Did the 2010 Olympics contribute to Vancouver's housing crisis?
VANCOUVER -- In the years leading up to the Olympics, two Vancouver neighbourhoods were slated to be entirely transformed by the time the Games hit the city.
Today, the False Creek waterfront is virtually unrecognizable from what it once was; first the site of the Athlete’s Village and now luxury condos.
But the Downtown Eastside still looks largely the same -- the epicentre of the city’s homelessness problem.
Long before the Games began, those who worked in the Downtown Eastside were raising red flags about the impact the Olympics would have on the city’s already polarizing housing market.
“We were concerned because there was a lot of homelessness, the SROs were evicting people, welfare rates weren’t high enough,” City Councillor Jean Swanson says. “Homelessness is a lot worse now, but it was bad then too.”
At the time, Swanson was asked to serve on the Inner-City Inclusive Housing Table, put together by what would later become the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC). The group was tasked with figuring out how VANOC could fulfill its promise to protect the rental market and provide more social housing, made during the bid process.
“That committee, which had a broad range of people on it, made a recommendation that as part of an Olympic commitment we should have 3,200 new units of social housing,” Swanson says. “We got 1,400.”
Bob Mackin covered the Vancouver Games extensively as a journalist, and later turned his work into a book, Red Mittens & Red Ink:The Vancouver Olympics. He says the city was the first to explicitly include inclusivity priorities in an Olympic bid.
“Early on, the Olympic Village was supposed to be about two-thirds social housing, but as time wore on, even before the recession happened, they looked at the opportunity and said ‘You can’t lose this opportunity, this is prime waterfront land,’” he says.
Costs for the Olympic Village build ballooned, and the city and VANOC struggled to sustain the momentum on the promised social housing.
The developer went into receivership and left the responsibility of selling it off to the city. Vancouver sold it to the Aquilini family at a loss, and they turned it into the luxury waterfront neighbourhood it is today.
Gregor Robertson, the city’s mayor during the Olympics, said in a recent interview with CTV News that his one regret looking back on the Games is the contribution to the affordability crisis.
“We might have attracted too much attention to Vancouver, and it turbo-charged our growth. Obviously our housing market was impacted by that,” he said. “I don't think anyone could have anticipated how hot real estate would be in Vancouver.”
And Swanson says that impact is obvious when she walks through the DTES.
“Land values in the Downtown Eastside have gone up a lot. A lot of the SRO – Single Room Occupancy hotels - are being bought up by investors who are evicting low-income residents, doing a little bit of renos and then doubling or tripling the rent.”
Mackin says the Downtown Eastside and the need for social housing were challenges unique to Vancouver. At the time, it was the biggest city to get the Winter Games, and he adds there was well-placed concern among activists that the city was already behind in its supply of social housing.
“There was a city hall report that said there are about 3,200 affordable housing units that Vancouver was short on and Vancouver needed to play catch-up already,” Mackin says. “There was worry that the Games would make that catch-up even harder.”
And according to Swanson, the fact that only half that housing debt was built exacerbated the level of poverty in the Downtown Eastside in the years after the Games.
“That’s one of the reasons that the homeless situation is the worst that I’ve ever seen it, and I’ve been down there for 40 years,” she says.
But Robertson says at the time, the city couldn’t anticipate the surge in investment.
“The affordability issues kind of emerged from housing pressure that was, frankly, related to all the global interest in Vancouver,” he says. “That was hard to predict at the scale it happened.”
These days, the Olympic Village is bustling. Tourists and locals pack the artisanal ice cream parlour, the restaurants and the craft beer halls. Condo-owners’ windows look out on the sunset over the ocean every night.
And Swanson says the Downtown Eastside is worse than ever.
“There are more people on the streets, there are more tents on the street. There are a lot more people in distress on the streets now compared to then.”
With files from CTV News Vancouver's David Molko