05/16/2013 07:14 EDT | Updated 07/16/2013 05:12 EDT

Vancouver Anarchists Claim House Fire Responsibility


VANCOUVER - An empty East Vancouver duplex under construction appears to be the latest victim claimed by a group calling itself the Anti-Gentrification Front.

Only the blackened, charred frame of the top floor, a damaged bottom floor, and shards of broken glass now remain of the duplex. Vancouver police say a fire broke out early Wednesday morning. No one was injured, and they have determined the blaze to be a case of arson.

The duplex is a dozen blocks from the Downtown Eastside, where controversy over the rise of higher-end condos, restaurants and shops has prompted protests and complaints that the newcomers are pushing out lower-income people who have traditionally called the neighbourhood home. Still, it's in an eastern part of the city that has been home to lower rents and older, heritage homes that have become popular with families that can't afford the chart-topping housing prices further west in the city.

While police say they are investigating who is behind the fire, the Anti-Gentrification Front claimed responsibility on the Anarchists News website for a fire in the same neighbourhood in protest against encroaching development.

"Last night we burned down a yuppie development on 1st Ave. near Victoria," said the statement, posted by an anonymous member. "We are tired of seeing our lives and memories being torn down one development at a time. We wish and will create fear for developers in East Vancouver."

The statement also says the group will continue to fight against those who support gentrification.

"If you are the cause of gentrification, you should never feel safe," it said.

Const. Brian Montague with Vancouver police said on Thursday that an email making similar claims was sent to CTV the day before. But while investigators are looking into the origins of the email, they have not determined a motive or whether those who claim responsibility for the fire are involved.

The neighbouring houses also suffered damages. One side of Kim Tran's house has been charred, its windows shattered. One side of her damaged roof is now covered by a blue tarp.

Tran said she had been sleeping when she felt an intense heat, and then heard a loud boom outside around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday.

"I opened my window and there was a big fire," she recalled. "I was so scared, I told my husband, 'Fire in the house!'"

She immediately called the police, and after handing the phone to her husband, she rushed down to the basement to rouse her daughter. The three then left via the backdoor and did not go back inside until several hours later.

This is one of several incidents in recent months for which the group the Anti-Gentrification Front has claimed responsibility. In March, Famoso, a pizzeria in East Vancouver, had its windows shattered for the third time since it opened last year.

"For all too long now yuppies have been peacefully going about their gourmet dinners, buying up their lucky condos and flaunting their wealth by driving around in expensive cars," posted an anonymous person on behalf of the Anti-Gentrification Front. "We thought it would be great to remind them AGF is still here...Famoso thought that putting up their pathetic cameras would stop our attacks. They haven’t and never will."

The group also said it was behind the stealing of an iconic sign board from Save on Meats, a diner located in what is known as Canada's poorest postal code, the Downtown Eastside.

Montague says police are still investigating whether any of those cases are linked, but he warns against those who commit crime to prove a point.

"For those people who think that burning down a building and risking the lives of innocent people is justice, I think they're misguided," he said.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said the city is doing what it can to address poverty and homelessness, particularly around the Downtown Eastside, where nearly two-thirds of residents are considered low-income.

Robertson blames the province and the federal government for not helping out with income assistance and affordable housing.

"A lot of these issues do flow to the lack of support from provincial and federal governments to address poverty and homelessness and addictions," he said in an interview. "We need to have more support, that's their jurisdiction."

The city insists that relying on development to increase the number of social housing units and to revitalize the neighbourhood helps lift the area out of its dire state. But there are those who argue that the higher rents and the new restaurants and shops only serve to push the poor further out.

Earlier in the year, a new high-end restaurant near the Downtown Eastside became the target of slogan-chanting protestors who say Pidgin is a symbol of gentrification. Some demonstrators even threatened the restaurant's patrons. The restaurant was also vandalized. In March, Vancouver Police arrested one woman who allegedly tried to chain and lock its front doors.

The Anti-Gentrification Front had commended the protesters, writing on the Anarchists News website in March: "Your time will come. Pidgin it's time you fly away or face the consequences."

Back at the East Vancouver duplex, two security guards now patrol around the burned remains and around the back, a portable toilet has been spraypainted with the words, "We'll be back." Yellow police tape surrounds the site.

A man who says he is the builder and who would not give his name said the duplex was near its finishing stage, but now it will take four to six months to rebuild. He said there were going to be four bedrooms in the front, and four bedrooms in the back. He said the duplex was meant to be bought by lower-income families.

"This is 1,200-square feet each, it's going to be two families, so think about it…it's not pushing nobody out," he said.

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