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Planning leader joins march against Downtown Eastside gentrification

Protesters outside the BC Housing office as they The Globe and Mail

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

"Homes, not condos! Homes, not jails!" chanted 29-year old Herb Varley at the head of yet another raucous demonstration against gentrification and the lack of social housing on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.

Such protests by low-income activists and residents have become commonplace, as condo projects go ahead and upscale businesses begin to open in an area where many are homeless and few have money.

But Mr. Varley was no ordinary protester. He is co-chair of the city's ambitious, three-year effort to devise the first, broad-based community plan for the complex, ever-troubled enclave.

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And his presence on the streets Tuesday was yet another indication of just how difficult it is to forge consensus in the DTES, where businesses, diverse special interests, and residents, not all of whom are low-income, jostle to be heard.

While Mr. Varley said he is staying on as co-chair of the DTES Local Area Planning Process (LAPP) for now, he is increasingly frustrated by the way things are going. "One thousand condo units have been been approved since we began working on the LAPP, and 24 units have been set aside as social housing," Mr. Varley said. "Every single condo unit that gets approved shows bad faith, so we've had 1,000 shows of bad faith, versus 24 shows of good faith. I am frustrated."

The deadline for LAPP to forge its community plan is November. The plan will focus on housing, health and social services, the local economy and public space.

Low-income representatives comprise a majority of the 30-member LAPP committee, which also includes other community groups and three business improvement associations.

Michael Clague, who co-chair's LAPP with Mr. Varley, said the fact the plan is still on track and making progress is remarkable, considering the history of division on the Downtown Eastside.

"This is the first attempt to knit everything together, and we're still in business, to everyone's surprise," said Mr. Clague. "It's been hard, but there there has started to be communication. Groups are listening to each other."

He agreed that enhanced market activity in the area is a problem. "The market does what the market does, and we are trying to figure out how the city can have some control over the pace of activity."

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Still, Mr. Clague said he was unhappy that Tuesday's protest included LAPP members styling themselves as an "anti-gentrification caucus" of the committee.

"We need to know what our members are doing, so we're not caught off guard. If there's an action you're about to take, you should share it with your committee colleagues," he said. "Even if they're not protesting as LAPP, it's better if they are inside the tent."

Mr. Varley, however, defended his actions.

"For me, being co-chair of the LAPP was never contingent on me giving up my activist proclivities," he said. "Things move very slowly at times, so this is also a bit of a pressure release for the community."

Added long-time anti-poverty activist Jean Swanson: "By doing this, he is increasing his credibility with the community he represents."

LAPP committee member Victoria Bull also spoke at the demonstration, ripping into B.C. Housing for "doing nothing" for low-income people on the Downtown Eastside. But like Mr. Varley, she has no immediate plans to quit LAPP. "I want to see what they produce in November," said Ms. Bull.

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No one from the city was available for comment, but in an e-mailed statement, communications manager Sandy Swanton said all sides are now discussing the plan's most critical issue, housing.

The issue is complicated by the fact that senior governments "are not signalling any new funding for social and supportive housing," Ms. Swanton's e-mail said.

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