Raising the Roof: Housing Activism in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

Krisztina Kun

Of all the socio-economic problems facing residents of Vancouver, housing is the number one issue on almost everyone’s mind these days. Homelessness is rising at alarming rates, and nowhere is this felt more acutely than in Vancouver’s most impoverished neighbourhood, the Downtown Eastside (DTES), where the number of homeless people has doubled in three years. At this rate, it is projected that, by 2010, the year the Olympics hit town, there will be more than 3 000 people living on the streets.

Because of the Olympics, the ongoing condo boom, and the fact that Vancouver’s downtown peninsula is quickly running out of land on which to build glass towers, all roads point East to the DTES as the next area marked for million-dollar condos. Realtors are already marketing the area as “hip” and “edgy.” The recent Woodward’s development, celebrated as a victory four years ago by housing activists when the City of Vancouver bought it and slated 200 units for social housing, is now seen as the flagship of gentrification that will change the face of the area. With slogans such as “be bold or move to suburbia,” Woodward’s has become the symbol of the rapid shift in the area from low-income rental suites to upscale ownership. The area is so promising that speculators are buying up buildings and leaving them empty, driving up the price of the remaining housing stock.

These changes largely have been impacting Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels – privately owned century-old rooming houses offering the lowest rental rates in the city. SROs are run down, often infested with bed bugs and cockroaches, and have shared kitchens and bathrooms. Many tenants live with issues such as violence, addiction, mental illness, and survival sex trade work. SROs are often the last stop for people before living on the street, and they are being closed down at a faster rate than ever before. In the last four years roughly 815 SRO rooms were lost due to rent increases, hotel closures, and conversions to more profitable buildings. SROs have long been a dark mark on social housing as activists have fought for the protection and better living conditions of these hotels.

But even provisions that the City has enacted in an effort to protect low income housing are being used to close down hotels. Health and safety by-laws, intended to make landlords meet minimum living standards, are instead being used as an excuse to shut down hotels. Within the Standards of Maintenance by-law, the City has the right to step in and do the necessary repairs and bill the landlord. Instead of practicing this, the City repeatedly has closed down hotels in violation. Recently, in an effort to stop these closures, residents and community groups in the DTES have taken it upon themselves to do all the necessary (and inexpensive) repairs themselves as they did to save the low-income Powell Rooms. Housing prices in Vancouver are so high that the City can’t even afford to make good on its own promise to buy one building a year and convert it into affordable housing. And that’s just the first of many broken promises coming from all levels of government.

The official Olympic Bid-Book includes a number of “inner-city commitments” with promises to “protect rental-housing stock to ensure no residents are displaced, evicted, made homeless or face unreasonable increases in rent as a result of the Games.” Exactly how this is going to be accomplished has never been made clear. In late 2005, housing activists suffered another blow with the election to city council of the right-wing Non-Partisan Association (NPA) which slashed the middle and low-income housing component of the South East False Creek developments that will be the future site of the Olympic Village. While Vancouver has had a historical and vibrant housing movement, housing activism is now operating in a context of immediate crisis. In response to neglect and attacks by all levels of government, opposition to government policy is growing. Activists have been mobilizing in recent years in response to this housing crisis and some victories have been won.

The Power of Women to Women Project won another six months of funding to keep an emergency women’s shelter open 24 hours a day. Welfare rates, which had been frozen since 1992, were finally increased, albeit meagerly. And housing is regularly making headlines, partly due to the tactics of direct action and political confrontation used by activists. A growing mobilization around housing issues has emerged in Vancouver. In recent months, there have been rallies, squats, occupations, leafleting and poster campaigns, vandalism of Olympic symbols, (such as the Olympic Countdown Clock), and loud protests at Olympic countdown events.

This roundtable has pulled together organizers from the Anti-Poverty Committee and the Downtown Eastside Residents Association, two of the organizations that have been instrumental in much of the direct action organizing around housing issues in the past year, as well as organizers from the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, Vancouver Status of Women, and the Indigenous Action Group who work with and represent those who are the hardest hit by the housing crisis. In the face of rising housing costs and government neglect, we asked the organizers their thoughts on the current climate of housing activism, their vision for sustainable and long-term housing, and the barriers they face in the run-up to the 2010 Olympics. By press time, but after this roundtable took place, the provincial government announced the purchase of 15 SRO hotels to prevent their closure. While a surprising move, SROs are not social housing and, as such, do not provide an adequate solution to the housing crisis.

A Roundtable With Vancouver Housing Activists

The following roundtable was conducted by Krisztina Kun and Nicole Latham during the spring of 2007. Kat Norris is a Coast Salish activist with the Indigenous Action Group. She works on aboriginal youth projects and housing issues in the Downtown Eastside. Jill Chettiar currently works with the Anti-Poverty Committee (APC). Her recent organizing efforts have focused on housing and anti-Olympics struggles. She was involved in the recent squats to protest housing closures and has also been involved in Homes not Jails organizing. Anna Hunter is a legal advocate for the Downtown Eastside Residents Association (DERA) where she concentrates on housing advocacy with tenants issues including hotel closures, illegal evictions, damage deposits and illegal rent increases. She also organizes with the Anti-Poverty Committee. Cecily Nicholson is a paid staff member at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre (DEWC) and an organizer with Vancouver Status of Women (VSW). She is the VSW representative in the Save Low Income Housing Coalition. She works on housing issues from the perspective of both organizer and “service provider.” APC, DERA, DEWC, and VSW are all members of the Save Low Income Housing Coalition (SLIHC).

What current challenges do you and your groups face in the midst of this housing crisis?

Kat Norris: It has been said that 30% of aboriginal people in British Columbia (BC) are homeless. We see a growing number of young families and single parents trying to find housing. Many of our issues concern not only housing, but also employment and education for members of different bands across the province. Because the Musquem and Squamish nations are urban-centred, they have more access to services. Yet due to the fact that reservations don’t grow in land base, the only population growth comes through migration to and from the city. We need more housing co-ops in the city and societies like Vancouver Native Housing.

We have problems finding homes and services for the transgendered people in our community. There are some services for them, but they are the ones that generally get left out. We also have the chronically homeless, people that are addicted or have grown up on the streets and are having kids that are growing up on the Downtown Eastside. We are seeing second and third generations living down here now. Our people are on the streets because of the loss of land, the loss of traditional roles, because of colonization. There really was a holocaust for our people.

Colonization, the loss of land, and the residential schools system have taught our people to be dependent on the state and on welfare. Many of our people have become very apathetic and are just trying to survive. And that’s why I know that when I organize, not a lot of my people are going to come out because they are just struggling to survive. We’re also seeing a lot of our people using drugs to stay awake so that they don’t get abused, raped, beaten, or have things stolen from them on the streets, while others are using so that they don’t feel the cold and can sleep. 

Anna Hunter:  The biggest problem is that there is no new housing. On top of that, much of the existing housing stock is closing down. The current housing options are horrible places to live; they are infested with bed bugs, cockroaches and violence. They are really unsafe and have ridiculously high rents for what you’re getting. But this is the only thing we have, so trying to protect it seems to be the most important struggle right now. What we are seeing with the coming of the Olympics and increased property values is the need for more housing. Hotels are closing down at a rapid rate. A lot of the closures are illegal, some of them go unnoticed and tenants are pushed into the streets with nowhere else to go. Often they are unable to take their belongings or get their damage deposit back, with no alternative opportunity to move elsewhere. 

Jill Chettiar: Within the larger housing struggle we’re immersed in, one issue we’re facing is around the politics of representation. There is no simple way to talk about representation in a movement. It’s about how you choose to represent yourself as a group, but also how people choose to perceive you. And by people, I mean those within the activist community as well as the mainstream media and the “public at large.” As a group there is this instinct to try to control and manage not only how you choose to represent yourself, but also how people are going to perceive you. It’s a struggle to let go of this instinct and just get on with doing the work; making sure that the roots and politics are solid regardless of how people perceive you.

As a woman of colour working in this organization, it is important to me that we make sure that we’re speaking about the issues and about the people who aren’t largely represented in the popular discourse around the housing crisis. We are also aware that the Anti-Poverty Committee is not the sole representative of the people who are hardest hit by a lack of housing. So, it is vital to our political analysis to recognize the fact that aboriginal women and children are at the very forefront of this struggle in terms of who is primarily affected by the cuts to housing, hotel closures and the stealing of indigenous lands. There are indigenous women at our events, within our membership, but it’s certainly not the majority of people who make up the APC. And nobody’s trying to hide that fact.

We need a balance of speaking and organizing around issues as allies to the people hardest hit by the housing crisis. We recognize that there is privilege in organizing in this crisis, in having the space and the time and the resources to organize. We can’t reinforce that privilege by neglecting other perspectives. When we talk about groups of people who are not present, we talk about them and not for them. We try to bring forth their voice in whatever supportive and non co-optive way we can.

It is a struggle to let go of how we are perceived, whether as being co-optive or non-representative. We can’t hide the fact that APC is largely a white organization – but it’s not strictly a white organization. It has bothered me a lot over the years when this is emphasized. As a racialized person in the organization, this renders me even more invisible. It discounts the work that I put in as a woman of colour. It is especially difficult when this perception is coming from an activist community that I want to work with. Speaking from a personal place, it has been a struggle to let go of the obsession with making APC something we are not in terms of representation. It has been a struggle to just make sure that the issues and the analysis are getting out there and to do the work in an appropriate way. At the same time, you always want to make sure that you’re making efforts to have your meetings, actions and events be inclusive and trying to bridge that gap of privilege between the people who are living the struggle and the people who are acting in the struggle.  

I think another big question for APC, in light of recent events, is the question of direct action tactics and how those tactics fit into a larger strategy. There are a lot of personal and organizational relationships within the blend of volunteer-based and funded organizations, and without true honesty and mindfulness about our tactics, there is a risk of burning bridges. Everybody at the table has to be honest about what is really at stake and put their cards on the table. In those moments of honesty on all sides, we can really talk about what each group is willing to risk so that we can accomplish goals in concert rather than in competition.      

Cecily Nicholson: Vancouver Status of Women and the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre are both “women-only spaces” or “women-identified” spaces accessed primarily by racialized women. Three quarters of the folks that access the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre are aboriginal women. Certainly the issues of representation mentioned by Jill are crucial both within our structures of decision-making and how we represent ourselves within the community. But from both those perspectives the struggle is around emergency need. It’s an absolute crisis and that can’t be understated. People’s lives are at risk. We’re losing people. I have worked at the Centre for seven years and the death rates have increased exponentially every year to a point where we now lose somebody almost every week. The need for emergency responses to day-to-day issues is primary. This is a struggle not just because we can’t meet that need, but also because it undermines our ability to participate in broader strategy building. Our organizational energy is often focused internally and it is very difficult to do that outreach and contribute to building a community. We do it, but it is additional work on top of that daily grind.

The need for housing stock is a struggle. There is simply no place for people to go.  To be clear, emergency services are completely inadequate and long-term services are completely insufficient. When you look at Vancouver as a whole, the Downtown Eastside forms a nexus where you can see a very concentrated example of the housing crisis. But this is an issue across the city and in all the suburbs as well. And as we expand our analysis, this is an issue that is national and global.

The other communities that I want to address are the immigrant or migrant communities, and particularly folks who are living without status or who only have temporary status. Quite often people are living in the context of being “illegal” and exist side by side with folks who are also “illegal” by virtue of having outstanding warrants. You see similar dynamics around survival for these communities and they are both concentrated in the Downtown Eastside, although I see some discrepancies in how we sometimes analyze this.

It is not only the closure of an already inadequate housing stock, but also the rate of the closures that creates fear and anxiety in the community. People are already dealing with fear and anxiety for numerous other reasons, such as policing and state regulation. It is important not to underestimate the impact of that kind of fear. There is an increase in drug use as a way of surviving these violent situations.  You see an increase in despair, abuse and violence. And not just that, people are experiencing lateral violence within our communities. We are experiencing more conflict in our drop-in space.

We see an increase in the policing and the regulation of the homeless in the Downtown Eastside, which is constructed as a criminal area.  Just by virtue of being in that space, you are subject to policing. You see very deliberate policies enacted by the municipal government in cahoots with the provincial and federal governments. As we approach the Olympics, security and policing will increase. Police violence is already a problem in this city, as it is in other areas.

We need to analyze the particular implications for women and acknowledge that women are particularly dependent on their housing situations. Women are often forced to remain in housing that is unsafe because the repercussions of being homeless are worse than the violence they face at home. Certainly, incidents of violent attacks and rape of homeless women have increased significantly. Because of this, many women choose to suffer abuse and violence in stable housing situations rather than suffer a more violent and unpredictable life on the streets.

It is important to talk about this in the context of neoliberal restructuring and how this restructuring is occurring in the global context. Certainly, that is the case here in Canada. In BC, with the election of the Gordon Campbell administration five years ago, the impact has been very clear. We see the impacts of cuts to welfare and legal aid. We have no national child care system. It’s not just that there is less in the pot, but there is also an increase in the bureaucracy you have to navigate to access it.  Access to these resources has decreased.  For folks who don’t speak English and/or are disenfranchised persons without a home and identification, these resources are completely inaccessible.

In this context, a lot of work needs to be done in terms of working together. I see some genuine and sincere efforts along these lines but I also see a great deal of egoism and ideological posturing among activists and organizers. Going back to the idea of representation, these issues arise from those with privilege while this housing crisis continues. Frankly, this is a problem that has to be overcome.

What does solidarity look like to you ? What kind of support do you need in order to move forward in your organizing?

Kat Norris: I’m going to make this short. Speaking on behalf of indigenous people, as I like to do, solidarity is what we had before colonization. Solidarity would mean getting rid of the Department of Indian Affairs. Solidarity means supporting groups that are doing good work. Solidarity for indigenous people would mean more of our people standing together, and standing behind those of our leaders who do speak out. Standing together united as indigenous people would be awesome.  

Anna Hunter: I’m fairly new to Vancouver so I have a limited sense of what solidarity looks like in this community. Unfortunately, I’m already getting a taste of the divisiveness. I’ll talk about the positive aspects first.  It seems that through the Save Low Income Housing Coalition, there is a concerted effort to use the strengths and the different networks, strategies and tactics of each group in a respectful way. We saw that with the closure of the Picadilly Hotel. Although the hotel is still closed, there was a quick response and a solid show from all the various organizations. There was a legal strategy, support for the tenants, and some really strong communication.

But there seems to be deep-rooted divisions in this community, which undermine people’s work, and I’m not sure I understand the motivation. Sometimes it seems like it’s personal or organizational grandstanding, personal ego, or a lack of respect for different tactics. Because of this, we lose sight of what we’re actually fighting for. The issues get lost in these bad group dynamics. I’d like to see a more humble approach to organizing. It’s about working for serious change, respecting the different ways in which people are going to engage in that, and doing what we can to support it in our various ways.

Jill Chettiar: How do you talk about solidarity? What is solidarity in an activist community? I think part of it is just starting to see solidarity in the small things, like forwarding other people’s emails, postering for other groups, attending other people’s events. That’s all solidarity. Those are the smaller nuggets of solidarity that can really snowball and create more good faith in our organizing. I think one of the challenges to solidarity is the shit that people deal with every day by being on the front lines of different struggles and working at maximum capacity.

From my perspective, the murmuring and the gossiping we hear about solidarity or lack of solidarity in Vancouver could be part of what we need to work on. I would like to get to a place where there’s more of a sense of trust that groups are actually working in good faith with each other. I don’t think that’s an unattainable goal. What does that look like? I think it would include more honesty about organizational capacity and what each organization can bring to the table. Also, I think that it is important to speak up when you feel like you’re being tokenized, or your resources are being taken advantage of. All of these things have happened at various points in time. I think the desire for solidarity is there. The things making people reluctant to come to the table seem different from group to group and from person to person. For some, it’s personal conflicts; for others it’s political or ideological differences. The Olympics provide an interesting opportunity to move forward because there isn’t a single group in the city that isn’t impacted by the Olympics. We will be forced to deal with these issues and be more honest with each other by necessity.

In the last five years, solidarity has been about the ties that have been created between APC and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) at different points of the struggle around harm reduction.  A lot of education happened on both sides of that alliance. 

There has been a lot learned by APC about how to do direct action in an inclusive way that doesn’t put members of marginalized communities at increased risk of arrest. Also, there has been a need to create a better analysis about direct action and saying “hey, actually that’s a super solid action, it’s not backing down, it’s not giving in to the cops,” which is sometimes the critique of actions that don’t end up with arrests. But those actions are incredibly important in terms of movement-building and organizing actions that people can come to, especially when it’s their issues that you’re screaming about.

I like the term “pragmatic solidarity,” which addresses the survival state of the struggle right now. What we’re fighting for is day-to-day survival. Whether it’s food, welfare advocacy, mass casework or advocacy problems, we have to try to see these as revolutionary, anti-capitalist moments rather than reformist ones. When you’re talking about working in and working with a community that is involved in a very immediate, day to day anti-poverty struggle, you can’t ignore that these are the fronts that need to be fought on.

Cecily Nicholson: The issue of housing is situated within a larger struggle. For me, that broader struggle is toward some vision of social justice well beyond the local community in which I am situated. When I think about solidarity, I see it as building and strengthening our local networks, but also working to situate ourselves in those broader struggles because we’re isolated at the moment. Parallel situations exist all over the world in different ways. The struggle around housing and against gentrification and neoliberal policies has been occurring in this city and more broadly for decades.

One key aspect of solidarity is recognizing and working towards progressive collective or coalition spaces. Anti-oppression is a useless idea if it is simply stated.  It is something that needs to be applied and practiced. I’m frankly not interested in being in spaces where people are not willing to work towards addressing the ways in which people are oppressed, analyzing the power dynamics that are inevitably present, and the ways in which we constantly risk reinforcing the very things we are fighting against. I don’t believe that this work is ever done. I don’t believe that anyone is off the hook. There are very concrete material things that go along with that.  What does access mean?  It’s a great idea, but what about putting it into practice? How do we create accessibility around transportation, child care, food?  It’s very difficult to participate in any of this if you’re hungry. How do we share resources, decision-making and tasks? Who ends up writing the minutes and how is that valued? Who ends up doing the quiet work that is not recognized, certainly not publicly, but is totally crucial? Who takes care of children? Who does this extremely important work that we don’t recognize as political work? It’s a problem.

There needs to be a much more sincere engagement with this idea of solidarity so that it isn’t simply a word.  It’s one thing to engage in dialogue and to critique, but there’s too much offhand dismissal of certain tactics. For instance particular organizations that are engaged in direct action tend to be characterized as too aggressive or violent. This is extremely problematic because, while it may not be a chosen method for one group, institutional struggles aren’t the chosen methods for other people, either.  We don’t necessarily need to waste time pointing fingers and saying “I don’t like what you’re doing.” There’s a frustration there for me and I would like to see more sincere approaches to solidarity.   

What are your goals for the next five years in relation to housing in Vancouver? What are the plans/tactics to get there?

Kat Norris: One of our own people died because she was supporting a group that was fighting for the environment (Harriet Nahanee, who was defending the Eagleridge bluffs from Olympic construction/destruction). The environment is really important to us and there’s not much of it left. One of my plans is to lobby our tribal councils to expand our territorial land bases. We need to build up infrastructure that is more amenable to the environment and to encourage and reinforce education for our people. So working on decolonization is a big one for me because it answers a lot of questions.

Jill Chettiar: It is difficult to state clearly what the five-year goals of the APC are vis-a-vis housing or any of our other campaigns. Our group organizes in a pretty immediate way – taking a look at the current political landscape and seeing where the greatest opportunities are at that moment. It is also difficult to quantify success. We are an anti-capitalist organization and can’t measure success in state reforms. However there have been changes that the political power of disruption has helped precipitate, and we can definitely see these small victories as important in the overall struggle. (We are also clear on the fact that none of these victories are for APC alone, but for all the organizations and individuals involved in the struggle.) These victories are important in terms of morale, but more important in terms of hopefully easing the day-to-day crisis conditions of poverty that so many people are forced to endure.

On an on-going basis, I think the APC looks for opportunities for maximum disruption – as we have always operated with the understanding that the political power of poor people is in the politics of disruption – by not allowing the systems that oppress and micro-manage us to operate smoothly in the manufacture of misery, pain and death. How this translates in terms of tactics is into demonstrations that have disruptive qualities (e.g. air horns and whistles, huge helium-balloon floated banners, chanting while speeches are being made, public graffiti, political squats, tent cities, food service, banner drops, street theatre in political arenas and more). We believe that escalation is an important tactic and try to use direct action in such a way as to maximize immediate impact while also leaving room to take the struggle further the next time around.

Anna Hunter: My big dream is a massive 2010 convergence. I know the Anti Poverty Committee wants to see a huge mobilization by activists and organizers in Vancouver at the time of the Olympics. Within that mobilization, I would like to see a massive coming together of groups that are already active in Vancouver. I think we’re already seeing a little bit of this recently with different groups coming together for anti-Olympics actions. Groups organizing with the migrant workers working on the RAV line, indigenous groups talking about land struggles, environmental groups talking about ecological impacts, and housing groups talking about housing. These groups are coming together under all these different banners to express frustration and to do whatever it takes to put a wrench into the Olympic wheels.

Also, I’d like to see an end to hotel closures. I’d like to see our existing housing stock in the form of hotels in the Downtown Eastside be maintained, renovated, revitalized, and become a better and healthier place for the people who are already living there. I would also like to see new housing come out of this. I’d like to see the various levels of government – the city, the province, the Vancouver Agreement – honour the various commitments that have been made. I guess overall I’d like to see a reversal of the deterioration in the situation by 2010, because right now they’re worse. They’re worse than they were three months ago, they’re worse than they were a year ago, and they will certainly be worse by 2010 if we keep going at this rate.

Cecily Nicholson: I agree. And I think we need to adapt our strategies. There’s a lot of room to grow in terms of how we actually apply ourselves and how we use the limited resources we have. We need to be efficient in that, but also be creative and joyful in what we’re doing, because for many of us, these struggles are our work, our lives. So if that is indeed the spirit of it, how do we make it sustainable? These are questions that I would like us to think more about. As for long-term strategy, five years feels like a long time, but really it is not – so what is our really long-term vision, what is the big picture?

What’s are the longer term impacts on our economy going to be after the Olympics? The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has indicated a very dire outlook. You look at the dysfunction of the United States economy, very significant shifts occurring internationally in terms of the American dollar, and the ways in which that will inevitably impact us: a recession and debt crises are real potentials that might unfold. So as we look towards the Olympics, we have a three year plan, but we also need to look beyond and see what’s over the precipice. If we are indeed successful with some kind of convergence in 2010, then where do we go from there? What kind of momentum can we build? Because we can look back to the WTO demonstrations or the kinds of multilateral protest actions that have been organized and we can also see shifts in policing and regulation that have contained that kind of struggle now. So inevitably we’re going to be facing the use of much more entrenched and intelligent technologies to control us. How do we prepare for that and what is the fallout going to be? All of these structures that will be in place for the Olympics will be a convenient excuse to heighten security and policing as well as instituting a whole slew of policies that have to do with investment and a broader agenda that’s explicitly about the interests of capital. So again, what is our broader vision? These are questions that I think need to be addressed.