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Vancouver’s affordable-housing debate isn’t gone – it’s hibernating

My "year in review" moment came from an unexpected source this week, standing outside the newly renovated York Theatre on Commercial Drive. As people milled around on the sidewalk outside, a rough-looking man pushed his way through the Christmas Eve crowd muttering just loud enough to be heard, "Stupid [expletive deleted] theatre." He turned around before stepping into the corner store and raised his voice, "None of the kids in this neighbourhood can afford to see a show there." His voice trailed off as he said something about the neighbourhood belonging to "alcoholics and poor people."

(The show, by the way, was a comedic reimagining of Jack and the Beanstalk, with Jack cast as the child of a poor East Vancouver single mother.)

Those muttered phrases, for me anyhow, summed up 2013 – it was a year of discontent. The year that gentrification, the rate of change, neighbourhood plans moving ahead without the buy-in of residents, unwanted density and the loss of affordable rental housing were issues that were pushed to the forefront, sometimes in reasonable ways and sometimes not.

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In the latter category, protesters upset with the gentrification of the Downtown Eastside could have chosen any number of businesses to target to make their point. A gourmet doughnut store for instance, or any one of the new high-end restaurants to encroach on the area.

But anti-poverty activists settled on PiDGiN, a mid-scale eatery directly across from Pigeon Park. Why? Partly because of its location, where the contrast between the haves and have-nots was stark to say the least. And because, as community activist Ivan Drury put it, "We feel that they're thumbing their nose at people."

Targeting a single business to make a point didn't win the protesters many friends. In fact, business was brisk at the restaurant as people went out of their way to support owner Brandon Grossutti and his staff.

PiDGiN remains in business and the protesters are gone, but activists did succeed in moving forward the discussion about increased rents and gentrification in the Downtown Eastside.

Then there were the residents of Marpole and Grandview Woodland – two neighbourhoods that fought back after seeing what city planners had in store for them, especially when it came to increased density. Hundreds of people turned out to community meetings and rallies. Grandview residents feared that a cluster of high-rise towers at Broadway and Commercial Drive would drive up rents and dramatically change the character of the neighbourhood. They also worried that higher density development in pockets elsewhere would come at the expense of what little affordable rental housing was left.

In Marpole, much of the opposition came from the owners of single family homes who worried that rezoning for increased density would affect their quality of life.

In both cases, the message delivered to the city was, "too much, too fast and not enough public consultation."

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The city relented, with council voting to put off the most contentious parts of the community plans for at least a year – after the next civic election.

They may have bought some time, but with the current Vision Vancouver-dominated council under fire from all sides, expect the affordable-housing debate to be amplified during the civic election campaign.

There is the very phrase "affordable housing," which begs the question, affordable to whom?

There is the silly notion that replacing three sprawling West-side bungalows on 50-foot lots with 20 units of row housing results in anything remotely affordable.

There are the laneway houses – the cutest and most-loved of all housing forms which, again, command rents far beyond what an average working stiff in the city can afford to pay.

There are the experiments with incentives to build rental housing that have, so far, not had the desired effect.

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The debate over how to squeeze more housing that people can actually afford into neighbourhoods without upsetting the balance isn't going to go away. The discontent that goes along with trying to do it isn't going anywhere either.

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