She’s got Mike Davis eyes

Apologies if that title brings back bad memories of ’80s synth-pop (as it does for me).

Last week in my “Great Urban Thinkers” class, we discussed the well-known urban author and critic Mike Davis. In the “Fortress L.A.” chapter of his book City of Quartz, Davis writes

The neo-military syntax of contemporary architecture insinuates violence and conjures imaginary dangers. In many instances the semiotics of so-called “defensible space” are just about as subtle as a swaggering white cop. Today’s upscale, pseudo-public spaces….are full of invisible signs warning off the underclass “Other.” Although architectural critics are usually oblivious to how the built environment contributes to segregation, pariah groups – whether poor Latino families, young Black men, or elderly homeless white females – read the meaning immediately.

Although Davis was writing about the L.A. of the late ’80s, there are certainly examples of upscale pseudo-public spaces in contemporary Vancouver (e.g. Pacific Centre) as well as abundant signs and signals meant to thwart the presence of poor people in our downtown core areas (not to mention selectively enforced bylaws).

Knowing that, I decided to pursue a Davis-related short assignment: to walk around the Downtown Eastside (DTES) with Davis’s words in mind and notice both the overt and the subtle signs of inclusion and exclusion, as well as any barriers, obstacles and warnings related to security and policing.

I had no specific plan when I got off the bus on Hastings, just west of Carrall; I just wanted to wander and see where my eyes and interest took me. It took all of two minutes for a theme to develop. This is hardly an original observation, but wow – so many metal gates. Everywhere. At first I thought I might count them, but it quickly became apparent that it would be easier to count the ungated doorways. These are just a few of the gates I noticed within a few blocks of each other.

 

Actually paying attention to all these metal gates made me think about the messages they send to neighbourhood residents. Yes, some are more aesthetically pleasing, arguably less intimidating than others, but ultimately, don’t they all convey the same messages?

Keep out.

This is not for you.

Go away.

We don’t want you here.

How would it feel to spend all one’s days in this kind of environment? I think it would put me in a bad mood – or at the very least contribute to a chronic underlying crankiness and tension. These are feelings I can easily imagine turning to hostility and aggression. Supposedly the gates are sending the same messages to all who pass them, regardless of income, social status or relationship to property, but that’s not really how it works. If the keys to one or more of those gates jangle in your pockets as you walk around, if you’ve been behind those gates or know you could go there if you really wanted to (without breaking the law), the gates you can’t pass through are going to bother you a lot less.

The ubiquity of the gates also made me wonder about the minority of ungated properties. I’d be interested to know why those ones don’t have gates. Is it that they can’t afford to install them, or is it a deliberate decision not to contribute to the siege atmosphere that the gates produce? Perhaps some of the gated businesses inherited their gates when they moved into their spaces and they’d just as soon not have them, though removing them is not a priority. Or perhaps an inventory would show that the ungated properties are the ones that house businesses at low risk for break-in, or that don’t have much to steal. I didn’t keep a tally, but I noticed that the Potluck Café (run by the Portland Hotel Society) and Bean Around the World Café were not gated (unless they have internal gates not visible from the outside). Are the gates concentrated in particular sections of the neighbourhood? I think these are interesting questions and I wonder if anyone has researched them. Seems like a good topic.

All this is not meant to criticize or single out individual businesses for gating their premises. I don’t live or work in the DTES (though in the past I’ve volunteered at two neighbourhood nonprofits). Nor am I familiar with its latest crime stats. I’m sure if I had a business anywhere and I’d been broken into even once, I would at least think about taking steps to prevent it from happening again. No one wants to feel afraid and no one wants to lose money. I should also make clear that I don’t think having a gated property in the DTES and being a socially responsible business owner are mutually exclusive. There may be many examples of gated businesses with owners who hire locally, proactively work with local service agencies and who know and welcome low-income residents to their premises. Kudos to all of them. The points I’m trying to make are about the pervasive presence of metal gates, how that presence and materiality must shape both the psychology and everyday experience of low-income residents, and also how different that is from my experience of my own neighbourhood.

And of course, actual metal gates are not the only ways that messages of belonging, exclusion and defensiveness are communicated. As I walked around, I also thought about fonts. I’m no type designer or historian, but I do have a thing for fonts (particularly of the arts and crafts style). It comes with the word nerd territory. How do the fonts that signs are written in tell people whether they belong somewhere or not? I don’t know exactly, except that we’re all immersed and in the process of interpreting our visual and written culture each day, all day – even those of us who are illiterate or struggle with literacy (perhaps they even more so, since they can’t extract information from the textual content of signs.) Again, I didn’t keep a tally, but I can tell you that as I walked around, I saw very few fonts like this or this:

IMG_3017

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_3018

 

 

 

 

And a lot more like this.

IMG_3029

 

 

 

I’d argue that if even if things were switched around so that the sign using the hip, postmodern font said “all-day breakfast,” low-income people would still be receiving a “stay away” message.

Seeing all the upscale restaurants and stores selling expensive clothing, furniture, jewellry and shoes, I also thought about times I’ve visited ritzy shopping districts in major cities such as New York. Sure, it can be fun to check these areas out and indulge a few fantasies, even though I can’t afford to purchase the items for sale. But would I want to live in an area like that, surrounded by things I can’t afford and by people so much wealthier than I? No way. Actually, I always keep my forays to such areas short because walking around feeling envious is no fun – it puts me in a bad mood. It’s true that some of that bad mood comes from exposure to what I consider to be obscene overconsumption and inequality, but I crave beautiful objects at least as much as the next person. And if I’m prone to fall into an envy-induced funk when I visit places like that for just a couple hours, what must it be like to have to deal with that all the time in your own neighbourhood? Especially when you can’t afford to live anywhere else. Especially when you have had little to no say in the rapid changes taking place around you. Obviously, these are points that DTES residents have been making themselves, loudly and for a long time. They are part of why the recent DTES community planning process (and its results) have been contentious.

Overall, walking through the DTES while trying to see through “Mike Davis eyes” yielded plenty of signals of exclusion and defensiveness – ones I’m certain are instantly decoded by those whom they’re meant for. But they are sign-makers too.

 

street painting

On the pavement of the alley between Hastings and Cordova at Cambie.

 

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Responses to CAC post

I was very pleased to see that Gordon Price re-blogged my post on community amenity contributions (CACs) on his own widely read and respected blog, Price Tags. It generated some discussion there, and also prompted another blogger (Jens von Bergmann) to generate a map based on the info in the spreadsheet I compiled. I liked that.

Price Tags, State of Vancouver and Cityhall Watch are probably the three urban-related Vancouver blogs that I find the most informative and useful, so it’s great to be able contribute to discussions on any of those.

Jak King, who is among those I mentioned in the post, also responded on his blog, which is another one I try to read regularly. It’s more focused on East Van and Grandview Woodlands. While I don’t agree with all the positions he takes (same goes for the others), I definitely appreciate the information he provides about neighbourhood goings-on and history and the status of local businesses.

I recommend checking out all of the above blogs.

A timeline of housing-related Airbnb events

I’ve created this timeline of events related to Airbnb’s impact on housing (rental housing in particular). I thought it would be useful because there has been so much housing-related news about Airbnb for the past several months, and even before that. Sorting out everything that’s happened in New York, San Francisco, Portland and elsewhere can be confusing. I hope this timeline helps me (and anyone else who’s interested) keep things straight.

Timeline

It’s a work in progress and I’ll be updating it as I go along. The information comes from online articles and news stories, which I’ve quoted and linked in most cases. Please bring any errors you catch to my attention through my contact form or Twitter.

Back and forth on CACs

So, did you know that community amenity contributions (CACs) are at the root of every housing problem Vancouver faces? Neither did I, until I watched Glen Chernen of the Cedar Party in a civic election debate on housing affordability last week. Perhaps I exaggerate slightly, but Chernen really did seem to work something about CACs into each of his responses, and I gather this was not a one-time occurrence. CACs, in a nutshell, are contributions the city negotiates with developers who seek rezoning. In probably 99% of the cases, the developer is asking  to  build more units than the current zoning allows, i.e. to increase density. And in the vast majority of cases, if granted, that extra density will be achieved through the construction of taller buildings. The amenities requested in return might be green space, public art, affordable housing, or sometimes just the cash to buy these things. There’s been a lot of interesting debate recently about the pros and cons of Vancouver’s CAC system, but suffice to say I don’t think Mr. Chernen’s remarks contributed to it. This was the first time I’d heard him speak and I didn’t find him credible (or informed) at all; I’m stretched to believe that anyone else would. You can view the debate here and decide for yourself.

However, the debate did include some substantive discussion on CACs, which came about one hour in, in response to a question from Vancouver Sun journalist Jeff Lee (a former journalism instructor of mine). Lee said that the money in the city’s CAC reserve fund had increased from $48 million in early 2009 to $128 million in 2013. He asked each of the candidates whether she or he would support spending that money on affordable housing.

Although it provoked responses I was interested in, I think the question was a bit off the mark in that, as I understand it (and I stand to be corrected), a good chunk of the CAC reserve fund is probably already earmarked for spending on affordable housing – that’s one of the various purposes for which the city uses CACs. The other thing is that the money in the CAC reserve that isn’t already designated for affordable housing has been designated for spending on other public goods, such as the ones already mentioned. I’m no authority on how CACs are negotiated and I’m not one to have blind faith in governments, but I am fairly confident that the amount and type of CACs that are negotiated for each project is not random, but instead the product of deliberate decisions, likely (hopefully) based on an assessment of neighbourhood needs. I’d even venture so far as to suggest that there is some means (I’m not saying adequate means) for communities affected by each development to have input into how the associated CACs are used. If that’s the case, it would be poor process and antidemocratic to overturn the existing decisions on how to spend CACs so that all the money could instead be funneled into affordable housing, as dire as the need for that housing is. The only candidate who seemed to agree with the idea was OneCity’s RJ Aquino, whom I otherwise think has worthwhile housing ideas. The others all said no, for somewhat different reasons. Chernen and the Green Party’s Adriane Carr called the current CAC system “broken.”

Even before this debate, I’d been thinking quite a bit about CACs because the topic came up in the class on “great urban thinkers” I’m taking as part of my master’s in urban studies. That discussion led me to wonder if there was a comprehensive list somewhere of all the city projects that had ever been funded partly or wholly through CACs. And if not, it made me think there should be. Doesn’t that make sense? CACs (and the related topics of development, housing and density) are subjects of debate and even controversy. It would be helpful for our local government to provide its residents with a list of public benefits the CAC policy has produced and what was traded to get them. I don’t see this information as supporting one side or the other of the debate, but instead just part of transparent and accountable governing. Unfortunately, a comprehensive list does not seem to exist, at least not in the city’s possession, and I did ask. Granted, such list would be very long indeed, stretching back about 25 years (for a brief history of CAC policy, see this article originally found on the Price Tags blog).

What does exist, however, are three publicly available (though not easily findable) annual reports that provide details on the benefits obtained through CACs in 2010, 2011 and 2012. The city planning department informed me that a 2013 report is in the works, which is good news. While I’m very glad the reports exist, they are provided in pdf format, which makes it onerous to sort and compare information, and they don’t have all the information I would like to see included.

Therefore, to aid analysis, I have compiled the information in those reports into a spreadsheet and posted it here:

https://docs.zoho.com/sheet/published.do?rid=32ek9248ec85b33014b818b229b4f0b138900

Please note:

  • The city reports do not include information about before and after floor space ratios.
  • The city reports do not include the names of the developments or developers (I plan to add those gradually), only their street addresses.
  • The city reports do not include a column for “recipient,” which I have added and aim to fill in as I’m able.
  • I created the “type” column and the types with the goal of making it easier to sort by type of benefit.
  • I have checked this data for accuracy against the city reports, but use it at your own risk – you may wish to check its accuracy yourself.
  • I recommend reading the city reports for context and policy information.

Adding pre-2010 data seems like a worthwhile but daunting project since it would require sifting through city reports on each rezoning. That’s unfortunate, since as former planning director Brent Toderian put it, “Our annual DCL and CAC reporting has made the results of public benefit system much more transparent and understandable for members of the public.”[3] I agree.

I have also compiled an incomplete list of some Vancouver civic leaders and urban thinkers who either support or critique the current CAC system. “For” or “against” in this case doesn’t necessarily mean that any of those listed are unreservedly in support or opposed to all aspects of the current CAC system; it just signifies where I think they best fit.

For

Against

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New publication! My short-term rentals story in The Tyee

I am pleased to announce my first actual byline in, oh…longer than I want to say. My story on how short-term rentals, as facilitated Airbnb and similar web tools, affect the supply of long-term rental housing in Vancouver appeared in The Tyee on June 27. Read all about it here: Are Online Vacation Renters Displacing Vancouverites?

I’m also pleased to see follow-up coverage by CBC Radio and TV. BC Almanac did a segment July 5, which covered much of the same ground as my story, though focused more on the lack of lodging taxes paid in these transactions.

Then on July 6, CBC TV did a 2-minute news segment. It’s great to see this, though I note that they interviewed a Yaletown resident who rents out the second bedroom in his condo. From a safety and security point of view, that sort of short-term rental is not really the issue, since the host will often be present when the guest is there and that does a lot to mitigate concerns and risks.

More to my point, I would argue that renting out a spare room (or an entire apartment or home while the usual resident is away) has a fairly minimal effect on the supply of rental housing that’s available to actual Vancouver residents. It’s true that that second bedroom could be housing a local resident instead of a tourist and we certainly need all the affordable housing we can get in Vancouver. But I think policy-makers should be much more concerned about the many entire apartments, condos and secondary suites and houses that are being rented to tourists (at higher rates and without the oversight of the Residential Tenancy Act) instead of adding to the city’s woefully inadequate and aging rental housing stock.

I also don’t know, but would like to, where CBC TV got the figure of 3,000 rooms available for short-term rental to tourists.

Elsewhere, Vancouver councillor Geoff Meggs elaborated on the comments of his I included in my story on his own blog. And a Gabriola blogger chipped in here.

 

Post-semester reading

Ah, the end of the semester….freedom to toss all the books out the window, or to delve into the ones you’ve been dying to read but had to slot behind assigned reading lists. And these days, most of my academic reading is in the form of pdf or online journal articles anyway, so not that many actual books involved. Here’s an armful I took home from the library this week – left a few behind to spare my arms and back.

Books from Belzberg

Books from Belzberg

Methodologies in Housing Research, in particular, seems like it could be very useful for my thesis preparation and research.  I’m really looking forward to Manhattan for Rent by Elizabeth Blackmar, whom I remember and admire from researching the history of Central Park for my history undergrad honours paper. Blackmar co-wrote The Park and the People, one of my favourite urban history books, with Roy Rosenzweig.