The Pidgin Picket, the Housing Crisis and the State

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The Role of The State in Gentrification, the Housing Crisis, and its Ability to Relieve or Maintain the Current Situation

by Rachel Goodine

Pidgin, a new fine-dining restaurant located on Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, moved in to the neighbourhood on February 1 of this year, prompting plenty of controversy. It’s located right off of East Hastings on Carrall Street, directly across from the notorious Pigeon Park. Many who do not live in the neighbourhood regard Pigeon Park as a drug haven, however for many residents the park is known as a gathering spot that hosts various festivals and street markets organized by the community. Pidgin is just one of many establishments actively contributing to the current gentrification squeeze. Although many regard gentrification as a good thing, it is ultimately contributing to the life and death situation that is the housing crisis in British Columbia. The idea that money accrued from business will trickle down to the poor through tax revenue is a common one. So is the idea that British Columbia simply does not have the money to put into social housing to address the needs of residents of the neighbourhood. In reality the priorities of this government, and the resulting hegemony seen in the majority of citizens, leaves the state with plenty of cash to be funneled to corporations as well as the military, in addition to funding coercion and repression tactics that maintain the status quo.

Based on the current conversation happening in the province surrounding gentrification, it seems many view the word to be synonymous with “improvement”. Yes, gentrification makes things prettier. It also forces current residents of neighbourhoods to be displaced when they can no longer afford amenities near their own homes. The numerous condominiums and restaurants that have popped up in the Downtown Eastside over the past year, all of which are financially out of reach for current residents, cause people who call the neighbourhood home to feel like aliens in their own space. The time of $3 breakfasts has passed, excluding residents from the new eateries that they cannot afford to patronize and are often not even welcome in. If residents do make it through the door, they are often tailed by security guards and made to feel as if their presence is a burden. Along with rising rents, these factors cause residents, some who have multi-generational families living in the neighbourhood, to pack up and leave.

Vancouver City hall likes to put on an air of concern for the homeless, all the while supporting the developers and business owners who fund Vision Vancouver’s campaigns; the same ones who are gentrifying the neighbourhood at such a rapid pace that residents are experiencing a culture shock. We hear that social housing is being built, that those concerned about gentrification are basically an over-dramatic bunch. Counsellors proudly state that the city is indeed addressing the housing crisis by designating a few units in each new condo as social housing (Ball, 2013). They seem to forget to mention the massive amount of accessible housing for the poor, which includes disabled people, single parents, and pensioners, that have recently disappeared. The gain in housing simply is not catching up with the loss. Yes, there has been a gain of 125 units of low-income housing, in the one-block radius surrounding the Woodwards building, for example, but there has been a loss of 404 units. I’m not sure if math skills are required to sit on counsel at city hall, but it should be pretty clear to most that this is not an overall gain. In contrast, the one block featured in the map has seen an increase in 902 market-rate units. This is what gentrification looks like. So, based on the provocative nature of the location and name of Pidgin, residents and supporters have chosen the restaurant as a symbolic location to protest the stifling effects of gentrification, picketing twice a day, every day, at the busiest times of day for business, with the intent of shutting down shop.

Taking a look at an article posted by the Vancouver Sun on March 1, 2013 titled, “Local entrepreneurs quietly celebrate Downtown Eastside improvements,” by Darah Hansen, one can get a feel for the media and general public’s stance on this situation. The article highlights the importance of money flowing in order to improve society, with a quick mention of the housing crises. As the housing crisis is so tightly linked to gentrification, it is alarming that the mainstream media doesn’t put more focus on this connection. All interviewees in the article are Downtown Eastside business owners, except for one: housing activist, Jean Swanson. The overall sentiment of the article is that, yes, we have a housing problem, but ultimately personal gain is more important and maybe said personal gain will lead to improvements in the lives of the poor.

Those who take a pluralist approach to the state view the world as just and that the needs of various special interest groups are already fairly balanced. Pluralists believe that we all benefit from the system in some way, as expressed by Joe, owner of Sunrise Market who claims to not mind that the beef tenderloin in the butcher shop across the street is unaffordable even for her, since the area is becoming “improved,” and not just, “all social services” (Hansen, 2013). This view, also expressed to the author by two friends and patrons of Pidgin’s owner, Brandon Grossutti, is a popular one but doesn’t take into account the privilege of developers and business owners, systemic racism, the effects of genocide on First Nations people who are represented disproportionately among the homeless population, gender relations, our history of colonialism, and overall class inequalities that contribute to the situation we now see in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Basically, the poor are poor due to the fault of the poor. On the other hand, the class relations approach to viewing the state can be illustrated by a quote from Jean Swanson in the article mentioned above:

“If I were (the business owners), I would get it together and hold a news conference and call on (B.C. Housing Minister) Rich Coleman and (Prime Minister) Stephen Harper to build 5,000 units of self-contained social housing. I would ask they raise welfare rates. I would stop trying to make it seem that the situation in the Downtown Eastside can be solved by charity, and get onboard and start working for actual policy changes.”

The class approach, a change theory, would take that position that policy change and an overall societal shift from a pluralist view of the state can go a long way in curbing the displacement faced by residents as well as in addressing the housing crisis. This absolutely requires an acknowledgement of the power imbalances among various classes.

Those who take the class theory approach view the state as having three specific functions: to maintain conditions for profit of capital on behalf of the dominant class (accumulation function), to keep dissent to a minimum as a way of legitimizing class structure (legitimation function), and to use force when necessary to repress individuals on behalf of the dominant class (coercion function). We can see from the Sun article and the majority of mainstream media articles on the topic, that promoting profit over people is the goal, as well as perpetuating hegemony that allows this profit to continue.

With regards to accumulation of function, we see that the state, the regulator of capitalism, sets the rules surrounding the economy. We have many services considered to be part of the public good, such as hospitals and public schools, but social housing has been off the radar for a long time, since it isn’t in the best interest of the ruling class to build not-for-profit homes. We also have an increasingly regressive tax system (i.e. no connection to amount of wealth and ability to pay) that is not designed to benefit all citizens equally. On top of that, federal and provincial governments have been steadily cutting back over the years on transfer payments to municipalities, while also increasing municipal responsibilities (municipalities are now responsible for education, welfare, policing, and more) (Naiman, J. (2012). How societies work: Class, power, and change. (5th ed., pp. 165-190). Winnipeg, Manitoba; Blackpoint, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing.). The result of this is giant cutbacks in social services. These policies leave the poorest people in Canada with an income assistance shelter allowance of $375 per month and $26 per week for food. Not to mention, insufficient access to medical treatment due to an overburdened healthcare system, with only one safe injection site in the neighbourhood, the only portal to medical care for many addicted residents of the Downtown Eastside. And ultimately, since the stoppage of the federal social housing program in 1993, we’ve faced a massive housing crisis, with 11,000 visibly homeless, 40,000 hidden homeless (sleeping in cars, on couches), and 65,000 at risk for homelessness who live in substandard conditions, paying more than 50% of their income on rent (Social Housing Coalition BC, 2013).

Pickers of Pidgin demand 5,000 units of social housing before any more businesses or condos move into the neighbourhood. This figure is often laughed at, with many stating there simply isn’t enough money to tackle such a problem. Meanwhile, big business continues to get gigantic loans, grants, and tax concessions. Between 1982 and 2006, the federal government authorized the transfer of $18.4 billion to corporations, with only 39% of that repayable. To date, less than 20% has been paid back (Williamson, 2007). The government justifies this with the promise of jobs for the working class, but still hand over money to corporations that are losing money and cutting staff. The result of the spending that goes into corporate welfare means even more cuts to social services. In 2007, Canada spent 16.9% of its GDP on services, ranking it 27 of 34 OECD (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, whose purpose is to improve economic and social well-being of people around the world). In 1993, it ranked 10th.

On top of corporate welfare, spending to the military has increased by 61% over the last decade. Between 2010 and 2011 almost $23 billion went into military funding. Between 1982 and 2009, Pratt & Whitney, a major Canadian weapons manufacturing corporation, was the second largest recipient of government funding in this country (Robinson, 2011). Even the Canadian Pension Plan is now being used to fund military spending. But there’s no money for social housing?

The forceful apparatus of the state includes spying and intimidation, with the RCMP and CSIS deeming anyone who slightly criticizes the status quo as a threat. Individuals and groups who have been targets of investigation include: trade unions, left wing political groups, Quebec sovereignists, First Nations people, peace activists, gays and lesbians, immigrants, feminists, the Consumer Housewives’ Association, high school students, university students and professors, black community activists, and yes, even Tommy Douglas. We see intimidation in the form of harassment of the poor (extreme ticketing and racial profiling, for example), the crime industry (for-profit prisons), and legislation brought in after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, making a legal loophole that tramples on taxpayers’ civil rights. The Anti-Terrorism Act leaves anyone open to arrest at any time for any “reason”. Even certain supporters of the Pidgin picket have been painted with the “terrorist” brush by the Canadian government for advocating against federal interests in oil extraction and advocating for people affected by the omnibus Anti-Terrorism Act. Again, hegemony plays a role here in the fact that more and more private citizens see dissent as something other than one’s democratic right, with comment sections on news articles and twitter posts painting anyone who challenges existing conditions to be immature, whiny, or degenerate.

In terms of power, the marginalized have very little. Those who decry the Pidgin picket need to realise that this is the only voice many involved in the fight for homes have. Of course, the picket isn’t the only avenue being taken by all of the protestors: many attend city hall meetings, sit on the neighbourhood Local Area Planning Committee, and write articles with the intent of educating the public. Many are disenfranchised and unable to participate in the democratic process due to the fact that they are homeless. Society needs to shift from a narcissistic, individualistic culture, to one that is more caring of our fellow human beings; one that puts people over profit. To overcome the greedy, repressive, and coercive apparatuses of the state, the people need to band together and let our governments know that we are not ok with letting people die in the streets in the name of accumulation of capital. All citizens should have a stake in what happens in their communities in a fair and democratic way. Currently, the only power the poor have is in numbers, such as banding together in the Pidgin picket. Regardless of income, the working class must stand together in solidarity to overcome the power the state and the dominant class have over our economy and class structure.

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