Project Description

In 2021, the City of Vancouver DTES Planning Team engaged a consultant team convened by Hessey to increase access to affordable goods, services, and inclusive spaces in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) through the creation of an innovative funding program.  As acknowledged by the Downtown Eastside Plan Three Year Summary of Implementation (2017-2019), many businesses, organizations, and other key social services important to low-income community members find themselves increasingly priced out due to rising rents and property costs, and high commercial vacancy rates – among other regulatory barriers such as zoning bylaws and steep capital upgrade requirements.  

Hessey assembled a team of local area community economic development (CED) organisations  and practitioners to ensure effective delivery.  Hessey convened and collaborated with Community Impact Real Estate (CIRES) and Exchange Inner City (EIC) to develop Activate DTES, a pilot funding project for the City of Vancouver Special Enterprise Program (SEP). Activate DTES addresses the widening gap between demand and availability for affordable goods and services in the DTES, and reduced economic opportunities faced by community-serving and BIPOC organizations by supporting their tenure in vacant and/or underutilised commercial retail units. 

About the City of Vancouver Special Enterprise Program (SEP) 

The City of Vancouver Special Enterprise Program aims to preserve and revitalize the cultural diversity, long-term viability, and economic opportunity for heritage businesses, social enterprises (SEs), non-profit organizations (NPOs), and co-operatives located in the DTES. The program has three areas of focus: 1) Affordable Spaces; 2) Business Supports; and 3) Community-serving Retail. Activate DTES falls under the Affordable Spaces component.  

Project Goal: 

  • Phase 1: Pilot Program Development (Complete)
  • Phase 2: Pilot Delivery (Ongoing)

In Phase 1, the Activate team created a funding program to incentivize private investment and support the tenant improvement of currently vacant storefronts in the project area.  The funding program is designed to build economic equity and resilience in the DTES by increasing the number of upgraded storefront commercial retail units available to community serving organizations over the medium term. 

These street-facing commercial spaces are intended as a community benefit to current and future locally-owned, community-serving small and medium enterprises (SMEs) within the neighbourhood – including SEs, NPOs, cultural and heritage or legacy businesses, and community-serving for-profit businesses with a focus on those owned by equity-deserving individuals. 

In Phase 1, the team developed a funding program in detail with City of Vancouver’s current and emergent policy and initiatives. The team identified potential sites and participating organizations and engaged them in an engagement process to assess their interest in being active in the project area, identify possible equity-building opportunities, understand space and operating requirements, and determine the best funding delivery path and implementation strategy. 

Phase 2 of the project includes supporting and overseeing pilot project delivery within the program framework that was developed in Phase 1. The Activate DTES program specifically supports community organizations in gaining legal tenancy in commercial vacant storefronts in the DTES.

The pilot program funds up to $60,000 to organizations for space improvements, which must be matched by the landlord to incentivize investment in local building stock. The funds could cover items including consultants, permit & bylaw fees, survey work and capital improvements that would benefit any similar tenant. The Activate team plays a key role in supporting capacity-building within the organizations throughout each stage of the project. 

Funded Pilots (to December 2023):

  • Lookout Health & Housing Society – Powell Street Getaway, 450 East Hastings: A prominent space for supporting those facing homelessness, substance use and extreme poverty. Powell Street Getaway provides resources for accessing housing, basic needs, safe consumption and peer support programs.
  • East Van Roasters (EVR) – Cafe Restaurant & Chocolate Production, 16 W Hastings:  EVR is located as part of the mixed-use Veronica  building and has a tie-in to employment for women in residence who are looking to re-enter the workforce.  This location offers security of tenure for EVR, expanded chocolate production, and increased peer employment opportunities while also activating this block of W Hastings with a new restaurant-café. 
  • Mission Possible – Women’s Employment Readiness Team, 748 E Hastings:  Provides full- and part-time employment and employment training for neighbourhood residents and those typically excluded from the traditional workforce.  
  • Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House (DTES NH) – Food & Family Programs: This site was the subject of a catastrophic fire and was rebuilt as a turnkey space for the DTES NH.  This location will support all the DTES NH community and family programming, including space for community partners,  staff, practicum students, volunteers and peer employment.  

During this project, Activate DTES has identified affordability as a significant barrier to community-serving organisations.  We looked internationally and completed a study of Community-Serving Commercial Rental Affordability programs. 

Read the report: Community-Serving Commercial Rental Affordability Case Studies (PDF)


Steve Johnston, Community Impact Real Estate (CIRES)
Michelle Lackie, Exchange Inner City (EIC) 
DTES Community Planning Team, City of Vancouver
Meg O’Shea, Vancouver Economic Commission (VEC) 



Project Type 

Research + Proposal
Project Management