It wasn’t so long ago that huge, stone sugar-baron mansions dominated the West End and wealthy railroad folks claimed the area as home, says filmmaker Aerlyn Weissman, warning that a return to such days may not be so farfetched.
Weissman began coming to Vancouver to work in the 1970s, gradually building up a community of friends whom she visited over the years until she moved here permanently in the 1990s. For her, quite simply, Vancouver is the West End.
“It was just a place I gravitated to because my friends were here. It was the centre of gay life. It seemed a natural fit in that way.
“It was easy to rent here,” she continues. “It was affordable. A beautiful community near the seawall and ocean.
“What’s happening now is that people are being pushed out of this area because they can’t afford the rent,” she laments. “They want to take us back to the time of the sugar barons–without the style of those guys.”
The “they” to whom she refers is the area’s contemporary corporate players: the triumvirate of landlords, apartment and property owners who are becoming caught up in what veteran West Enders like Weissman label the convert-to-condo mania sweeping the Lower Mainland–and the attendant displacement and homogeneity many fear will come in its wake.
“It’s clones they’re building,” Weissman says. “Every apartment will have the same white tiles, the same white particle board. They can get the same supplies all in the same place in bulk, and market the end result all in the same way. It’s like clear-cutting. Everything is standard and uniform.
“And they’ll tell you not to fool yourself into thinking it’s your home. It’s a new unit. And you are a suite number,” she adds, incredulously.
Weissman has been trying to get a handle on the ownership turnover of buildings in the area, and produces a laundry list of such sales dating back to 2004. Her building at 1461 Harwood, the Bay Tower, was sold to Hollyburn Properties Inc late last year for just over $5.3 million, according to figures she downloaded from real estate websites.
The threat of displacement and its accompanying loss of community turned personal for the filmmaker and her fellow tenants at the Bay Tower in March, when Hollyburn began informing residents that their rents would be brought up to market levels for the area.
While some tenants, like Little Sister’s manager Janine Fuller, initially went along with the increase–which was over the maximum 4 percent per annum stipulated in the Residential Tenancy Act–others refused. Weissman was one of those who balked at the idea.
An April deadline was given to sign on. “Like it was a limited time offer,” Weissman jokes.
Then came the pressure tactics.
“A couple letters came in the interim,” she recalls. “Things like, ‘Have you signed yet? Your neighbours have signed. How come you’re not signing?’
“But we knew that wasn’t true,” she says. “Many of us know each other in the building, and not everyone signed.
“Then all of a sudden, it’s: ‘Forget the rent increase. We’re going to renovate, and we’ll be evicting two floors at a time, starting from the top.’ There was no mention of this in previous communications,” she points out.
All of a sudden, Weissman continues, the manager who occupies a suite in the building and is a friend of long-standing, is under Hollyburn employ, handing out eviction notices.
Eighth floor tenant Mark Macdonald says the sight of his good friend walking around in “a black shirt with a Hollyburn crest on his heart” was jarring. His old friend eventually quit in September.
Weissman couldn’t help but be amused, in hindsight, when a new manager asked her if she was 703. She shot back: “No, I’m Aerlyn.”
When contacted by Xtra West, Hollyburn’s senior property manager Michael Lensen insisted he had said all he had to say on the matter in other newspapers. He issued a terse “no comment” when prompted to define Hollyburn’s vision for the West End.
Last month, Lensen told the Westender that it was “part of the decision-making process that we decided to go” the renovation route rather than pursuing the initially requested rent increases.
“We changed our mind,” he said, adding that most of the suites will now require evictions, barring but a few.
So far, the two-floor by two-floor eviction process has reached the seventh floor. But the Bay Tower tenants are not giving up without a fight, with protest signage appearing in some Tower windows.
“If you lived here you’d be homeless by now” and “Resident eight years. Evicted for profit by Hollyburn” adorned Macdonald’s eighth floor window until a terse note from Hollyburn advised him and his partner that they were in violation of Section 47D of the Residential Tenancy Act.
Meanwhile, Fuller, her partner Julie Stines, and Sharon Isaak decided to pit their luck, resources and the law against Hollyburn in two closed-door arbitration sessions at the Residential Tenancy Office (RTO) in Burnaby, Oct 13. Fuller should find out soon if she and her partner will have to add more boxes to the ones that already populate their tenth floor apartment in anticipation of a worst case scenario.
“Everyone in our building has been under constant siege, trying to keep our spirits up, but it’s really difficult because it’s your home,” she says. “Some people feel ‘oh, maybe I just wanna leave because I just can’t take the anxiety,’ and I totally respect that, and I’ve certainly felt that way myself at times.
“But I think it’s really important that people feel that there is some power and some hope, and that you should be able to have that voice at least within the system to challenge someone evicting you from your home,” she adds.
Equally significant and no less emotionally laden in the current corporate climate, is the West End’s own future as a nexus and stomping ground for queer visibility and expression.
Fuller says she cannot begin to explain the resonance of the area for the already established queer community and for those who continue to come to the area, essentially, to find themselves.
“It’s such an important place, especially for queer people to come and be here. People come from all over BC, from all across Canada, to find themselves, to find the courage to come out here.”
Weissman agrees, suggesting today’s battles for openly queer expression and space are no longer pitched in the streets with police à la Stonewall, but in the corporate arenas, often behind closed doors in RTO-like settings.
The result, she concludes, is that the very space and spirit which the queer community has largely helped create is being sold out from under it.
“If the West End becomes an enclave for the wealthy, if this is where it’s headed, many gay people will have to leave. And an irony of history is that we may lose this neighborhood. We may lose St Paul’s. We may lose other things in this community when people like Janine can’t live here anymore.
“How do we keep the [rainbow] banners up, symbolic as they are? We may lose the political battles we’ve fought over years to unelected, unaccountable corporate forces,” she warns. “We’re about to be pushed out of an area which we helped give value to. And now others are cashing in on it.”
Though Calgary’s Connaught-Beltline area doesn’t have the entrenched gay cachet the Davie Village/West End area embodies, it had a noteworthy gay presence of its own for years–until the condo conversions began.
“It’s a mix of apartment buildings, walkups and single family homes with a turn of the century flavour, 1900s. It’s not your Davie Village, but the clubs and bathhouses are located here, and gay-affirmative businesses,” says long-time gay activist Stephen Lock.
“What has happened over the years is there has been a lot of condo conversions of what used to be mostly rentals,” he continues. “Three-storey walkups have been turned into condos. There’s just been a high-rise explosion all over Calgary. Some guys were able to buy a small condo, but those at the lower end of the economic spectrum weren’t able to. They ended up leaving town.”
After living in their last Beltline rental for five years, he and his partner of 26 years were evicted in February, in part for past-due rent, in part for housing one of their fellow tenants, a financially strapped mother of three who could not afford rent after footing the funeral expenses for one of her sons who died just before Christmas last year.
Lock and his partner Terry Haldane have been camping out and couch-hopping at friends’ places all over the city for the past eight months as they cast about for new rental space to call home.
The longest they have stayed anywhere has been five months; the shortest, a week. One friendship has gone by the wayside, the result of having overstayed their welcome.
With a vacancy rate of .06 percent, the Calgary rental market, concludes Lock, is in nothing short of crisis. And the fall-out for what signs there are of gay life in the Beltline area is not hard to gauge.
“I may be making a jump here, but it makes sense to me that if you’re a middle and lower income person paying $685, $750, $850 and that’s jacked up to $1,500 and $2,000–the place we stayed in is now $2,000–it would have some parallel effect on the area.”
And it doesn’t just affect residential tenants, he notes. “Boyztown which had been around for 15-20 years, a dance club, closed down. Commercial rents have boomed and I’m guessing, in some part, some of the gay bars have not been able to face the increase. We had four or five bar closures last year. We’re left with only four. Before there were eight or 10 bars.”
Approaching the city or the province about formally recognizing the Beltline area as a gaybourhood is, for Lock, a very moot point, even amusing because of the historical conservatism and pro-corporate culture of both political entities.
“The reactions would range from ‘why would we do that?’ to ‘oh, so you really do want special rights; you have marriage and you want your own neighbourhood now.'”
Besides, he continues, Calgary’s community is just not that politically organized. “There are few activists here, and a handful of gay activists. Maybe three of us in total,” he says.
Granted, Calgary’s 17th Ave Southwest has developed a gay chic of its own since it is now a central part of the Pride Parade route. Some gay businesses have opened up and several straight bars sport rainbow flags on their doors. But it’s a typical high-end retail-restaurant-bar strip, with a business revitalization-zone look and feel that business owners have consciously worked to develop, he says.
“Calgary has caught the condo bug big time,” Lock concludes. “The result is that all those who used to live in cheap housing–students, pensioners, gay guys who would buy a place and fix it up–all these people have been displaced and are moving to outlying areas. What we are left with downtown are monolithic office buildings and condo towers. Whereas once you could find rental space going for $750-$800, there are now $200,000 condo units. Actually, more like $400,000.”
Back in Vancouver, West End Residents’ Association (WERA) director Aaron Jasper wants solutions. Solutions to the way the RTO operates, solutions to the loopholes he feels are being exploited by corporations who find it easy to conduct “economic evictions by renovation,” solutions to what he sees as a looming crisis of affordable housing in the Lower Mainland.
“If the trend continues, we are going to not only see queer people, but everyone who contributes to the diversity of the area–seniors, recent immigrants, young families and others not at the top of the economic spectrum–move to where it’s cheaper,” he points out.
He’s not sure, however, if the idea of designating areas like the West End a protected zone of affordable housing is the right way to go.
There is an interconnection of neighbourhoods which makes the affordable housing issue a regional one, he maintains. Focusing on certain neighborhoods and designating them in a certain way increases the risk of ghettoizing them with homogeneous groups of people occupying particular areas, he suggests.
“We need to re-examine what makes a community livable. Infrastructure, services, diversity– queer people, seniors, young families, people of wide income ranges all living together. Not just people who can afford to drop down half a million.”
But it’s people with that kind of income who are changing the face of the city, Weissman says.
“Unelected people with a lot of money and a lot of power. And we have no access to be able to negotiate in a strong way.
“Remember we had World Urban Forum here,” she notes. “Vancouver gets a lot of mileage and points for quality of life. Its urban planning is held up as an example around the world. We’ve got the kind of community here that people all over the world are trying to create. Walkable, sustainable, diversity. We’ve got it, and it’s being destroyed.”