Vancouver's downtown eastside. Photo via Flickr user Yaokcool.
Dave Rouleau and Monika Benkovich were hired to gentrify the York Rooms. And it seems to have worked. The 36-room hotel was one of many run-down SROs (single-room occupancy) now peppered among the high-end restaurants and trendy shops popping up throughout the quickly changing Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. The DTES is known casually as "Canada's poorest postal code;" a majority of its residents live below the poverty line and struggle with addiction and mental illness alongside a lack of access to proper housing and the services they need. While "cleaning up the neighbourhood" might sound like a noble endeavor, it often comes at the expense of residents.
Wendy Pedersen, a long time DTES resident and housing advocate, says that the rent at the York Rooms went from $375 per month to around $600, pointing out that welfare rates are only $610 a month. SROs previously occupied by the poor are now being advertised as “trendy Gastown buildings” suitable for “musicians, artists, and students.” Unaffordability aside, Pedersen says landlords at are explicitly discriminating against welfare recipients and Indigenous people in their efforts to create a different "culture" in the building.
“Renovictions” are a strategy that has been adopted across Vancouver, but most concertedly in Gastown and the DTES, wherein landlords kick renters out of their suites in order to renovate them and increase the rent for the next tenants who move in. Tristan Markle, a member of The Coalition of Progressive Electors' (COPE) housing committee, says he doesn't believe these tactics are even legal and wants the city to step in and stop renovictions.
The York Rooms is not the only SRO engaged in efforts to displace marginalized renters and rebrand, but they are representative of the gentrification that is rapidly consuming the DTES (and, really, Vancouver at large). Glass towers emerge at an astounding rate, but remain full of empty suites (many of which are owned by people who don't live in them), mocking those who can't afford to live in them as they are pushed into homelessness.
The irony of a city full of empty apartments contrasted with a dramatic increase in the number of homeless in the past year feels inhumane. Expensive restaurants full of middle to upper class, youngish white folks, trying with embarrassing desperation to join communities that they are slowly pushing out, are opening in locations that allow those living outside to stare in at their new, wealthier, neighbours. Last summer, activists picketed outside of Cuchillo, the high-end restaurant that opened below the York Rooms, signaling to residents that their housing situation was about to change.
Which brings us back to Rouleau and Benkovich. Hired by Living Balance, a company described by activists as "professional gentrifiers," they are part of a strategy used by many landlords wanting to cash in on the newly gentrified area, which often involves intimidation and manipulation in order to force tenants to vacate. Pedersen says "they hire people like Dave because they need ruthless bullies," adding that Rouleau was "an angry and aggressive character" who she was scared of. She claimed he targeted activists like her in particular, as she was part of a group that picketed daily outside the York Rooms. "Some people think it's bad that we were picketing, but people's lives are being ruined," Pedersen says.
When Mathieu Pierre Youdan reported for The Mainlander that the very same people whose job was to evict impoverished people from their homes and jack up the rent were raising money to produce a documentary about their experiences, many were appalled. "It's completely exploitative," Pedersen says. "Some of those people [in the York Rooms] were in such a vulnerable mental health state." Rouleau's position of power as manager makes the whole film "unethical," she adds.
One would think the City of Vancouver could cap this kind of development and commit to creating affordable housing. But part of the problem may be that they are creating social housing that is not actually affordable. It appears that the ruling civic party, Vision Vancouver, defines "affordable housing" in a questionable way in order to justify rezoning and development projects. Last year, under the guise of ensuring "affordable" rental housing, the city set a maximum rent developers can charge: $1,443 per month for a studio, $1,517 for a one-bedroom and $2,061 for a two-bedroom apartment. To pretend as though these rents are "affordable" to those struggling to survive in this city—particularly the working class or the poor—is disingenuous..
"Gentrification is a real thing," Markle says. "This process, wherein wealthy people are recruited to replace poor people, is a widely recognized urban phenomenon. The way that it's happening in Vancouver is not much different than how it happens in other places and the City absolutely facilitates it." Pedersen agrees: "Vision wants to gentrify Vancouver." If this continues, Markle says, "the city will become more exclusive, more polarized, and more violent towards poor people."
Kerry Jang, Vision Vancouver city councilor, feels stuck. "We're asked all the time to put in rent controls, but we can't. That's a provincial jurisdiction." Beyond that, one of the most pressing issues that is going unaddressed by the Province is that welfare rates haven't gone up in seven years. "Until people have more money to spend on rent, this problem is going to persist," he says.
But Pedersen and Markle say there are measures the city could take if they wanted to stop the renovictions, displacement, and the growing homelessness problem. "The main thing the city should do is buy the hotels at risk for renoviction and buy property for social housing," Pedersen says. That would ensure it was protected from developers who will simply build more condo developments or renovict tenants.
Jang says the City has been consistently asking the Province both to buy SROs in the DTES and turn them into government housing and to build low-income housing on the land the City donates to the Province. "The City just doesn't have the money to buy all these properties," Jang says. "We buy land when we can and donate it to the Province so they can build on it," he says. "But they need to commit to doing that."
Pedersen says that the City has control over licensing and that they could stop renovictions by refusing to give licenses to operate to new hotel owners and to their retail spaces. "Even if they did that once or twice it would send a strong signal that SROs are not profitable, which would stop companies like Living Balance from purchasing them and converting them."
Markle adds that "the City can stop renovictions right now by banning renovictions on renovations permits," Markle says. "You don't give a renovations permit to anyone unless they show that tenancy will be protected."
It's clear Rouleau and Benkovich aren't the problem. But they are symptomatic of something larger—a particular group of people who see DTES residents as simply a problem to be solved or, better yet, erased from view and a government that prioritizes business over people. If Vancouver wants to cater only to those who can afford fancy meals and $500,000 faux-bohemian lofts, it's certainly on the right path.