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Vancouver reveals $1-billion plan for Downtown Eastside revival

The intersection of Main Street and East Hastings Street in the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver. More than 700 Downtown Eastside residents are homeless.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The City of Vancouver has unveiled its 30-year vision for the Downtown Eastside, a $1-billion plan that calls for thousands more units of social housing, increased employment opportunities for area residents and a Hastings Street renaissance.

The framework for Vancouver's oldest community was unveiled on Thursday at City Hall. It says up to 67 per cent of the neighbourhood's 18,500 residents are low-income – the median household income is $13,691, and the 12-per-cent unemployment rate is double the city's overall percentage.

The plan describes the housing situation as a crisis. More than 700 Downtown Eastside residents are homeless, and more than 6,500 households are in danger of losing their homes. It calls for 4,400 new social housing units to be built within the Downtown Eastside, another 3,350 units in other parts of the city, and upgrades to single-room occupancy units, more market rental housing and rent subsidies.

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Over the next three decades, the city hopes to see an additional 3,500 employment opportunities within the Downtown Eastside, growth of 3 to 5 per cent in the number of businesses and affordable retail along Hastings Street.

"We are, through the plan, making sure that the people who want to continue to live in the Downtown Eastside have that opportunity, but it has to be in improved forms of housing," said Brian Jackson, the city's general manager of planning and development. "There is a lot of housing in the Downtown Eastside that is clearly not very habitable, and we have to make those improvements. But at the same time, we have to allow for development opportunities to be able to leverage the private sector to build even more housing for the people who want to live there."

The cost of the plan is estimated at more than $1-billion, with $220-million to come from the city, another $300-million through developers, and more than $500-million from the province and Ottawa.

Mr. Jackson said the province deserves recognition for earlier investments in single-room occupancy units, "but we do need more help."

"There is a serious problem in the Downtown Eastside, and we need to improve the housing for the people who live there," he said.

Andrea Reimer, a city councillor and council's liaison for the Downtown Eastside planning process, noted Mayor Gregor Robertson is in Ottawa this week talking about housing.

"Fierce advocacy is really the only pathway we have to funding," she said.

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Ms. Reimer said she is confident in the $1-billion estimate, although she added that construction costs, for example, could increase.

"The more housing we build in the next 10 years, the less we're at the mercy of market changes," she said.

Ms. Reimer said her mother and grandmother lived in the Downtown Eastside, as does she. When asked how she envisions the neighbourhood 30 years from now, she said her daughter might well live there.

"I think what she'll see is a more vibrant local economy, so that the hollowing out of Hastings Street that we saw over 10 years with the disappearance of businesses, that that will be changed," she said. "But that we'll also see a greater diversity of businesses there, the kinds of businesses that were there when my grandmother was there, where you had low-income and middle-income groceries, and restaurants and retail outlets."

The plan – which was developed over two years through consultations with Downtown Eastside community groups, residents, aboriginal organizations, businesses, and housing and social service organizations – will go to committee next month.

The vision for a mixed-use, mixed-income neighbourhood also includes more affordable childcare and green space, improved arts and culture facilities, and better transportation infrastructure.

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Based in Vancouver, Sunny has been with The Globe and Mail since November, 2010. More


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