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Rendering of low-cost and rental housing units planned for Vancouver's Downtown East Side by Boffo Group at 555 Cordova Street, a formerly industrial (and derelict) site. (Boffo Group)
Rendering of low-cost and rental housing units planned for Vancouver's Downtown East Side by Boffo Group at 555 Cordova Street, a formerly industrial (and derelict) site. (Boffo Group)

A developer makes a cautious foray into Vancouver’s hardscrabble heart Add to ...

Daniel Boffo is an easygoing 33-year-old with a degree in economics. He is the son of Italian immigrants from a small town in Italy, whose father settled in Burnaby and started a landscape and construction business in 1963. His dad Tarcisio is close friends with another Vancouver developer, Nat Bosa, who was best man at his wedding.

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Tarcisio has put his son Daniel and daughter Flavia in charge of the day-to-day Boffo business, which has mostly built projects in the suburbs.

Last summer, the Boffos purchased an empty lot at 555 Cordova, a street where prostitutes hang out, down the street from a soup kitchen. It’s on the fringes of Strathcona, and between the growing Hastings Corridor and downtown. It will be central and affordable enough to attract the young urban crowd.

“We are targeting the cheapest price per square foot in Vancouver, around $385,” says Mr. Boffo. “We’re excited, because it will be a different model, a small, repeatable project that is putting non market and market on the same site.”

It’s also within the heart of the downtown eastside, known as the Downtown Eastside Oppenheimer district (DEOD), where there’s a dense low-income population, between Hastings to the south, Alexander to the north, and along Cordova to the east. In that particular patch, there is special zoning that has long required new residential housing to include 20 per cent non-market housing. The 20 per cent rule, as well as the fact it’s skid row, has long turned off developers.

As far back as a decade ago, it was a worry by city planners that as surrounding property values increased, that 20 per cent requirement may no longer deter development of market housing. That day arrived when the Pantages Theatre on Hastings, in the heart of Oppenheimer, was demolished last year to make way for 79 units of market condos, as well as the required 18 non-market units, rental units, and artist studio space.

The outcry from the community was intense. The DTES Not for Developers coalition formed in response and held loud, angry protests. They also briefly occupied the Salient Group’s nearby Paris Annex construction site. That protest was mostly against Salient’s 21 Doors project located on the fringes of Oppenheimer. Close enough, they said.

The Pantages project, Sequel 138, was approved, and it was seen as opening the door into Oppenheimer.

Mr. Boffo’s comparatively small, 29-unit residence is next. It’s currently in the development permit approvals stage, and in order to build it, Mr. Boffo has partnered with non-profit housing provider, Community Builders Group, who will purchase and manage the five non-market units. Based on square footage, Mr. Boffo was only required to include three units, but trying to be sensitive to the issue, he increased it to five.

Community Builders is an international non-profit group that has the formidable task of scraping together financing to purchase low cost housing. They already own 250 low-income units in the area, and with the help of new market development, they have plans to double that number this year. That puts them squarely in the middle, between private development and community activism.

Mr. Boffo is selling the units to the group at cost, says Community Builders spokesman Gordon Wiebe. They will rent all five of them out at the welfare rate of $375 a month, which is also below the requirement. As is, some of the units could be rented for $870 and still be considered below market rate. Most would agree, however, that $870 is hardly affordable if you’re on welfare.

Enter Dave Diewert. Mr. Diewert is the spokesperson for the DTES Not For Developers Coalition, whose name says it all. He helped organize the Pantages protest, as well as a protest against Salient Group, whose 21 Doors project is on the fringe of the Oppenheimer area.

The coalition demands that new downtown eastside developments be entirely dedicated to non-market housing.

Mr. Boffo and Mr. Wiebe both insisted that I speak with Mr. Diewert to present his case, and I’m happy they did. Mr. Diewert knows the details of every new development in the downtown eastside. We met for coffee and he explained to me why he’s opposed to any new market development. He has also made his views about the Boffo project clear to his acquaintance, the housing provider, Mr. Wiebe, who lives in an SRO.

“I said, ‘this is not good for the very people you are trying to serve. You are going to offer five units for a few people. But what’s the effect of the 24 condos on the surrounding neighbourhood? How is that going to affect the low income housing around there? While you decide to work with this fellow for these five units, the ripple effect of gentrification may displace dozens.’

“Housing providers are complicit in that they agree to work on these projects,” he added. “Our fundamental stance is that the project as a whole is a problem, because when you bring condos into a low income area, you raise property values and that has a ripple effect to everything around it.”

He also condemns the much-lauded example of mixed market and social housing that is the Woodward’s Building. He says the building contributed 125 units of social housing, but he estimates another 440 nearby units that changed use or raised rents due to gentrification were lost.

“The social mix in Woodward’s is kind of a joke. I know people who live there, and they say, ‘my self-contained suite is beautiful. But as soon as I step outside, I am told to move along.’ And people in the condos, they take the elevator from their car up to their suite. They’re not living with us. They have a separate entrance. We call the social housing part, ‘Woodward’s East.’”

In a phone interview later, Mr. Wiebe sounded sympathetic, but a touch exasperated.

“If there is 100 per cent social housing, who is going to pay for it?

“We need social housing. Canada has a good history of it. But we also need private options.”

Mr. Wiebe put it well in an open letter: “Wealth is coming to the DTES, like it or not. It’s time to adapt, not to entrench. A social housing desert is a bad option and will never be supported in Vancouver, nor should it.”

New development has already revitalized areas of the downtown eastside that were former ghetto ghost streets. Those streets now have home décor stores and coffee shops. They’re happy streets again. But at what cost to guys like Mr. Diewert and his friends? They’ve formed a tight knit community, and they’d like to stay in their neighbourhood. As property prices go up, the cost of social housing in that area will too.

At the other end of it, Mr. Wiebe is trying to find decent new homes for people living in lousy 10 by 10 rooms. Mr. Boffo is a guy from Burnaby running a family business. He wants to build a small project on an empty lot on a street that could seriously use revitalizing. And he’s trying to be sensitive to existing residents. In comparison to living in an SRO, his 600 sq. ft. non-market units would be a major step-up.

“No one developer, no one city staff member, councilor, architect or community resident will know all the solutions, but if you can all come together you could add to the fabric, not rip it apart,” he says. Keep integrating, adding to it. Diversity is what attracts everybody.

“We are a young city. How do we set roots, to grow something good? I think we’re getting there. We are just going through growing pains.”

Editor's note: Due to an editing error, one of the subjects was incorrectly identified in the third to last paragraph of the original print and online versions of this story. It is Mr. Boffo who is, "a guy from Burnaby running a family business, " not Mr. Wiebe. This version has been corrected.

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