With the spate of anti-gentrification protest in the Downtown East Side, all eyes are once again on Vancouver’s housing problem. Proponents of development call for a “social mix,” meaning people of different income levels ought to live in the community. A “social mix” would enliven a community, and serve to lift it out of poverty, they argue. However, that doesn’t seem to be happening. In the Downtown Eastside Newspaper — a moving, and tremendously empowering read — Jean Swanson shows how condo developments have driven up rents and closed down affording single-night hotel rooms:
“The lesson of Woodward’s is that gentrification and social mix are disasters for low-income housing, shops and community. In order to stop rent increases and low-income housing losses we need to stop condos and boutique shop developments.”
For a coming Terry Project Podcast, I am doing more research on the concept of “social mix” and development of the Downtown East Side. I don’t yet know if it is much of a strategy, but proponents cite successes in other communities. One thing is clear: residents aren’t pleased with the idea:
“Social Mix” is a buzz phrase that is used to justify pushing out low-income people from the neighbourhood they feel comfortable in. If it’s so important to have social mix why don’t we have more social housing, food banks and safe injection sites in Kerrisdale? Living next to condos or fancy restaurants does not help people with addiction or health issues get better.
Underlining all these issues is the government’s market-driven approach to housing affordability. A shocking 2010 CCPA report found that the net gain in social housing units over a 4 year span, from 2006/07-2010/11, was only 280. Updated figures show sizeable improvements (about 418 new units per year), but the underlining philosophy remains the same. The vast majority of housing support provided by the provincial government is in the form of rent assistance in the private market, which could actually increase rent and homelessness. Again, from the CCPA:
One of the other challenges with rental assistance programs, as noted in housing and research literature, is that an increase in rent can negate the benefits realized under the program, especially if the income and rent ceilings are not adjusted to take this into account. Indeed, it is entirely possible that in markets with a low vacancy rate, rental assistance programs such as SAFER and RAP may even encourage rent increases.
Research published by Don Drummond of TD Economics observed that “in an environment of tight supply, the benefits [of shelter allowances] generally flow upward to the landlord in the short-to-medium term as low income tenants use the subsidy to compete for a fixed supply of rental units.” Drummond also notes that there is the potential for adverse outcomes for those not eligible for assistance with those receiving the assistance having additional resources they can use to compete for a fixed supply of rental units “leaving unsubsidized households — frequently the working poor — relatively worse off.”
Andy Longhurst directed me to a compelling article by Loretta Lees in the journal Urban Studies, which offered a very critical look at “social mixing.” Lees surveys the literature and finds no convincing evidence that social mixing does much good:
“There is a poor evidence base for the widespread policy assumption that gentrification will help increase the social mix, foster social mixing and thereby increase the social capital and social cohesion of inner- city communities.”
Interesting, social mixing is historically a left liberal idea, originating from the UK. But Lees argues that, rather than creating new and cohesive communities, it does nothing but create “tectonic juxtapositions of polarised socioeconomic groups.”
I recommend the article, and highly recommend Andy’s radio program, The City, which offers a critical look at urban affairs. The May 8th edition features the UN special rapporteur on adaquate housing, who discusses the right to housing and its history.