Friday, November 22, 2013

Post Mortem: SFU City Conversation on the future of the Downtown Eastside

21 Nov
Although & I often disagree, I always appreciate his bravery to say what he thinks in tough rooms, & promote a discussion.

I would like to think the organizers of yesterday's City Conversation would say the luncheon discussion was a success. I thought it was, even though as one of the attendees said, I had to take a lot of abuse. But this was not unexpected. After all, by provoking a discussion on the desired housing mix in the DTES, many might say I was asking for it.

At issue is whether the City should concentrate more social housing in the DEOD portion of the Downtown Eastside and in so doing exclude condominium development, or encourage a broader mix of housing, including condominium projects, in this and other DTES neighbourhoods.

In my opening remarks, I noted that this should not be a political discussion; that is to say, an NPA position vs. a Vision or COPE position. Rather, this should be a discussion about the appropriate planning for the area. I raised this since in a recent article, local activist Jean Swanson dismissed my concerns since they were coming from a former NPA Council candidate and a developer.

I asked the audience to consider that 39 years ago, when Ray Spaxman was the City's newly arrived Director of Planning, I was the CMHC official responsible for assisting with the development of a number of social housing projects in the DTES.

As evidenced by Jean Swanson's latest article local community activists do not want to see any condominium development in the area. This view was shared by a number of participants at yesterday's session.

Will any condos be allowed in the DEOD?
Others questioned whether this was indeed what the City Planning Department is proposing. In his presentation, Ray Spaxman advised the City may in fact allow condominium development up to 1 FSR  in the DEOD. However, any additional development above 1 FSR would have to be 60% social housing and 40% rental housing.

While one might question the marketability of units in a project with 20% condos and the balance social and rental housing, this to my mind is better than banning all condominium housing, which is what was intially understood to be the proposal.

While time did not permit a thorough conversation on the future of the DTES, a number of important topics were touched upon.

Who wants to live in the DTES?
In my opening remarks, I noted that while I know many people like living in the DTES the way it is (albeit with more self-contained social housing units), it was my understanding that many others would prefer to live in affordable housing elsewhere. For this reason, we should not be adding more social housing units to the area. While Ray Spaxman questioned this, one of the attendees reported that a recent survey had in fact revealed that 50% of area residents responded that they would like to live elsewhere. I was surprised the percentage was so high.

Coop housing?
There was a brief discussion as to whether coop housing would be permitted under the proposed new zoning. Without declaring a position on the desirability of coops, Cllr Andrea Reimer, who attended along with Cllr Carr, responded that coop housing could be considered as part of the social housing component.

However one of the attendees, who identified himself as a director of the Four Sisters Housing Cooperative informed the group that many of the lower income neighbourhood residents who had moved into his coop had left, since they did not want to assume the responsibilities of coop living. He thought coop living was not a good solution for the very poor. I found this disappointing.

More retail shops and services?
I suggested that it would be desirable to see many of the boarded up storefronts filled with a broad range of shops and services. Ray took this to mean that the existing businesses serving low income households would be forced out. This was not my proposition at all. Indeed, I believe there is plenty of room for a variety of businesses in the neighbourhood, including new restaurants. Hopefully the mix of retail uses will be addressed in the new plan.

Replacing SROs with self contained units
Many local residents supported the replacement of 5,000 +/- run down, dilapidated SRO units with new self-contained units. However, I noted this would likely cost between $1 billion and $1.5 billion. While BC Housing noted it has been acquiring and renovating SRO's (another $144 million has been committed) in my opinion, the necessary $1 billion + is never going to be available.

Rather than depend on this money, I suggested the City could improve the condition of the SRO's by more effectively enforcing its maintenance bylaws. I also proposed an increase in the shelter component of welfare since $375 or $425 is not sufficient to pay for decent, well maintained, and safe accommodation. I noted that in Toronto, well maintained SRO's rent for $500 to $550 a month.

An urban tragedy: Marguerite Ford House
In attendance was Marguerite Ford, a former City Alderman and longstanding advocate for affordable housing in the city. I recently learned that one of the 14 new social housing projects on city owned lands immediately south of the Olympic Village is known as Marguerite Ford House. When I asked Marguerite why I hadn't been invited to the opening I was shocked to learn the opening has had to be delayed. When speaking to others who were present, it appears the building is in a war zone.

Rather than fill the building with a mix of hard-to-house, low and moderate income residents as intended, the City Manager's Office insisted that all 147 units be occupied by homeless and otherwise hard-to-house individuals coming out of SRO's.

I have subsequently been told by a senior provincial official that they advised against this, but the City ignored their advice. The result has been a disaster.

As noted in this and other stories  there have been numerous problems with the building and over 149 calls to the police.

I raise this sad story for a couple of reasons. Firstly, readers of this block will recall a number of years ago I was severely criticized by Jim Green, Bob Rennie and others after I learned that the DTES based Portland Hotel Society was the preferred operator for the social housing units at Olympic Village. I warned that hard-to-house residents should not be moved into the Olympic Village.

Since the development was facing significant financial losses, I also suggested it would be better to sell off the units. The response was vitriolic.

While the City did not select the Portland Hotel Society to manage the units; (to date, no non-profit social housing manager has been found) and half the units were subsequently rented at the lower end of market rents, the problems I feared within the Olympic Village are now happening next door.

Although City staff were cautioned by the province and the building's non-profit operators, they went ahead and filled this building with formerly homeless and difficult SRO tenants. Why? According to the operators of the building, so the Mayor could claim success in reducing the number of street homeless.

Fortunately, I've been told that the province will not allow the City to fill up the remaining social housing on City lands with just the homeless and hard-to-house. Instead, it will insist on a broader mix of households in each building.

Hopefully the City will realize that accommodating a broader mix of households should also be the preferred approach in the DEOD and elsewhere in the DTES. One thing that I did learn at yesterday's City Conversation is that many others living in the community are also urging the City to proceed with this approach.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The future of the DTES: SFU City Conversation November 21, 2013

As readers of this blog are only too well aware, recently I have been deeply troubled by a proposal by the City of Vancouver's Planning Department to change the zoning for a 40 block area in the heart of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside within the DEOD zone. The zoning change would essentially discourage the development of any condominiums, by requiring that any projects in excess of 1 FSR comprise 60% social housing and 40% rental housing.

To my mind, continuing what is currently a run-down, low income ghetto with a high prevalence of illegal drug use and crime for the foreseeable future, seems completely misguided and contrary to good community planning.  I therefore asked to meet with the General Manager of Development Services, Brian Jackson, and Kevin McNaney, Assistant Director of Planning to better understand their rationale for this position.

During our brief discussion, Brian and Kevin advised that they were proposing this initiative, with input from the City's Housing Department, in order to limit an increases in land values in the area. This was necessary, in their opinion, to facilitate the development of new social housing projects in the absence of Federal and Provincial funding.

When I questioned just how many projects might be viable under this scenario, (other than the Atira project which had been approved by Council the previous week at what I considered too much height and too much density), they responded that a study by Coriolis Consulting confirmed that under certain circumstances, projects would be economically viable.

These circumstances included 6 storey wood frame construction, no parking requirments for either the housing or any commercial space, and no requirement for Development Cost Levies. While there would be no need for capital subsidies from either the Federal or Provincial government, there would be a need for limited ongoing provincial operating payments.

Brian added that he has had enquiries from 6 to 8 non-profit groups who are interested in proceeding with developments on this basis; and for this reason, he is confident that the zoning will work and result in the desired housing.

In response to my questions, Brian and Kevin re-confirmed that this proposal is not being directed by either the City Manager's Office or Council. Nor is it a response to pressure from local community activists like Wendy Pedersen, Jean Swanson or Ivan Drury. It is what the Planning Department thinks is the right thing to do to facilitate the development of social housing without capital funding from senior levels of government.

Response from Brian Jackson

Subsequent to this meeting, Brian sent me a note summarizing the City's position which I am setting out below: (Reprinted with Brian's knowledge and authorization)

Hello Michael,
Thank you for coming to see me this week to outline your concerns with respect to the city’s emerging directions on the DTES plan.  Michael, as you know, the Downtown Eastside is a community of neighbourhoods, each with a distinct and interconnected role. As part of the DTES plan, City Council directed us to look for ways to accelerate and implement the DTES housing plan (2005), to maintain the stock of low-income housing and replace deteriorating SROs with self-contained social housing that have kitchen and bathrooms. Despite their inadequacy, SROs are, for many, ‘the last resort’ before homelessness. This is consistent with the positive outcomes achieved in the recent “At Home/Chez Soi” study.


The DEOD is one part of the Downtown Eastside, about 15% of the geographic area of the DTES, with 16 full blocks and 5 partial blocks, where many residents are  facing significant affordability and health challenges. It is a sensitive part of the community that is facing  significant development pressure and it has the potential to change very quickly, which may negatively impact the most vulnerable residents. The City wants the neighbourhood to change for the better without creating more homelessness and where the changes result in improved housing options for many of the existing residents.   We want, and need, more private investment in this area of the DTES.

For the DEOD, the emerging directions from the local area plan are for any additional residential development over 1FSR (the current outright density), the additional units must be 60% social housing and 40% secured market rental. Therefore home ownership would be allowed in the DEOD for those who wanted to develop under the base zoning,  but extra density above 1FSR can only be achieved by constructing rental housing only, with an emphasis on non-profit rental, where affordability is maximized. These emerging directions would create a special innovation zone to bring equity and imagination to the table to assist the city in increasing social housing and affordable rental for low and moderate income households.  The emerging directions rely on changes in land-use policy to enable new market rental housing, affordable rental housing and social housing, but the city cannot meet the need for deep affordability in these new units without a senior government subsidy, either through equity or rent supplement.  We will be monitoring the success of this policy every few years to determine its ability to achieve our housing targets both throughout the DTES and the DEOD in particular.

We are currently finalizing the housing chapter of the plan, and rechecking our assumptions necessary for the successful implementation of the DEOD policy.  This should be finalized in the next couple of weeks, and then will be discussed with the LAPP committee and then the general public prior to Council’s consideration.

The key issue?
Unfortunately, time did not allow a more thorough discussion of what many regard as the key issue related to the downtown eastside.  Namely:

Should the DTES remain a low income precinct, essentially 'walled off' from the rest of the city, with a high concentration of social housing, low income rental housing, and an extensive array of community services?

Or should it become a more 'normalized' community, albeit for predominantly low-income households, with a broader range of households and housing choices (including ownership housing) along with increased commercial activity and an improved physical appearance?

After the meeting I came across the Vancouver Sun account of the Federal 'at home' study which is looking at how various housing options are impacting those with mental illness. The conclusion was generally what I expected.

Those living in scattered housing around the city, rather than in various 'congregate' forms of housing in the DTES or elsewhere in the city appear to have benefitted the most.

This is the approach taken by Toronto's Street-to-home program and something I have been advocating as an alternative to the construction of larger, expensive social housing projects.

The study also noted that many want to get away from the DTES.

This conversation is by no means over. On November 21 at 12:30, I will be participating in a SFU City Conversation with Ray Spaxman at Harbour Centre to discuss the future of the DTES and the local area planning process. Ray has been working with the Building Community Society in the DTES and was co-chair of the local area planning process. Everyone is invited.

I am also hoping that between now and January, when Vancouver City Council will consider the Local Area Plan for the area, others who want to see a successful regeneration of the DTES will also speak up. I know that Council will particularly want to hear from local residents since, as one Councillor has stated, why should she listen to people like me who do not live in the area?

From the responses I have received from my original Vancouver Sun op-ed, I know they are many others out there who feel as I do, including the residents and businesses represented by the Inner City Neighbourhood Coalition whose comments are set out in an earlier blogpost.

Sochi Resort Town

On my last day in Russia, I decided to head into Sochi proper for a Sunday outing. At breakfast I met a fellow in a Vancouver 2010 T-shirt working on the stage sets for the opening ceremonies. Rather than take a taxi, he suggested I take the 125 bus, since if the road was really congested it might take a couple of hours and turn out to be very expensive.
I took his advice and got onto a local mini bus. You give your money to a fellow passenger who passes it on to the driver. There’s no ticket, no receipt. However, I soon discovered I was on the wrong bus, and transferred to a larger bus for what turned out to be a 45 minute ride into Sochi.
On the way I saw a variety of building designs typical of the area.
I had no idea where to get off; but eventually saw a new Hyatt Regency under construction and figured it was as good a place as any. I walked down to a waterfront walkway,
past a number of elegant hotels and parks, and eventually reached the seafront and discovered people  swimming in the sea and sunbathing on the pebbly beach. It was hard to imagine that in 3 months the world would be gathering here for the winter Olympics!
With its palm trees and large hotels, this part of Sochi reminded me of French resort towns on the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts. 
While some seafood restaurants had menus in English, I did not find the multi-lingual menus one sees in Italy and other parts of Europe. Presumably this will change. But for the time being, this is a Russian resort town, not an international resort town.
Wanting a photo of myself with the sea as a backdrop I approached two young girls who misunderstood me and thought I wanted to photograph them. So I did. Their faces are characteristic of many Russians coming from more remote parts of the country outside of Moscow.
Along the pier I came across a large mirrored building that turned out to be the Bosco Sochi Olympics souvenir store. The bold designs and colours are fascinating.The prices are higher than they were in Vancouver.
Vancouver's red mittens have been replaced by Sochi's rainbow mittens.
As I was leaving, I walked by a shop front with a small English sign that spelled Massage. I looked inside and was astonished to see a fellow and his girlfriend sitting with their feet in aquariums full of what looked like minnows. 
I had never seen this before and asked if I could take a picture. “Sure” he said, “but you should try this. It feels wonderful.”

Had I been with my wife I know I would have walked on. But I wasn’t with my wife and decided to join him. I paid the equivalent of $5 for the minimum time…five minutes and after a couple of minutes I was ready to move on. It was truly an odd sensation, and if I could have relaxed I might have enjoyed it.
That evening I tweeted out a photo and received a reply from NY_1108, who turned out to be a Russian lady. She cautioned me about putting my feet in a public aquarium since it’s easy to pick up a disease!  Now she tells me.  So far, I feel fine.

Rather than take the bus or taxi back, I decided to take the train to the new Adler Train Station from where I would get a cab. But on my way to the station I saw the 125 bus which dropped me off near the Radisson Hotel.  (Take the train!)
There were not a lot of lights on in the hotel, especially compared to the adjacent Athletes' Village where workmen were finishing off suite interiors...but I just know all the lights will be on in 3 months.

The next morning I returned to Vancouver via Moscow and London. However, it is possible to fly one stop to Vancouver via Frankfurt or numerous other European cities. 

Even if you don't get to Sochi for the Olympics, I highly recommend a visit before or after mid-February. As was the case at Vancouver and Whistler, the significant Olympics investment  has dramatically improved the number of available hotels and other tourist facilities.
Thanks to everyone who helped make my trip to Sochi and Krasnaya so very enjoyable and special.

Adler, Sochi, Russia

One of my reasons for coming to Sochi was to see what the surrounding area was like. As I tried to book hotels I discovered that one of the towns within Sochi is Adler, (it's also where the airport is located) a name for which I have a special fondness since I am a Trustee of the Chicago-based Adler School of Professional Psychology-soon to become Adler University.
This Adler is a seafront city with a subtropical climate. It's a very pedestrian friendly resort town with wide sidewalks (and an unusual ribbed-paving pattern that I couldn't quite understand), 
lots of palm trees, and oftentimes garish and robust buildings which I find to be characteristic of many cities in Eastern Europe.  
I was particularly intrigued by this landscaped street parking arrangement which included strategically placed billboards. I had never seen anything quite like this before.
After exploring the town for a while, it was time for dinner. However, few restaurants had bilingual menus. 
Eventually I found an inviting and lively place with a large outdoor terrace. But I really chose Adriano Pizzeria because the menu had photos of all the dishes, and a large selection of vodkas.   
I subsequently enjoyed a variety of vodkas, (I stopped when they all started to taste the same), Russian beer, good food and Twitter on the free wireless internet. While a potenially dangerous combination, it was a good way to end a very good day!
In the taxi on my way back to the nearby Radisson I experienced the serious traffic congestion that plagues this area. I was told that Russians will be told not to drive their cars during the Olympics, in order to allow tourists to get around. (Sound familiar?).  If they do not obey, I am sure we will hear about some serious congestion problems since there really is only one road linking the Sochi communities.
Back in my hotel I watched a fascinating feature on the TV news about an Olympics-related initiative in Moscow. Transit ticket dispensers are now offering free tickets to those who perform 30 knee-bends.

Russia is getting ready for the Olympics!