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West Hastings Street, near the intersection of Abbott Street, is pictured on March 27, 2023. Brock Worobel, who lives in the area, said he is fed up with the crime and filth in the area and wants to move, but can’t sell his condo at a reasonable price.Kayla Isomura/The Globe and Mail

When Brock Worobel moved into his West Hastings condo unit more than a decade ago, he knew the neighbourhood had its problems, but it felt manageable.

A diversity of incomes seemed to be working it out, just the way the Woodward’s Building had integrated social housing with market housing, and Stan Douglas art alongside a basketball court.

New condos were springing up all the way to Chinatown, and people started to fear the threat of gentrification. By 2014, the Downtown Eastside Plan came along to protect the existing low-income residents, restricting the development of new condo buildings such as the one where Mr. Worobel already lived. As part of the plan, Mr. Worobel’s area of Hastings Street would be devoted to social housing and the shops would cater to low incomes.

Nearly a decade after the plan, the residents of Mr. Worobel’s building now live behind a protective gate. They are on the frontline of a full-blown homelessness, addiction and mental-health crisis. An estimated 117 people live in a tent encampment on Hastings. The city and province recently responded with an announcement to add 300 more social housing units to the neighbourhood.

Fires are routine, as are stabbings and overdoses, says Mr. Worobel. He witnessed paramedics try to save a man who died of an overdose in front of his building.

“We see things down here that 95 per cent of the population doesn’t ever see,” he says.

The pandemic made the situation worse, but he held on to hope because he loved his apartment. Now, he’s desperate to leave. They are looking at options, such as dissolving the strata and selling the building. But with his life savings poured into his unit, it’s not easy.

“I would imagine we wouldn’t have a problem getting the owners onside,” he says. The bigger issue would be getting a decent offer.

“And where does that leave us? We still have to find somewhere else to live in a city where the other condo prices have gone through the roof. They are continuing to increase but ours have flat lined. Everything else around us has gone up.”

On a recent afternoon, a young man is huddled inside his building’s entranceway, doing drugs. The shoe shop next door is vacant and boarded up, and the empty lot next to it is piled high with garbage.

Mr. Worobel is president of the strata and the residents are $55,000 in debt because their windows keep getting broken. The strata hires cleaners to wipe down the front of the building every day. Any attempts it makes to repair damage are instantly thwarted. The strata installed pot lights outside the front entrance, and someone has already busted a hole in the ceiling. Their insurance went up $15,000 in one year.

The majority of the units in his building are now rentals, and one former owner said that renters are not easy to find.

He paid $380,000 for his unit in 2011 and he figures he could list his place for $499,000. But when taxes and fees are taken into account, there’s little equity gain compared to comparable units a few blocks away. At the peak in 2018, he’d likely have sold it for $599,000, he says. The assessed values of the units in his building have gone down for the past two years. An analysis of five condo buildings in the area showed that their assessments had all flat-lined since 2018.

A unit in his building just sold after sitting on the market for two years.

“People say, ‘You should have known about the Downtown Eastside,’ but it wasn’t this bad when I moved in,” Mr. Worobel says. “And the city had a plan to clean the area up, to invest money and make it livable. I’m stuck. There’s nowhere else to go.

“I wasn’t buying a property to make money. I wanted a place to live.”

Some say a big part of the problem for residents who bought into the area is that bylaws are not being enforced.

“Everyone thought it was going to get better and it got worse,” says realtor Ian Watt. “When Woodward’s came about, there was this resurgence of the area, and then it just went downhill. I had a place there, and I ended up leaving.”

Heritage expert Don Luxton said the area reminds him of New York’s Times Square in the seventies, a place where you went at your own risk. No one could possibly think the suffering happening there on the street, and the disorder, is functional or healthy, he says. He shakes his head at the city’s decision to raze a one-of-a-kind heritage building at 123 East Hastings to make room for a street market.

“The physical fabric is totally under attack now. Nobody is going to invest in [the area], so it’s a vicious cycle, with more buildings coming down, more and more social housing. … I’m a big advocate for social housing but I don’t think it needs to be in every building in the Downtown Eastside, and that’s the direction it’s going,” Mr. Luxton said. That concentration of social housing includes a particularly high percentage of supportive housing, for people who require addiction services, for example.

Only a couple of areas of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) have ownership housing restrictions, according to the plan. Gastown to the north of Hastings didn’t see its market housing or businesses restricted.

“There is a visible difference between what’s happening in our neighbourhood versus what’s happening south of our neighbourhood,” says Wally Wargolet, executive director of the Gastown Business Improvement Association. “That is not by luck, but by design.”

Unlike Hastings Street, Gastown shops have stayed full and the streets are much cleaner, due to a concerted effort by businesses. They have a program to clean human feces off the street, which has become a necessary expense.

Mr. Wargolet believes that decades of failed government policies have let cities down. Lack of affordable housing and policy decisions have contributed to a problem that was exacerbated by the opioid crisis and the pandemic.

“The Downtown Eastside area plan was supposed to help this neighbourhood, and that’s a failed policy as well. And really, someone needs to take a look at that,” Mr. Wargolet says.

“When I lived in Chicago and Milwaukee, San Francisco and Philadelphia – all those cities where they put social housing in one area – all of that was failed social policy and they ended up changing that. Why does Vancouver think it can do it differently? It can’t. We have to spread the services and the housing around [the province], not just the Downtown Eastside.”

It was the topic of a sold-out debate at the Urbanarium Tuesday night, where developer and former Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation program manager Michael Geller spoke in favour of revising the plan. His team went up against former senior city planner for the DTES Nathan Edelson, one of the speakers against opening up to market development.

“It was naively done because planners and politicians thought this would help keep property values low,” Mr. Geller says. “To some degree, they are right. But the unintended consequence is that you only have low-income households who can’t support the broad range of neighbourhood shops and other amenities that make a good neighbourhood.”

Mr. Edelson argues that the goal should be more affordable housing throughout the province. With land values rising, higher market rate housing would only put more pressure on low-income groups and the result would be more homelessness, he says.

He called for partnerships between business and low-income advocates, working toward affordable housing for people elsewhere in the region, to reduce the numbers flowing into the DTES.

As Mr. Luxton points out, as is, even if more market development were allowed, few would want to invest in the area.

Developer Jon Stovell, president of Reliance Properties, thinks that condo owners should take action against the city for their predicament.

“I think they should start a class action lawsuit case against the city for not upholding the bylaws that are on the books,” Mr. Stovell says.

“This is actually a breakdown of the social contract,” he says. “People buy property, they comply with zoning, they follow bylaws, they pay property tax, and the quid pro quo is supposed to be that your government runs an orderly society.”

Reliance has sold three buildings in the area, including the 30-unit Burns Block rental building, which became too dangerous for their tenants. BC Housing purchased the building in 2021.