Cheap rent and stores in Chinatown Threatened

Cheap rent and stores in Chinatown threatened
Jean Swanson

Originally published in the Carnegie Newsletter, March 15, 2011

Should City Council allow 12 and 15 story condo towers in Chinatown?  

The Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council, Carnegie Community Action Project, 30 DTES community groups and 8 businesses outside of Chinatown have signed a resolution opposing the height increase.  An additional 26 storekeepers in Chinatown have signed a petition against the height increase.  About 850 individuals signed up against the towers.  These groups and individuals are opposed to the height increase mostly because of the impact it will have on increasing rents for hotels and stores, and driving out low income people and the businesses that serve them. 

They believe Chinatown is a living heritage community that includes low income people who live there now.  Heritage is about people, not just architecture.  The DNC and supporters want Chinese speaking seniors to be able to shop in their neighbourhood without using English, to live in safety and with independence in decent apartments, among their friends, and with food security.  Having seen the gentrifying impact of Woodwards on the western part of the Dtes, the DNC fears that low income residents, including Chinese speaking residents, will be pushed out of the neighbourhood as gentrification increases property values and rents go up. 
In addition the “feel” of the neighbourhood will change as new businesses and services arrive to serve richer condo residents.  This is happening in Chinatown already.  Two new condos, the Ginger and V6A, were built in Chinatown last year, within the existing zoning. The area around these 2 condos is becoming a place of exclusion where low-income people do not feel comfortable because they are excluded by price and the upscale “feel” from new businesses.  The barber shop, operated by a Chinese shop owner, that sold haircuts for $9 is now closed.  The Brixton Café, London Pub and a shop that sells boutique towels have moved in.   If the city enables 12 and 15 story condo towers to line the streets, these areas of exclusion will multiply and low income people will not have places to shop in or feel at home in Chinatown.

These are the details:  City staff have proposed that building heights in Chinatown be increased. On Pender St. the outright increase would be about 1 to 2 stories to 75 feet. South of that heights could go up 2 more stories without rezoning and up to 5 stories with rezoning, for a total of 12 stories allowed.  And on one strip on Main between Keefer and Union the increase would be 2 stories without rezoning and 8 stories with rezoning, up to 15 stories. Staff are also proposing that Chinatown developers be allowed to “land” density from all over the city into Chinatown.   

Last week business and community people with an interest in Chinatown held a news conference to say why they support proposed rezoning and policy changes for Chinatown that City Council will consider on March 17.  Below is the DNC’s response to what they said:

Chinatown is united in support of the height increase. 

DNC and supporters say that even though public meetings about the height were held in Chinatown, many low income people they have talked were not consulted.  About 900 low income people live in hotels and rooming houses and social housing in Chinatown.  Another 1000 or so low income people live very close to Chinatown.  

Chinatown business and society groups have compromised with each other to get this height, and even though many of them don’t like 150 foot towers and don’t think its good for density from all over the city to be landed in Chinatown, they will stick to their compromise.  The DNC believes that support for the changes should be based on whether or not condo towers will be good for the existing community, not on whether or not a compromise has been made.  In addition, the low income community, including many of the businesses that serve them, were not part of this compromise. 

An “income mix” provided by condo towers will revitalize Chinatown. 

Even the Director of Planning told a meeting in January that “other factors” besides height would be involved in revitalizing Chinatown.  Besides, what does “revitalize” mean and who will benefit from it?  The “revitalization” we have seen from Woodwards has pushed up rents in hotels and created areas of exclusion where low income people are no longer comfortable.  The impact of allowing towers will be to reduce the number of low income people in the area.  This is a case of “income mix” language being used to foster a neighbourhood with fewer and fewer low income people.  Chinatown is already a mixed income neighbourhood with several condo developments.  Condo developments can continue with existing zoning. 
Developers need “certainty” about the area so development can begin. 

“Certainty” could be provided if City Council said it was keeping the existing zoning and not allowing any new height increase.  That would protect low income residents from high rent increases.

Public benefits from developers can improve conditions in some of the older heritage buildings.  

It would be good if heritage buildings could be renovated and provide housing for low income residents.  But there is nothing to prevent them from being rented as condos for richer residents.  In addition, the Council motion calls for developers from all over the city to be able to “land” density in Chinatown (see box).  When this happens, the landing of the density will be considered a public benefit and could eliminate or reduce any other public benefits available for heritage, social housing or other uses.

Public benefits from developers could provide more seniors and social housing. 
It will cost $95 million to replace the 475 SROs in Chinatown with decent self contained social housing.  This is way more money than public benefits can provide.  Because the Council motion allows density to “land” in Chinatown, little or no public benefits may be available for low income housing.

The Single Room Accommodation Bylaw will protect SROS in Chinatown. 

This bylaw is very weak and has no ability to control rents.  SROs are being lost all the time to low income people, mostly through rent increases.  Only 12 per cent of the privately owned SROs in the DTES rent for the welfare shelter allowance according to a study by the Carnegie Community Action Project. As far as the DNC knows, no new social housing is planned for the Downtown Eastside or Chinatown after 2013.

Maybe you’re not sure about the DNC’s position.  It is complicated.  So why not have a social and economic impact study before making a nearly irrevocable decision that could destroy the living heritage that is Chinatown? Why not get a Local Area Plan?  And why not make sure that plan ensures that low income people, including Chinese seniors, are not pushed out of their neighbourhood, and that they’ll be able to shop in their own language, and that the other assets in the community for its low income residents are preserved?