Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Community Planner Stephen Mikicich's Letter to Council re: Broadway Plan

Stephen Mikicich is a registered planner with considerable experience in Community Planning. I first met him 10 years ago when he worked in the West Vancouver Planning Department, and he was an ardent supporter of innovation and densification in what might best be described as a low-density town. 

He had considerable experience as a private planning consultant before joining the District, and often worked with Business Improvement Areas. He was therefore appointed West Vancouver's first Manager of Economic Development and made great strides in developing an economic development strategy for the District. Today he is working with the District of Langley. He's a resident of Kitsilano.

Stephen and I often get together and argue about planning matters, given our diverse backgrounds and perspectives. 

Today, Stephen shared with me a letter he sent to Council. Since it addresses some important points that I omitted, (but with which I agree), I asked his permission to share it here. I think you'll find it most thoughtful and relevant


May 16, 2022 
Mayor and Council
City of Vancouver
453 West 12th Avenue
Vancouver BC V5Y 1V4

 RE: STRONG OPPOSITION TO THE BROADWAY PLAN

 City staff have described the Broadway Plan as a bold vision for Vancouver’s future and suggest that there has been extensive engagement in developing this plan. However, most Vancouverites know little if anything about the Broadway Plan, and what is envisioned for a 500-block area of the city.

Engagement on goals and objectives, future aspirations, and emerging directions is a normal part of the planning process. However, the ability to fully review a draft plan and provide meaningful and comprehensive input is even more important. Council’s desire to adopt this plan in May only a few weeks since it was publicly released sets a dangerous precedent and may seriously damage public trust in the City.

I do not support the sterile and generic vision the Broadway Plan puts forward for Vancouver’s future. I am disappointed by the complete disregard for established neighbourhoods, and the legacy of past planning achievements that established Vancouver as a global leader in livable cities. It is still possible to increase densities, introduce greater housing options, and enhance public amenities in Vancouver’s valued neighbourhoods without destroying them.

City staff indicate that the Broadway Plan would be implemented over 30 years, and that development would occur slowly over decades. However, if Council rescinds existing policy plans and adopts the Broadway Plan this month – there is really nothing preventing land assembly and real estate speculation from occurring. I am concerned that the massive increase in density will put upward pressure on land values, and displace more tenants, homeowners, and small businesses.

 If Council believes that the Broadway Plan establishes a future vision that most Vancouverites support  - why rush to adopt this plan now? I am sure that many of us would appreciate the time to fully understand the policy implications for the city and our respective communities, to ask questions of staff and Council, and to know that our input will be fully considered in finalizing a plan that truly works for all of us!

If, on the other hand, Council does not feel it has broad community support, and it is politically expedient to adopt the Broadway Plan in advance of the election, I fully understand.

Sincerely,  Stephen Mikicich (Vancouver resident)

Monday, May 16, 2022

Some personal musings on the Broadway Plan


Introduction

For various reasons, I will not be speaking to Council this week about the Broadway Plan. Those who follow me on Twitter are aware of some of my views and I in turn have considered their critiques of my position. However, for what it's worth, I would like to recap some of my tweets and thoughts about the plan in the hope that revisions will be made before Council finally adopts it.

Firstly, to those who cannot understand why I, a developer, planning and real estate consultant and retired architect, would oppose the significant densification of properties along the Broadway Corridor, especially around transit stations, I do not oppose a significant densification along the corridor to create more affordable housing. 

My concerns relate primarily to the form of housing being proposed along the arterials, and the related height and Floor Space Ratio (FSR). I am also concerned about the absence of substantive information about proposed parks and community amenities. I also think better, more realistic illustrations need to be prepared to help all of us appreciate what the various areas along the corridor will look like in 10 years and 20 years, not just at build out. (That said, the drawings provided are not very good or accurate.)

I should add that I have not studied the entire corridor. Rather, I have focussed on the area around Arbutus Street with which I am most familiar.


While the consultation period for this plan has been happening for some time, I did not participate. I had previously participated in the discussion about the Broadway and Birch proposal (on the former Denny's site) and looking back on this experience, I regretted speaking out. Moreover, if planning staff and Council could approve this project, which should not have been approved at the proposed height and FSR (10.52) especially in advance of the Broadway Corridor Plan itself, I questioned why I should get involved in further consultations. I don't need the aggravation!  

Trust me, I received a lot of criticism from many in the development industry. I was also attacked by an industry commentator who was a friend of the developer, and many others who questioned why someone as affluent and old as me, with such old-fashioned ideas about planning, should be listened to.

Indeed, many younger people suggested it's time for them to make the planning decisions for the Broadway Corridor, not me. After all, I'll be dead while this plan is being implemented! :-)

Arbutus Walk

However, in early April I was approached by a planning colleague who owns a property in Arbutus Walk and was asked if I was aware the Broadway Plan had included Arbutus Walk as a location for future higher density highrise buildings. This caused me to download the plan and he appeared to be right.



As evidenced by these extracts from the appendices, Arbutus Walk was designated KBAD with a density of 6.0 to 6.5 FSR and heights of 15-18 storeys. This community was designed and approved after significant community involvement. It was converted from highrise to midrise and lowrise form after much debate. It's only 20 to 25 years old and should not be designated for highrise. Instead, it should have been excluded from the planning area. 

When I suggested this on twitter, others told me this was a 30-year plan, and it might well be appropriate to redevelop this area during this time frame. I strongly disagreed. (Brent Toderian subsequently told me something quite different. He said he spoke to staff, and it wasn't intended that this site be redeveloped within the 30-year timeframe. However, this is contradicted by the map.)

I also note that the Fraser Academy site near Arbutus Walk is designated for 8 FSR. This is an extremely high FSR. I am sure there's a story behind this proposal, but don't have time to investigate. Maybe Frances Bula or others will.

Properties Along Arbutus Street between 13th and 14th near Arbutus Walk are being proposed for 18 storey high rises at 5.5 FSR. Now I appreciate that many readers may not understand what 5.5 FSR means. This is almost twice 3 FSR which is the density I was taught was the maximum to be allowed for a comfortable livable environment. (I would note this is approximately the density of most of Coal Harbour and North Shore False Creek.)


If you look closely at the illustrations, you'll note that the 'Vancouverism' model of a tower on a two or three level podium is not being proposed. Instead, most of the podiums appear to be much higher. Ugh!

It's all about Affordability

While some people have criticized me as an affluent person who can't relate to ordinary people, I am well aware of the need for a lot more affordable housing. After all, I did spend 10 years at CMHC and was for a time responsible for the social housing programs. I get it. There's a need for more affordable housing.

Many people on Twitter, and Theresa O'Donnell, the chief planner for the city have repeatedly noted that while these densities may be high, they are necessary if the city is to achieve a lot of purpose-built rental housing along the corridor with at least a 20% below market component. In other words, FORM MUST FOLLOW FINANCE, not context or fit. I disagree.

I also worry that massive increases in density will not translate into massive increases in affordability. Yes, the initial property owners will benefit, and may be able to provide the desired housing. But over time, higher densities will translate into higher land values, and affordable housing will require senior government subsidies. Indeed, as interest rates and construction costs rise, it's questionable whether any new rental housing will be feasible in the immediate future. 

As for the mayor's proposal to allow existing tenants to return to the new buildings near their location at the same or lower rents, this is at best..... aspirational. The developers and lenders with whom I have spoken do not consider this a realistic proposal.

Ironically, while most of the focus has been on the provision of affordable rental housing, I would like to hear more discussion about affordable ownership housing. In some of my other projects, I have explored Rent-to-Own programs, Workforce Housing, co-housing, and other ways to help people buy....not rent. But little is said about ownership housing, other than the developers will have to pay significant CACs to fund community amenities. Good luck creating any affordable ownership on this basis.

It's also about accommodating growth

Others repeatedly remind me that the city must also accommodate a lot of people over the next 30 years, and unless we can rezone all of Vancouver's single-family properties for 6-storey apartments, there won't be sufficient capacity without the proposed densities along the Broadway Corridor. Frankly, this is nonsense. But, if the density along this corridor is impacted by the planning decisions for the rest of the city, then I question why we should approve the Broadway Plan divorced from the City Wide Plan. A more sensible thing would be to approve each with full knowledge and consideration of the other.

Alternative building forms?

Over the years, I have lived in several highrise buildings. In Ottawa I lived in Pestalozzi College. I lived on the 17th and 29th floors of Martello Tower at 1011 Beach Avenue. And I lived in a highrise at Bayshore. I have also designed and developed many highrises, both with CMHC and as a private developer and planning consultant. I like highrises, especially those at Bayshore with which I was involved for 10 years.




However, I question their suitability as affordable housing for families with children, and also question whether they should be juxtaposed with lowrise development. Instead, I prefer more European-style midrise housing forms, such as those found in Amsterdam, Barcelona and most European countries which achieve density without towers. As noted in this CBC article, they can offer attributes not found in highrises, and I see a place for this form of housing along the Broadway Corridor arterials. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/density-without-towers-vancouver-architect-says-yes-1.3982385

So where are the parks?


When I rezoned the Bayshore Hotel property next to Devonian/Stanley Park, a major issue was whether the development would contribute adequate park space to comply with the city's standard of 2.75 acres of park for every 1000 residents. This standard was based on the provision of park space as per the late 1980s. However, this standard appears to have been discarded. (Indeed, if you calculate how much additional park space would be required based on the proposed population increase, there wouldn't be much room for any new housing.

However, for me a bigger question is whether there will be any new parks and community centres. There is reference to a park near Burrard Slopes and some nice words about providing adequate new community amenities. However, I could not find a plan that identified where new parks and community facilities might go. 

Over the years I've been involved in the preparation of several large-scale plans. They always indicate potential locations for new parks, community centres, schools, etc. But not in this plan unless I missed the drawings.

Conclusion

In summary, I agree with the general direction and like many of the words in this planning document. However, I don't like the proposed highrise buildings on high podiums at excessive densities as illustrated in many of the plans that I reviewed, especially for the arterial and 'shoulder' areas. I also worry about the resulting character. 

This worry is founded in part because the illustrations provided in the planning documents are not very good. Some are little more than cartoons, others do not provide accurate street level views. (I should add that the comprehensive but simplistic massing diagram prepared by some of the plan opponents is also misleading.) 

So I suggest that Council ask the planning department to prepare better and more accurate illustrations to help all of us appreciate the scale of new development over time, say after 10 years, 20 years and at final build out. What will the main communities look like? Such phasing illustrations are standard procedure for most of the larger scale projects with which I have been involved, but none have been prepared at all for the Broadway Corridor.

As Theresa O'Donnell told Stephen Quinn on CBC radio, there have been an astonishing number of meetings and opportunities for community input. But we haven't been told what the community said, nor what changes were made in response to community input. 

Moreover, to the best of my knowledge, at no time was the planning or architectural community invited to participate in AIBC or PIBC/City sponsored discussions about the plan with senior city staff in attendance. 

I therefore hope Council will now receive the plan and the various appendices, but direct staff to now consult with the development and banking communities to discuss the concerns that have been raised by existing tenants and their organizations about being accommodated in new buildings at the same or lower rents as the mayor has recently proposed. 

Staff should also be directed to meet with the architectural, planning and development communities to review the most appropriate forms of zoning to allow higher density development over time, since what may be acceptable in five years may be different than what's acceptable in twenty-five years. This is called Dynamic Zoning and could address many of my concerns about context and fit over time.

I hope this is helpful in furthering the discussion. 

Friday, May 13, 2022

An urban planner & former developer offers Council his comments re: Broadway Plan

 Arnie Wise is a former developer who lives in Kitsilano. He recently sent the following comments to Council. I share many of his concerns and observations, although I would note that the city has recently announced a new policy related to the relocation of existing tenants in affordable housing. A key aspect of this is that tenants who are evicted can move back into new projects at the same rent. This of course sounds admirable, but one needs to question whether developers will agree to this, and whether former tenants will want to return what might be 3 or 4 years after they move out.


During a recent interview with Stephen Quinn on CBC Early Edition, Theresa O'Donnell, the chief planner for Vancouver said that one of the reasons why the city is proposing such high densities is to help make this tenant relocation strategy happen. While I hope the city's plan will be modified to reduce the number of very high FSR towers by introducing more high density 'street wall' and other 'European Style' design concepts like this Amsterdam streetscape, I also hope I will live long enough to see how this relocation policy works out!

Here are Arnie Wise's comments:

Good morning Mayor Stewart & Members of City Council,

In the run up to a municipal election, we used to call this the “silly season”.
The Broadway Plan is a perfect example.

Respectfully,

ARNY WISE
urban planner / retired developer

Broadway Plan

The famous urbanist Jane Jacobs would be appalled by this Broadway Plan, because it has only one brutal objective - increased density.  
This Plan ignores the communities on the ground where folks meet, walk, play, shop, bike, go to parks, schools & gyms. These are the community amenities that make a neighbourhood function and thrive.
The Broadway Plan's rather simple & flawed bird's eye view of city planning ignores the mosaic of communities along the Broadway Corridor, that make up the City of Vancouver. 
It's a good idea to Increase density in nodes around subway stops, but the rest of the neighbourhood need not be a sea of towers. That isn't how an organic city grows & functions. 
This plan seems to have been designed by a city planner who has never lived in Vancouver and is out of touch with Vancouver's reality of being a series of local communities and neighbourhoods tied together by arterial networks.
And any boosterism appeal to being "world class" because of high density is laughable if it wasn't so sad, in that Vancouver is the least affordable City in North America and the third least affordable City in the world. That's Vancouver's unenviable distinction as being "world class". 
"World class" housing prices in Vancouver are forcing essential workers earning good salaries like nurses, firefighters, police & teachers to flee the city to the suburbs, and commute, spewing harmful gases into the environment, because they can't afford to live in the City they serve. This is also a strain on Metro's transportation network.
This plan never mentions the word "affordable" in the midst of the worst housing affordability crisis in a generation.  
As if more density and more supply will magically mean more affordable. According to Douglas Porter the Chief Economist of the Bank of Montreal, the idea that more supply will lower home prices is a self serving myth touted by the real estate industry to justify high housing prices.

Recommendations:
1. Reject the Broadway Plan and send it back to staff for a major revision and rethink with different objectives - namely affordable housing, community amenities, a liveable scale, as well as increased density.
2. Direct staff to scale down the neighbourhood heights and densities beyond the immediate subway stop nodes, to respect the existing neighbourhoods and communities.
3. Require 50% affordable housing from the developer on all site specific up-zonings, in exchange for more density.  
Why should the City give a gift to landowners without the landowner giving something back to the City and the Community in the form of affordable housing ?

Name:

ARNY WISE, urban planner / retired developer

Which neighbourhood do you live in?

Kitsilano

 


Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Meanwhile in Edmonton Alberta - CTV News April 12, 2022


I had a call yesterday from CTV in Edmonton to ask about a land assembly coming to market in that city. In this instance, the owners of 10 adjacent older houses have banded together and are offering their properties as an assembly. While I didn't see the properties before I did the interview, I noted that this type of assembly, especially along an arterial, is very common in Vancouver. When I was told that each of the houses was over 100 years old, I mentioned the Pacific Heights Coop at Burrard and Pacific where about 7 older homes were moved forward on their lots and a new apartment building was developed behind.


Here's the story and a link to the actual news broadcast. https://beta.ctvnews.ca/local/edmonton/2022/4/12/1_5859445.amp.html 

While it will be a shame to see these 10 homes demolished, hopefully my interview will lead to the better use of single family lots in Edmonton one day!

$12.5-M price tag for Scona Road homes being sold as a group, potential for higher-density housing

Published April 12, 2022 6:38 p.m. ET

By Steven Dyer

CTVNewsEdmonton.ca Digital Produce A group of 10 adjacent houses along Scona Road is going up for sale, in a move that often attracts a developer interested in building higher-density housing in the area.

The houses are owned by a small group of people and some are currently rented out as affordable, low-income housing. The listing price for all 10 houses is $12.5 million

“We actually didn’t find out until we got the news article sent to us by another neighbour, woke up in the morning to it, and we’re like, what the heck is going on,” said Jessica Keith, who lives in one of the houses up for sale.

Some of the houses in the group near 93 Avenue are over 130 years old. Keith said her landlord was recently told that one of the houses was six years away from being condemned.

“There’s so many structural issues with the houses and there’s no way we can fix them unfortunately, just due to age and everything else they have to be completely demolished,” said Keith.

She and her roommate Lexus Harding are sad the century-old homes are being torn down.

“You get to meet some amazing neighbours. It feels like home, it feels like family and it’s going to be weird not to live here,” said Keith. “To see such a beautiful area demolished and to have so much history… the stories you could tell and the history in these buildings is irreplaceable.” She added that the house they currently live in was previously used as safe housing for women fleeing abusive relationships.

GROUP SALES COULD BECOME MORE COMMON

Properties being sold in groups to a developer isn’t very common in Edmonton, but it could start to be, according to a real estate consultant in Vancouver.

“I predict that in five years as you (Edmonton) slowly start to make better use of your land and support alternative forms of housing… in many instances it will make sense to rezone single-family lots for that purpose,” said Michael Geller.

Due to the mountains, ocean and agricultural land around Vancouver, the city is starting to rezone more single-family homes into higher-density housing, according to Geller.

“When I’m in Edmonton and I drive down arterial or busy streets, I see opportunities where it would make sense to perhaps build townhouses or apartments in that location and the value of the land is greater if that single family lot is used for an apartment building.”

Changes like this require a rezoning permit from the City.

“Often there will be an official community plan which indicated that the planning department and the council are willing to support higher density housing in that area,” said Geller.

He also believes that Edmonton will see low-rise apartments being bought, torn down and turned into high-rise buildings.

“Ultimately, it’s wonderful when the owners can agree and offer their properties for sale… but one of the problems we often have if there’s always one or two people who think if they hold out the longest, they’ll get a higher price than everybody else,” said Geller.

The solution to that, according to Geller, is that developer purchasing the properties follows the favoured nation approach. It means the buyer will pay each owner the same amount they agree to pay the last owner they make a deal with.

“So if that holdout wants too much money, then everybody else may suffer because the developer will not proceed.”

The tenants in the Scona Road houses will have the remainder of their lease honoured and were told they could get a year or more on their lease, depending on how long it takes to sell the properties.

With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Joe Scarpelli

RELATED IMAGES



A group of adjacent houses along Scona Road is being put up for sale. Monday, April 11, 2022 (CTV News Edmonton)

 


Read the original version 


 



Friday, April 1, 2022

April 1 - April Fool's Day.- Geller pranks and Humorina in Odessa Ukraine

 April Fool's Day has always been one of my favourite days of the year, (perhaps because I have always enjoyed being a fool). Over the years I have celebrated the occasion with some modest pranks. (Click on image to see full screen.)

In 1998, while selling a condominium building in Kerrisdale, I got the ridiculous idea of paying for an article in the Vancouver Courier reporting that Prince Charles had purchased a penthouse in my Elm Park Place development. After all, the prince admired good architecture, and this was a very well-designed building and the 100% wool Axminster carpets in the building were like those in the palace. 

After the article appeared, several buyers angrily phoned my office complaining about my decision to sell to the prince. Some worried his presence in the building would no doubt add to the security costs and monthly condominium fees. Really! Eventually, my assistant was able to point out the article had been published on April 1st, and the prince had not purchased a unit.

The next year a story appeared in the Courier about a secret provincial government memorandum that noted the province was considering another SkyTrain extension along the Arbutus Corridor and West 41st to UBC, adjacent to the same condominium building. The extension would be funded in part by increased UBC tuition fees and taxes on the businesses along West 41st, especially the coffee houses. 

The following day Amy Xu, one of my daughter's Crofton School classmates brought the newspaper article to 'show and tell' since there would be a SkyTrain station near the school. My daughter had to tell her that it wasn't a real story. Her dad had made the whole thing up since he was trying to sell some apartments. It was just an April Fool's Day prank. Amy had never heard of April Fool's Day before.




In 2013, I tried again. This time it was a story in the North Shore News about my proposal to build 14,000 duplexes and coach houses in the upper lands of West Vancouver, which would double the population over the next 20 years. The housing would be linked to Ambleside and Dundarave by gondolas, like that I had proposed at SFU. 

Brent Bartholomew, Metro's Director of Planning liked my proposal, noting that "for too long, West Vancouver has been an enclave for the rich and very rich. This proposal would accommodate more lower and middle income households, including the children and parents of the rich and very rich."

This article had a number of unexpected results. Both Business in Vancouver and the Vancouver Sun contacted me seeking more details about my proposal, especially the network of gondolas. However, many local residents were not amused at all. In fact, in an effort to address the damage, I had to buy space in the following week's paper to apologize to those who were so upset. Really!


But to end on a bittersweet note, the following year on April 1, 2014, I arrived in Odessa, Ukraine, where my family originated. As we all know, the was a war in eastern Ukraine but I did not expect it to affect Odessa, and other than the presence of some Russian artillery and soldiers, it didn't. But the reason I mention this is because since 1973, on April 1, Odessa celebrates Humorina https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humorina  n annual festival of humour with parades and performances around the city. While I missed most of it due to a late flight, I can't help but wonder whether it is being celebrated at all this year.  

Let's hope it can be fully celebrated next year, and I'll feel like offering









some new pranks.

Monday, March 14, 2022

EXPO 2020 DUBAI: GERMANY, NETHERLANDS, AND SINGAPORE PAVILIONS

While it is now more than a month since I returned from EXPO2020, and there are just two weeks left before the fair ends, I want to highlight a few more of the pavilions that I thought were both interesting and offering lessons for the future. 

Three of the most 'sustainable' pavilions are those representing Germany, Netherlands, and Singapore.

Inside the German pavilion, there is a focus on the shift to renewable energy. One exhibit allows a visitor to compare the amount of renewable energy in their country compared to Germany and the rest of the world.



The German Pavilion is presented as 'Campus Germany', with a variety of interactive exhibits to offer a crash course on sustainability. Upon entering, each visitor is given a digital name tag which includes their home country and many of the exhibits are modified accordingly. So, when you examine energy consumption in Germany, it is compared with consumption in your country, etc. On display were many things of interest including innovative renewable building materials, an electric airplane, and an elevator that goes up and down....and sideways.

The Netherlands pavilion was remarkable in many ways. It featured an eco-friendly exterior of reclaimed steel and inside was brimming with sustainable solutions. The pavilion harvests water, energy, and food through innovative methods. A unique audio-visual 'show' is viewed on the underside of personal white umbrellas that are handed to visitors upon arrival. Those clever Dutch!  As my friend from Rotterdam often says with a smile, "If you aren't Dutch, you aren't much!"

The heavily landscaped net-zero Singapore pavilion demonstrates how Singapore has become a green, liveable, and resilient city for the future. With tens of thousands of individual pots, the overall impact of the pavilion is most impressive. It highlights Singapore's vision of becoming 'a city in nature'. As you wander through the pavilion you are surrounded by hanging gardens and greenery, which is the overall impression one gets from the new buildings in Singapore.


These three pavilions are not to be missed by those interested in future directions in sustainability and the design of sustainable communities. 







Monday, February 28, 2022

“It’s Really Life Changing:” How Modular Housing is Alleviating Homelessness by Neil Sharma Storeys.com

if this Toronto modular housing development looks a bit like one of  Vancouver's modular housing developments, that's because former Vancouver housing official Abi Bond took the idea to toronto. However, one key difference is that the Vancouver projects are deisgned to be relocated to another site; the Toronto projects are designed to be permanent 


Modular housing has quietly become a cost effective, not to mention dignified, way to house homeless people, as evidenced by a two-year-old City of Toronto program.

But to understand why modular housing is poised to become a resounding success in Canada’s largest city, one need only look at Vancouver, where it was first implemented. According to the creator of modular, or factory-produced, housing, its size, portability, and the method of production, prevents costs from ballooning

“Modular housing can be relocated; I thought of it as an idea that might well work, and it did,” said Vancouver-based Michael Geller, now a planning and development consultant for residential, mixed-use and large-scale planned communities.

“Normally in construction, you have consultants’ fees, but in this case there are no architects fees for every unit and you don’t have the costs of going through the approvals process. The standard module is produced in a factory. All of the Vancouver projects are virtually identical and you avoid property taxes during construction, the insurance costs are less, the legal costs are less, the soft costs on a project are often in the order of 20% of hard costs, and one cost you don’t have is the land cost.”


Modular housing typically sits on a site using steel screws for a period of time before being uprooted elsewhere. If it uses city lands, Geller says there are no costs, and if it is private land, such as a vacant parcel where a condominium will be built in a few years, property tax abatements can be proffered to owners as inducements.

“They need to be in a location for at least three years to justify some of the infrastructural costs,” Geller said. “You just found a vacant piece of land and the idea is you would put them up and when it’s time to move them, you wouldn’t want to have too much to tear up, like you would a concrete basement or concrete footing.”

An Idea With Torontonian Roots

The idea for modular housing is not new. Decades ago, it was Geller’s thesis topic at the University of Toronto School of Architecture — the steel screws were even an idea given to him by a professor — but it wasn’t until Geller ran for Vancouver city council in 2008 that the idea was adopted by the eventual mayor, Gregor Robertson. However, because Geller ran for the Non-Partisan Association and Robertson was a Vision Vancouver candidate, the latter was reluctant to implement the idea as a way to tackle homelessness, but it was one of his campaign pledges and meritocracy carried the day.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation subsequently funded a demonstration project, following a positive study from BC Housing. Nearly a decade later, the first units were delivered near Vancouver’s infamous Downtown Eastside, and, to date, over 800 modular housing units have been built in the province.

Former BC Premier Gordon Campbell, who used to work for a railway company, was reticent about the project because he believed the units looked like rail cars, Geller recalls, adding that resistance to a project intended to house the city’s homeless was often confounding.

“At first, the local housing activists opposed it because they feared they would look awful, and then afterwards they opposed it because they realized it looked too nice and their fear was it would replace permanent housing,” he said.

“To make [the inaugural modular homes] more attractive, we put a giant First Nations mural on the side. My study suggested they only go to two storeys but they actually went to three storeys. We talk about it being temporary, but there’s nothing more permanent than a temporary structure.”

“They Have a Front Door They Can Lock.”

The units averaged about 240 sq. ft. and contained everything a regular studio apartment has, including a bathroom and a kitchen. Geller remembers residents being interviewed on televised news segments and seeing tears in some of their eyes. Someone who’s been living on the streets for 20 years doesn’t believe such circumstance will ever change, he says, but modular housing can disabuse them of such notions.

The City of Toronto has already delivered two modular housing developments, and four more are in the pipeline. Toronto’s modular housing units are larger at 350-400 sq. ft., and each development has over 50 units. Moreover, non-profit organizations offer landlord services and each resident has security of tenure, meaning there’s no limit to how many times their leases can be renewed, and in addition to each resident receiving a case worker, the buildings have staff who are present 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“For the first sites we have opened, there have been a couple of people who were interviewed after they moved in, and it’s really positive, really life-changing,” said Abigail Bond, Executive Director of the Housing Secretariat for the City of Toronto. “They have a front door they can lock. There’s real security and a place where they can leave their buildings knowing their things will be there when they get back. It really makes a huge difference for people.”

Unlike in Vancouver, the sites are permanent in Toronto. As a way to expedite the Housing TO 2020-2030 Action Plan, a separate plan was created in June 2020 to deliver 3,000 new supportive homes in 24 months, 1,000 of which will be delivered through the Canada-Ontario Housing Benefit.

“We’re on track to complete all of that by the end of 2022 and create more than 2,000 units. They’re a mixture of rapid housing created through Toronto Community Housing units, new modular, and also we bought some hotels as well. All of this will be supportive housing and much of it has been paid for by the federal government through the Rapid Housing Initiative they have introduced across Canada.”

Construction costs for individual units vary by their size, but Bond says they average roughly $200,000 in Toronto. The Housing Secretariat is hoping for an additional round of federal funding.

Because modular housing is inherently affordable, Geller says it doesn’t have to be built exclusively for homeless people. He also warns that if the modular housing developments contain certain clusters — in this case, homeless people — the concentration could introduce troubling behaviours, like drug use, and compromise all of the progress made. Geller envisions modular housing containing a cross-section of vulnerable people, including single parents.

“There is potential to use this idea, especially as the modular housing industry becomes more sophisticated, as a form of affordable housing that can indeed be set up on a site for three years, five years, and then move it to another site,” Geller said. “The units won’t need to be privately owned; they could be owned by a housing corporation, or a non-profit could look after it, but there do have to be support services and these things do have to be managed, especially if it’s predominantly former homeless people living in it, but I think we should mix it up.”

Neil Sharma