Introducing Wendy Pedersen, CERi Activist-in-Residence

February 21, 2023

By Steven Ta


Homelessness, drug addiction, and crime are issues that might come up when conversations turn to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. But for Wendy Pedersen, the Downtown Eastside is home full of community and deep connections, and she has dedicated her life to making it a better place.

Pedersen is CERi’s new activist-in-residence for January to April 2023. She is the Founder and current Executive Director of the Downtown Eastside SRO (Single Room Occupancy) Collaborative Society, which is a community organization that aims to combat some of  the Downtown Eastside’s most prevailing issues.

The initial idea for the SRO Collaborative society began when Pedersen saw the countless amount of people being displaced and becoming homeless while working for the Carnegie Center under Jean Swanson and the CCAP (Carnegie Community Action Project). It was Pedersen’s experience with the CCAP that allowed her to understand the political processes that worked behind the scenes to affect social issues.

Learning that there was a political dimension to our troubles was really liberating for me and part of my own healing, and that's what the Downtown Eastside represents, for a lot of us,” she said. “Most of the activists, I think, are dealing with their own trauma in some way.

For Pedersen, her work didn’t come from looking at a single issue. Rather, it came from meeting the needs of the community.

“I’m an activist…but I'm more like a community organizer who's found the issues that the community has, and getting the community to organize around their issues.”.

Pedersen first came to the Downtown Eastside in 1991 after graduating from SFU with a degree in English literature. Pedersen’s familiarity with the community and connection to the area all began when she first discovered the Carnegie Community Center, one of the landmarks of the neighbourhood.

“The day I walked into the Carnegie Center in 1991. It was like, I knew I was in the place that was going to answer all my questions.” Pedersen recalled.

“I would say it was kind of like falling in love with the community. And because I felt like I finally found a place where I could not be lonely. Where there were people that were intellectual and asking questions, and there was so much complexity in this neighborhood, and so many people doing so many different things… I felt like wow, this is like home. So I kind of got hooked and stayed.”

Ultimately, the SRO society’s main goal is to combat the increasing homelessness in the Downtown Eastside. One of the main factors causing the homeless issue is a specific loophole found by landlords and property owners.

As a renter [in British Columbia], your landlord can only raise your rent by the allowable calculation every year,” Pedersen explained. “The landlords, developers, or investors are buying the hotels, and they're getting around that rent control calculation. They found a loophole. And the loophole is, all I have to do as a landlord is kick these people out. And then I can re-rent these rooms for whatever I want.

The Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative Society has made efforts to combat this loophole, and Pedersen shared that this battle has had many ups and downs.

“We convinced the city, and we organized Jean Swanson, who I worked with at the Carnegie Center to be a city councilor in 2018, on this issue, and we won SRO vacancy control, which ties the rent control to the unit. So when the unit flips to the next person, the rent control stays in place.”

The SRO Collaborative Society made a significant breakthrough, but it would be short-lived. “Two months later, the landlord shot it down in court and Supreme Court. And so, the city had to destroy all the rent data, and the landlords are quickly turning over their units right now because it's in court now. So, it's kind of a bit of a mess,” she said.

Despite the setback, Pedersen remains optimistic that the SRO society will ultimately succeed in helping to combat the Downtown Eastside’s rising housing costs and increasing displacements into homelessness.

“It will be a good thing. And we will likely win at the appeal court of BC,” said Pedersen.

Pedersen says that today, the Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative Society is at a crossroads. The result of the court case will determine its next steps. “Everything I've been doing since 2005, is, is culminating right now. And it's either gonna go this way, or it's gonna go this way. And if it goes the way we want it to go, wow, then, you know, we might have a chance to have a good future in the Downtown Eastside.” 

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