In the early 1980s, a small group of women decided they needed a safe affordable place to live and to develop a community for women and their children. To achieve their ends, they established a Housing Society called “Entre Nous Femmes” which eventually built and developed the 46-unit Alma Blackwell housing project at 1656 Adanac Street, named after the grandmother of one of the group’s founders.
Alma Blackwell rapidly became the community the founders hoped for. Many women in need and their children lived in the housing project, often for decades. It has continued to thrive as a community and its success created the ability for the Housing Society to build more and more similar projects until today, ENF has eleven buildings in Vancouver.
Although not legally structured as a co-op, the ENF project operated within that milieu: the residents helped build and maintain the buildings, and controlled the Society. However, as the years passed, the governance became more and more removed from the residents, more distant, until today the residents are not only not allowed to be directors of the society, and are routinely refused access to the Society’s minutes, they even find it difficult to find out who is a director of their Society.
That change in governance has been matched by the recent unwillingness of the Society to maintain the property in a fit and livable manner. Moreover, a number of vacancies have occurred over the last couple of years which the Society has seen fit not to fill — even while the City suffers its worst ever housing crisis. This led to suspicions that something big was afoot — but the Society would not explain to the residents except to suggest that the Society did not have the funds needed to keep the building in good repair. When asked for details of the repair costs, the Society refused to respond to residents’ requests.
In April this year, Vancouver City Council approved a motion that doubled the height of buildings allowed in certain zones, including the RM-3A zone in which Alma Blackwell sits. Almost immediately thereafter, plans to demolish Alma Blackwell and replace it with a much larger building were bruited and the residents were given, by a consultant hired by the Society, an unofficial official eviction notice.
Since that time, the Society has essentially refused to speak with the residents except to pressure several of them to accept relocation to other facilities. The Society has no formal Tenant Relocation Plan, is not offering any compensation, and in at least one case offered a resident a mere 24 hours to decide whether she and her child would move from the their decades-long home and move to another building, the details of which were not disclosed.
This story, and plenty of others, were movingly told by Alma Blackwell residents at last night’s Grandview Woodland Area Council (GWAC) meeting. All the talk was about how great a community had been fostered at Alma Blackwell; people have lived there long enough to have children and grandchildren. They are a close-knit family-like community with good and close ties to the rest of the neighbourhood. Many of the residents are teachers at Britannia.
It seemed a unanimous opinion of the large gathering at the meeting that it is simply ridiculous to destroy a perfectly good low-income community just to build a larger facility that will have to start from scratch once again after a gap of who-knows-how-many years. It is pointless from a neighbourhood point of view, and it is highly destructive to the current residents, families who have spent years developing and nurturing that community.
Councillor Jean Swanson attended the meeting and will be asking a number of questions of staff. However, she was pessimistic about the chances of reversing the course of this development, given the current majority on Council and the previously-approved zoning adjustment. No matter. The wider Grandview community needs to speak up about this, and I hope we can speak so loudly that we cannot be ignored.