There is a shift happening in the makeup of Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside, which is known as home for people struggling with mental illness, addiction, and homelessness.
Entrepreneurs, developers, and more affluent residents have moved into the neighbourhood’s periphery at an accelerating rate, thanks to skyrocketing real estate prices elsewhere in the city, loosened zoning restrictions, and the community’s burgeoning appeal as a hip and happening place.
Dan Olson, who opened Railtown Cafe in the district’s northern fringe five years ago, said he was shocked when he first visited the area.
“I kind of looked around the neighbourhood and thought, there’s no way that I want to open up a restaurant here,” Olson told The Canadian Press.
Things have changed for the better, he said, though there are still issues with needles in the alleys and makeshift tents around his business.
A recent surge in property values reflects the quickening change, said Landon Hoyt, head of the area’s business improvement association.
Numbers he provided show the assessed value of commercial property in the area jumped 11% in 2015, 17% in 2016, and 30% this year.
“We’re seeing a lot of businesses close because of that,” he said.
The transition hasn’t been without conflict.
Brandon Grossutti opened Pidgin restaurant five years ago on the border of the Downtown Eastside, prompting pickets for months from protesters who said the business was a symbol of gentrification.
But for Grossutti, who also has partnerships with non-profit organizations in the area, the decision to locate in the neighbourhood was partly a matter of survival.
“The math doesn’t make sense to open an independent business anywhere in Vancouver short of lower-rent districts,” he said.
Everyone in Vancouver is being displaced by property prices, though it is far more difficult for the city’s most vulnerable, Grossutti said.
“People always talk about pushing. I feel like it’s being squeezed,” he said, blaming a city planning project that restricted development to neighbourhoods immediately surrounding the district’s core.
Community activists are protesting the pressure felt by lower-income residents.
Jean Swanson of the Carnegie Community Action Project contributed to a report last year that criticized the city for its failure to protect the most vulnerable in the Downtown Eastside by welcoming businesses and development that cater to higher-income residents and visitors.
The pressure is inflating rental prices, which means more residents are being forced onto the street.
“Some people are pushed out of the neighbourhood,” Swanson said. “But for a lot of them, there’s just no other place to go. There’s no affordable housing, so people just stay on the streets. That’s all they can do.”
Vancouver is home to Canada’s priciest neighbourhoods – study
Activity in Toronto, Vancouver exhibiting sustained recovery