Credit: Jonathon Narvey

Meet April Smith, one of the lucky Downtown Eastsiders living in the new Woodward's building's non-market housing units

One of the persistent complaints of anti-Olympics protesters is the amount of money spent on the Vancouver Winter Games. Couldn't it have gone to alleviate homelessness and affordable housing issues in the Downtown Eastside?

Indeed, some fear that negative international coverage of the DTES will overshadow the achievements of our Olympic athletes and the equally extraordinary achievements of the rest of our beautiful metropolis; or for that matter, the vibrant and positive aspects of the DTES as one of Vancouver’s oldest neighborhoods. This still could happen, though as local Olympics media commentator Maurice Cardinal suggests somewhat cynically, “The foreign reporters will see what’s happening and just say, ‘well, we have our back alleys and drug problems in our own city’ and the story will fade.”

April Smith outside the new Woodwards building

New Woodward’s resident and DTES-based

new media specialist April Smith can’t say

enough good things about her new

home in the new Woodward's building.

There is an easy way to keep housing in one neighborhood affordable when the rest of the city must abide by the simple laws of supply and demand that force prices sky-high: Don’t maintain or repair the existing housing stock or allow any new market housing to go up. Let infestations run wild. Leave the back alleys for the mentally ill to lay down among garbage, syringes and feces. Ignore the crack dealers.

Do these things and prices will remain affordable, though residents may begin to fully understand the meaning of the slogan, “you get what you pay for.” For some years, this essentially seemed to be the anti-gentrification strategy for the DTES.

Of course, since about 2000, Vancouver’s residents and politicians have made substantial efforts to change this neighborhood. Without an umbrella organization to direct taxpayers funds effectively, many projects have seen pitiful returns on investment. But as I noted last week, the Woodward’s building is an example of a project that has provided real benefits to residents—and in the bigger picture, our city.

New Woodward’s resident and DTES-based new media specialist April Smith can’t say enough good things about her new accommodations on an upper floor of the building. She understands the importance of basic shelter to the living conditions of her fellow citizens in the area: “Housing is vital. It can change lives. Certainly changed my life. I went from being homeless to having the best housing I could possibly get.”

She’s not understating the quality of the place. Overlooking the newly renovated neighbourhood and with a view of the water, April has what some people might consider to be a million-dollar view.

The space is smaller than a typical studio apartment, but each room comes with a full kitchen and washroom. Residents have free Internet, phone and cable. There’s laundry on the top floor next to a community lounge and an outdoor space as well.

There’s also the convenience of mixed-use zoning: “To have a real grocery store right underneath you, it’s really good for those residents who have mobility issues. It works out well for me too—I’m trying to be healthier and eat better.”

There’s no question that April and other residents of Woodward’s are now able to live with dignity in a supportive environment. But this improved living condition didn’t come cheap. Not everyone is pleased about the scale of the investment. As one friend who lives in Vancouver South confided in me the other day, “I understand people need housing, but why do we have to spend so much so that they can have views of Canada Place and brand new couches? I mean, do people really have a ‘right’ to live in some of the most desirable real estate in the world?”

The Woodward’s total redevelopment was a $400 million dollar project. Much of that will be covered by sales from 536 market-price housing units and the commercial sections. The overall plan has allowed development of 125 single non-market housing units like April’s place, to be operated by the Portland Hotel Society, as well as 75 family non-market housing units.

Obviously, it costs a hell of a lot to build a bubble of affordable housing in a universe that abides by market laws. After the Olympics have come and gone, will there be government willingness to invest on the scale of Woodward's? After all, any development project is a risk—is it worth it?

My optimism is conditional. With construction workers still prominent in the corridors of Woodward’s and the elevator not quite up and running right, it’s too early to say definitively that this new complex will be a guaranteed success. I also don’t know if we’ll be brave enough—or rich enough—to replicate Woodward’s enough times to essentially put an end to homelessness. Indeed, as my friend pointed out, it is far cheaper and easier for someone who can’t afford to live in Vancouver to simply move someplace a bit more Abbotsford-esque than it is to get taxpayers to pony up millions for ultra-creative architecture.

Still, one aim of our city—all functioning cities, really—is neighbourhoods where residents from all economic strata and a range of backgrounds can mix it up. Neglected ghettoes and locked-in gated communities of the super-wealthy are both bad for the overall livability of the larger city. Where architects, economists and sociology-minded civil planners can agree on specific projects that integrate the Woodward’s model, we ought to do so.