristic of the neighbourhood I was born and raised in, lost to gentrification.”
Yu is worried about who will be able to afford the new market rentals and what the new businesses catering to those tenants will look like. The policies will continue the wave of gentrification that exacerbates the housing crisis and makes Vancouver less livable, he said.
“Gentrification puts folks like my mom at risk of displacement,” he said on Twitter. “She lucked out by taking over my [one-bedroom East Vancouver basement] suite.”
His mother lives on basic retirement benefits and pays $1,050 per month rent, including electricity. “New market-rate rentals will never house her,” Yu lamented.
“My mom uses one bus ticket round-trip to shop at Lian Hong on Fraser Street for take-out meals, frozen dumplings and sticky rice. She buys gifts for friends from a mom-and-pop over-supply retail store. She walks up and down Fraser Street weekly,” he added. “Hipster [businesses] will push out these shops.”
So what do city staff have to say about citizens’ concerns about displacement?
“Based on economic testing, we do not anticipate a significant increase in the pace of development.... Rather, we expect to see a shift from some of the anticipated strata developments to rental.”
However, we’ve seen the damage done by market rentals in racialized, working-class communities. The shiny Brixton Flats in Chinatown is a prime example. Sure, it’s a market rental building, but the tiny expensive suites were built for millennial urban professionals who “live lightly.” Potential tenants were initially forced into personality screening when applying for tenancy. A new hipster juice bar — Kevin & Kevin — is moving into the ground floor next spring.
Might that be Yu’s mother’s new reality soon? It’s not hard to imagine.
It didn’t take long before economist Tom Davidoff jumped into the Twitter debate, asking Yu: “What do you think sufficient compensation for your mother would be in the event of redevelopment?”
Yu said the question misses the point.
“It’s a cruel question to put a price on a person,” he told me. “My mom is incredibly happy living in her basement suite. She loves being near her grandchild and has such great access to culturally appropriate businesses. She meets every morning for coffee with a group of Chinese elders in her neighbourhood. But if my mom ever got evicted, she will never find a home in Vancouver again. This terrifies me.”
As you head east on Kingsway towards the area where Yu’s mother lives, you’ll approach a 37-metre ladder standing in the median of the road. It was commissioned by luxury real estate developer Westbank as a public art contribution for its massive Kensington Gardens condo project. The 108-rung ladder to nowhere is supposed to encourage the viewer to “reach upward and beyond to achieve perceivably unattainable goals.”
Say what you will about Westbank’s art tastes, but the developer has a knack for choosing pieces that reflect the depressing state of Vancouver (cue the Spinning Chandelier).
Because soon, living and working in Kingsway and other areas affected by the zoning change will be “perceivably unattainable goals” for many of today’s residents and businesses.