Neighbourhood-based Approaches to Poverty Concentration in Vancouver, British Columbia

About 17,000 people live in Downtown Eastside, Vancouver, more than 75 per cent of whom are on low incomes. They include retired and injured resource industry workers, people addicted to illegal drugs or alcohol, people released from mental institutions that have been closed, single-parent families, as well as about 1,000 people who are street homeless or who live in shelters. Some are there because they have no choice; most because it is their community.

Downtown Eastside also has a very active and visible illegal drug trade and its main shopping street has 20 to 30 per cent vacant storefronts. At the same time, the area is located near a thriving central business district and high-density middle-income residential areas. It also features heritage buildings, parks, theatres and views of the bay and mountains and, as a result, it is potentially attractive to market housing and downtown support services that are threatening to gentrify the area and displace the poor.

I want to share a few observations from my experience of working with low-income communities as the Senior Planner for Downtown Eastside between 1993 and 2008, as well as my work as a community planner with the City of Vancouver Planning Department for 25 years. In the mid-1990s, the question for Vancouver City officials was: ‘should we let gentrification and displacement take place “naturally”, should we provide incentives to speed up the process or should we try to stop it from happening?’. The City Council, following staff recommendations, chose the latter: it had found no definitive evidence that a concentration of low-income residents was – in and of itself – a bad thing. They chose not to pursue a community planning process, which would have effectively involved saying: ‘we are going to improve your neighbourhood but about 50 per cent of existing residents will have to leave’.

In our approach to community planning, we defined ‘gentrification’ as the transformation of an area that once housed low-income and working-class households, to one dominated by middle- or upper-income households and values. Irrespective of the causes, in areas with heritage character such as Downtown Eastside, people and businesses that can afford higher prices start to bid up the costs of real estate, and the following processes start to unfold:

  • Housing becomes unaffordable to low- and moderate-income households;
  • Expensive shops and restaurants replace those that are more affordable;
  • The new homeowners, tenants and businesses form an alliance to control the public realm and policing, and long-term residents become strangers in their own communities as their behaviour on the street is challenged; and
  • The newcomers also form alliances to oppose not only new health and social services needed by the poor, but also to claim that some existing services should be closed because the area has more than its ‘fair share’.

The strategy in Vancouver has been to try to reverse these processes of gentrification. The key has been securing low-income housing – to fulfil a City Council commitment to replace single-room-occupancy residential ‘hotels’ (SROs) one-to-one with purpose-built social housing. The housing plan also calls for a mix of housing, with a strong emphasis on affordable rental units. This includes housing affordable to support and service workers working in Downtown Eastside and in the nearby Central Business District so they don’t have to commute from distant neighbourhoods. The plan is intended to create a more inclusive social mix, rather than just very high- and very low-income people, and to allow those who climb out of poverty a chance to remain in the neighbourhood.

The strategy also includes an economic revitalisation plan that has provisions to create jobs and affordable commercial services for low-income residents, community-based policing that is reflective of the values of existing as well as new residents and business people, inclusive public spaces and needed health facilities, ranging from a dental clinic to North America’s first supervised injection site for people who use illegal drugs.

Unfortunately, a significant part of the strategy has been challenging to realise in the face of significant government cutbacks, especially in the provision of social housing, but also some essential social and community economic development services. That said, for a number of reasons, including the commitment of the City Council, local residents and community organisations, much of the strategy continues to move forward.

Staff from the City Council and senior government officials have concluded that it is not the number or the density of low-income groups in an area that matters, but rather the sense of community. These ideas have been influenced by the work of Dr Bruce Alexander of Simon Fraser University, who has written about the ‘globalization of addiction’, as well as by direct experience in working on the Downtown Eastside strategy. Alexander describes how many people in North America and Europe suffer from addictions, not only to illegal drugs, but also to smoking, alcohol, shopping, food and work. He says the cause is the sense of dislocation people feel in a world that is changing so rapidly – and feels beyond our control. Alexander claims that, if the cause is rapid change and the symptom is addiction, the cure is community – a sense of belonging – where your skills are valued, where personal shortcomings are tolerated, and where you are known and can come to know yourself.

So how do we build a sense of community? In the case of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, we concluded that:

It comes from struggle, and first and foremost, the struggle for neighbourhood identity. In our case, the name, Downtown Eastside, was invented to indicate that this area of the city was no longer ‘Skid Row’ or slum as it had formerly been called. Today, this sense of struggle continues as low-income people to fight for housing and the services they need to survive

Then it comes from survival. In the 1970s, the community of Downtown Eastside fought hard to get the city to install sprinklers in SROs so that residents would not be burned to death in fires. More recently extremely high rates of HIV, AIDS, Hepatitis C, and other infectious diseases, have been significantly reduced as a result of the successful fight to achieve innovative health services, such as a needle exchange and North America’s first supervised injection site.

Then from gathering. The Carnegie Community Centre was created in Downtown Eastside in the 1980s to serve as a ‘living room’ for the many residents living in very small residential units. It is funded by the city and managed by a community-based board of directors, providing much-needed cultural and recreational services and a base for community organising around a wide range of issues. Other public spaces of social meaning have also been created and revitalised sensitively with considerably community engagement, as has been the case with Oppenheimer Park, where the Japanese were rounded up during World War II.

Then from political power. There have been many voter registration drives and several outstanding individuals from Downtown Eastside have been elected to public office at all three levels of government.

Then from local enterprise. Downtown Eastside’s ‘United We Can’ is a bottle recycling plant that is owned and operated by the ‘binners’ who scratch a living by collecting bottles, but the area also includes community-owned coffee shops, grocery stores, housing providers and maintenance and security companies.

Then from nutrition. Pot Luck café is community-owned and provides affordable food in a small restaurant that is open to the general public. It also has a very profitable catering service that trains and hires local residents and raises money that helps feed the poor through community kitchens in Downtown Eastside’s many SROs and social housing projects. The Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House is working with other groups including Carnegie and Pot Luck to improve the quality and quantity of healthy food available to the poor.

Then from expression. There are many community arts initiatives in Downtown Eastside. At the forefront is the annual ‘Heart of City’ festival, which helps many local residents to demonstrate their skills to a city-wide audience, whether as performers, set-makers or ticket sellers, and enhances community pride. Based on Venezuela’s El Sistema method, the St James Music Academy gives more than 125 low-income children the opportunity to learn to play classical music – an experience from which they also gain self-discipline and a sense of being part of a community. And the programme has ripple-like effects on their families and their friends and neighbours’ families.

Many low-income residents in neighbourhoods such as Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside have faced incredible challenges in their lives. Public officials and community leaders are often pressured into making decisions – either explicitly or through inaction in the face of market forces – that result in the dispersion of the poor from areas in which they have been concentrated. Low-income communities have been treated at times as if they were social bacteria infecting society. Such processes and treatments are harmful, not only to the low-income residents who are scattered to places where they have little social support, but also to us all.

Addiction is something that affects all of our lives. A strong sense of community can be an important part of ‘treatment’, helping to reduce the negative impacts of addiction.

The experience of the Downtown Eastside community suggest that it may be worthwhile to look for leadership in those who have gone through the pains of the worst our societies have offered, and who have come back from these severe circumstances with a sense of compassion and confidence. They may be the social ‘coal’ transformed into ‘diamond’, able to teach low-income people in their communities and, perhaps as importantly, to help lead us all toward better societies.

Nathan Edelson is a Senior Partner with 42nd Street Consulting which supports inclusive planning for diverse communities. He is also an Adjunct Professor with the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning and a Bousfield Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the University of Toronto. He was Planner with the City of Vancouver Planning Department from 1983 to 2008. For 15 years, he was the senior planner focussing on the many challenging issues facing the Downtown Eastside.