The Downtown Eastside of Vancouver is surely the worst neighbourhood in all of Canada. Last week, former B.C. premier Mike Harcourt called it “not just the poorest postal code in Canada, but a place that is appalling in its human wreckage.”
Vancouver city council has adopted what it cagily calls an “aspirational plan” for the DTES – to cost more than $1-billion over 30 years, of which the city government proposes to pay $220-million. We hope that real-estate developers will find it in their interest to pay the $300-million in levies and other such payments assumed in the plan, since the provincial government has already said it won’t help, saying it’s out of the social-housing business. In light of that, the city’s plan should also be open to revision, particularly in terms of going further in raising the limits on density and height.
The Downtown Eastside needs gentrification. The word is often used as a pejorative, but its real meaning is “prosperity,” and its arrival has improved adjacent neighbourhoods, not to mention whole cities across the continent. Still, there would be little point in simply forcing out the present low-income residents – median household income $13,691 – many of whom live in the depths of misery, drug addiction and disease. More than 6,300 people in the neighbourhood are on welfare, 731 are homeless, and some live from street prostitution. If they are simply squeezed out, the worst off would find some other not-so-great area in greater Vancouver that would become equally wretched.
So there is a certain plausibility to the plan’s proposal to set aside a dozen blocks known as the Downtown Eastside Oppenheimer District, in which there would be only rental housing, with 40 per cent at market rates and 60 per cent subsidized rents. Yes, that would in some sense amount to a ghetto, as some people complain, but it would be a huge improvement on what’s there now. The city is right to be working on a plan to overcome the blight of Canada’s worst neighbourhood. It would help if it became a few shades more welcoming of the benefits of gentrification, and further loosened the plan’s restrictions on development.