The Olympics, Housing and Homelessness in Vancouver

February 7, 2008

With just two years to go before the 2010 Olympics, promises of housing and benefits for low-income people in Vancouver made during the bid process have been forgotten by all three levels of government. Not only are marginalized populations in Vancouver not benefiting from the Games, they are being displaced by punitive new policies targeted at “cleaning up” Vancouver in time for 2010.

Rumoured provincial funding to build new social housing on city-owned lots before the Games has yet to be realized. Any new units that might result from a funding announcement in the next year would be extremely unlikely to open before 2010. Despite criticisms that may be made of the negligent provincial government on the housing file, the federal government is not even talking about funding housing for 2010, or at all.

Meanwhile, Vancouver is losing affordable housing at an alarming rate, feeding a rapidly growing homeless population. In recent months, five low-cost rental buildings in and around the Downtown Eastside closed or issued eviction notices, representing at least 180 units. According to the City of Vancouver’s Judy Graves, there are at least 2,300 street homeless in Vancouver, up 78 per cent from the last homelessness count in 2005, which itself was up 171 per cent from 2002’s count (both conducted by SPARC-BC). These 2,300 people are competing for 746 emergency shelter spaces in Vancouver.

Things could get worse. In December, City staff defied logic by advancing a report to Council that suggests allowing the demolition and conversion of the last remaining Single Room Occupancy hotels and lodging houses (SROs) in Vancouver. SROs are the last privately owned housing in Vancouver that is affordable to people on welfare.

Housing is not the only area where the Olympic host governments are failing poor people in the lead-up to the 2010 Games. Additional policies (some proposed, some already implemented) impacting the poor are part of what appears to be a massive “clean-up” effort for the Games, including:

  • The city banning dumpsters in city lanes, eliminating the main means of support for binners who scavenge cans and other materials from our garbage;
  • City councillors backing a proposal to fund with public money almost $1m in private security guards for the downtown core;
  • The province creating a “community” court, designed for poor people in the downtown core, that will open Spring of 2008, but without offering access to any additional social services;
  • The federal government putting an expiry date of June 2008 on the safe injection site; and,
  • The city and federal governments closing and “renovating” parks used by low-income people.

For its Olympics, Athens created 2,300 units for low-income families from the Athletes’ Village. Vancouver is not guaranteeing any units affordable to those on welfare in our Athletes’ Village after the Games. London 2012 is spending approximately $3.5 billion on improving living conditions for the poor in its inner city as part of its Olympic work, including 4,500 brand new low-income housing units in addition to existing social housing commitments.

Vancouver 2010 is not close to achieving even a fraction of those numbers. With the $2.5 billion Olympics just two years away, the countdown to the Games is quickly turning into a countdown to international embarrassment.

David Eby is a lawyer with the Pivot Legal Society and a research associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. He authors the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, Displacement and Homelessness blog, at