Gentrification and COVID-19: Fast-tracking the death of Surrey’s poor

When the City of Surrey forcibly dismantled the homeless camp along 135A Street in June 2018, only 160 people received rooms in temporary modular housing. Everyone else was left to survive in shelters, on the streets, or in the bush. “They act like clearing the Strip was a huge success,” said Wanda Stopa, a homeless community leader. “But the only difference is now we’re scattered and hidden.”

In early 2019, former residents of the Surrey Strip established a new camp in a wooded area off King George Boulevard, which they named Sanctuary Tent City. A resident of the camp, Rory Kohinsky explained, “A lot of us living at Sanctuary were shuffled off of the Strip into the shelters or the bush. Eventually we found our way here.” But the camp was bulldozed in November 2019, when the city opened a 42-bed shelter in the area. Residents described the city-orchestrated destruction of their home as the “latest assault” in an ongoing war on the poor.

The last official count found 600 homeless people in Surrey. According to Wanda, that count included only about half of those on the street. “There were roughly 1000 homeless people in Surrey when the Strip was closed,” she said. In this context, 160 modular housing units and 42 shelter beds are a drop in the bucket.

“They didn’t solve homelessness. All they did was move people off of the Strip,” said Dave Diewert, an activist who has organized with homeless communities in Surrey for years. “Why did they do that? Because there’s a massive gentrification plan for this area.” The redevelopment plan for Surrey City Centre charts a “bold transformation” from a low-income, suburban town centre to a high-density, high-end downtown. In Wanda’s words, “The real reason they cleared the Strip was to ‘beautify’ the neighbourhood.”

Top-down gentrification: The Surrey Centre Plan

The City Centre Plan rebrands Whalley as the “Historic District”

The Surrey City Centre Plan was approved by City Council in January 2017. At its heart, the plan is about “renewing private sector development interest” in the area. It promotes the development of highrise condos and office towers, and promises public sector investment, aimed at “bringing more working professionals and students into the area” to live, work, and shop. 

The City Centre Plan is 273 pages long; the word “homeless” appears only once in all of its pages. The plan for Whalley, rebranded the “Historic District,” fails to mention that the neighbourhood was once home to the Surrey Strip or that it is currently the site of a large, established homeless community. 

Instead of supporting the community that already calls Whalley home, the City Centre Plan seeks to develop a “pedestrian-oriented eclectic shopping experience” – an “experience” that fundamentally excludes anyone who has limited disposable income and is unable to participate as a consumer.

When the City Centre Plan describes the “beautification” of Whalley, we can read between the lines: “beauty” means the absence of visible poverty and “beautification” means the displacement of poor and homeless communities from the City Centre. 

Replacing the poor by upscaling housing types

A guiding principle of the City Centre Plan is “housing diversity.” The Plan promises “housing choice” and a “full spectrum of tenures including ownership and rental as well as supportive and social housing.” Currently, 57 percent of people living in Surrey City Centre rent their homes (compared to 29 percent in all of Surrey), 43 percent of whom spend more than a third of their income on rent. Introducing new market housing into the area – for sale or rent – will drive up costs throughout the City Centre. Even if a token number of non-market units are thrown into the mix, the result will be net loss of low-income housing stock. This process is known as the “Woodward’s Effect” after a “social mix” housing project that accelerated the gentrification of the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver.

The City Centre Plan relies on the same market that created the housing crisis in the first place to solve the problem of housing affordability. The most outrageous market solution proposed by the plan is the development of “micro-suites,” which are self-contained units that are less than 375 square feet. There is no guarantee these units will even be affordable to low-income renters. As Global News reported, there are micro-suites in Vancouver that are renting for $1700 per month.

What about non-market housing? The City Centre Plan makes vague reference to public-private partnerships as a vehicle for the development of social housing. The plan states that its goal is to “enable land use conditions that allow flexibility for developers to incorporate non-market rental and social housing through partnerships with government and other agencies.” In other words, Surrey is following the lead of Vancouver and other cities across Canada, which refuse to build social housing except in collaboration with profit-driven, private developers, who invariably take more than they give.

“Diversity” as social cleansing

The City Centre Plan promises the area will be “home to a diverse population.” The word “diversity” appears dozens of times throughout the plan. But this recognition of “diversity” has nothing to do with supporting the 57 percent of City Centre residents who are not white, who struggle to survive in a country founded on racism and colonial violence. “Diversity,” in the terms of the plan, means economic diversity. This language provides cover for gentrification, for flooding the City Centre with young professionals at the expense of its low-income residents.

Homeless and precariously housed people have no place in the City Centre Plan, because they do not contribute to – and, in fact, impede – private development and investment.

How the City of Surrey plans to manage populations that will be radically excluded from the social and economic life of the “transformed” downtown is left out of the City Centre Plan. But homeless communities can see the writing on the wall. As cities gentrify, policing and criminalization are the tried-and-true methods for dealing with the poor. 

Policing the crisis: Surrey’s anti-homeless “Outreach Team”

While the City Centre Plan was being developed, just months before it was finally approved by City Council, the Surrey Outreach Team was launched. The team, comprised of 12 police and 4 bylaw officers, was established to surveil and contain homeless people living on the Surrey Strip, and eventually, to disperse them. After the Strip was shut down, the Surrey Outreach Team and the Mental Health Unit were amalgamated into the new Police Mental Health Outreach Team, which only led to heightened police and bylaw harassment. “They’ve been harder on us, more forceful, always telling people to move along. If you just sit down for a moment, the cops are in your face. You can’t even stop,” said Wanda.

The City Centre Plan guarantees that as development increases, so will police funding. All development proposals are required to contribute to “the capital costs for police protection” – $65 per single family dwelling unit and $250 per acre for non-residential development. This funding will enable police to continue driving poor people out of public view – into the bush, the shelters, jail-like “supportive housing,” or actual jail cells. 

Public investment and private profit

Community members take over the North Surrey Recreation Centre to secure shelter from the harms of homelessness and COVID-19

The City Centre Plan involves “significant public sector investment,” but not for the low-income residents of the area. Its end goal is to “attract residential and office development” and “catalyze private investment.” In other words, the City Centre Plan champions public investment and private profit.

A prime example of the City of Surrey prioritizing profit over the needs of low-income communities is the closure of the North Surrey Recreation Centre at the end of 2019. The demolition of the facility will make way for a mixed-use “Centre Block” development, described in the City Centre Plan. The project is currently being overseen by the Surrey City Development Corporation, a for-profit real estate development company that claims to “advance the City into a more vibrant […] community.” But for low-income residents of North Surrey, “vibrancy” does not mean “eclectic shopping experiences,” micro-suites, and soulless public art. It means affordable, secure, and dignified housing, community-controlled services and amenities, and freedom from police and bylaw harassment. 

Gentrification cleared the path for COVID-19 to devastate Surrey’s poor 

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, the City Centre Plan was fast-tracking poor and homeless communities in North Surrey toward invisibility and death. Gentrification and its twin, the criminalization of poverty, interact with COVID-19 to ensure that the same people targeted for displacement are at heightened risk of contracting and succumbing to the deadly virus. If the City Centre Plan is an inferno, then COVID-19 is the latest bucket of gasoline thrown on the flames.

To survive the COVID-19 pandemic, low-income communities must fight back and stop the City of Surrey from sacrificing their homes to profit-hungry developers, and leaving them on the streets, in shelters, and in decrepit modular housing to die preventable deaths. On April 1, homeless and precariously housed community leaders occupied the North Surrey Rec Centre, establishing immediate shelter from the harms of homelessness, including the outbreak of COVID-19. The occupation, known as the Hothouse Squat, demanded that the North Surrey Rec Centre be converted into 100% social housing – a visionary demand, which the wider community should rally behind as a bulwark against the aggressive gentrification scheme known as the Surrey City Centre Plan.

Read the founding declarations of the Hothouse Squat, donate to support future squat actions, and sign an open letter supporting the #Squat2Survive movement. 

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