Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Resorting to new ways of sharing space: Vancouver Courier August 13, 2014

I can't wait to see who will be upset by this week's column!

While many seniors are reluctant to move into lifestyle retirement communities, their children are the opposite. They want to know how soon they can move in!

Many years ago, my then 82-year-old father and I took a cruise around the Black Sea. Each day he enjoyed an array of activities and made new friends. He could walk everywhere — there was no need to drive and no dishes to wash or other housekeeping chores.

As we were disembarking, he turned to me and said, “I think I could get used to living like this all year round.”

I think about my late father’s statement whenever I stay at a resort. As I enjoy the extensive nearby facilities, activities, dining and shopping, I often wonder what it would be like to live like this all the time.

While some wealthy individuals can live year round on cruise ships or in sunny resorts, most of us do not have these options.
However, we often seek neighbourhoods and housing forms offering the features that make cruising and resort living so attractive. 

We seek “village-like” environments where we feel safe with friends and strangers alike. We want to be close to community facilities where we can enjoy yoga and bridge classes. We like the idea of occasionally sharing meals and not having to drive everywhere. We would like someone else to take care of us and do the things we prefer not to do like picking up, cleaning or weeding the garden.
Many seniors are now moving into “lifestyle” retirement communities that offer these attributes. They own or rent self-contained suites, but enjoy meals in communal and private dining rooms. They participate in planned outings, cultural, sports and recreation activities.

They and their families have a greater sense of security and peace of mind.

At the other end of the age spectrum, students and twenty-somethings enjoy university residences or other shared living arrangements. At the end of the day there is always someone to have a meal with, see a movie or head out for an evening on the town.
Unfortunately, most of us past our student days but not yet ready for a retirement home have very limited options when it comes to these kinds of friendlier, communal living arrangements. The few exceptions are those living in older market or government-subsidized housing cooperatives, or newer co-housing developments.
However, I think this is about to change.

Retirement community operators will tell you that while many seniors are still reluctant to move into their complexes, their children are often the opposite. They are attracted to carefree living environments and wonder how soon they can move in.

Many “empty nesters” would gladly sell their larger single family houses if they could move into well-designed smaller homes in a nearby clustered single-family or multi-family complex. They like the idea of what architect Ross Chapin calls “pocket neighbourhoods” which cluster a number of smaller houses together, close to amenities, but not on busy streets.

Sadly, this type of housing is generally not being built in Vancouver because zoning bylaws prevent it.

We cannot have small townhouse complexes mixed in with single family homes. We cannot even have duplexes or small lot houses mixed in with large lot houses. With few exceptions, new apartments are kept away in downtown locations or along busy streets.

While many empty nesters have happily moved into apartments, others say they are not yet ready for apartment living. They worry about the loss of indoor and outdoor space, and the potential of being somewhat isolated.

In Antwerp, Belgium, a 24-storey apartment building has recently been designed to address these concerns and help residents make friends.
Individual apartments are grouped into mini-communities opening onto communal balconies and winter gardens. Residents also share an inner courtyard and dining room for those times when they may not want to eat alone in their apartment. There is a bike-repair facility, roof terrace and other amenities. I suspect many Vancouver residents would find this appealing.

As aging baby boomers seek alternative housing choices, I am hopeful it will become easier for planners to convince neighbourhoods and politicians to make the necessary zoning changes to permit these friendlier forms of housing throughout the city.  

After all, most of us will never live on cruise ships or resorts.

An email exchange with Jean Swanson and Wendy Pedersen Fall 2008

In searching for the draft Op-Ed I wrote in 2008 to advocate for an increased shelter allowance, I came across the following email exchange with Jean Swanson and Wendy Pedersen. At the time I was running for Vancouver City Council.

It is interesting to observe  how similar this discussion is to what I wrote in my recent Courier article, alone with what has changed, and what hasn't changed. (comments in red are from Jean or Wendy)

MG: Jean and Wendy, as you may have noticed, the issue of homelessness has
dominated this election campaign, and yet I have not heard any mention, by
anybody, advocating an increase in the Shelter Allowance.  Why is this?
Having spent a week in Toronto with international housing experts, I am more
convinced than ever that we need a comprehensive approach to solving
homelessness, not just big promises, or just one initiative, to address the
problem.  We need:

MG:  1. more housing;
Yes, Michael, more SOCIAL housing that low income people can afford.  Just building new expensive housing isn’t working for low income folks.  This means we need the city to organize pressure on provincial and federal governments to get enough money to start building the number of units that used to be built in the ‘80s—around 665 (only we need at least 800) a year in the city.  And, while we do need some supportive housing (the only kind the province is funding) we also need plain old low cost housing for low income people who don’t need any supports.  They are being pushed farther and farther back on the BC Housing wait lists because people who need supportive housing seem to be the priority now.
MG: 2.  better enforcement of the maintenance and occupancy bylaws to improve
existing housing;  Yes, especially the enforcement of the section of the Standards of Maintenance bylaw that allows the city to do the work and bill the owner if he refuses.

MG: 3.  increased shelter allowance to help offset the cost of better housing.  (In Toronto, the equivalent SR0's rent for $125 a week and up, and are
generally better maintained;  Yes, and CCAP is constantly calling for increased welfare rates.  We don’t confine this to only the shelter part of welfare, the part that goes to landlords, as we think the support part needs to go up too, as I outlined to you before.  We are a member of a coalition called Raise the Rates ( that is also working for this.

MG: 4.  a program to relocate people into existing apartments, with support
services, just like the street to home initiative (I'm told by BC Housing
that this is quietly happening.  Are you aware of cases?;  The city has several teams of outreach workers that go out and find people who are homeless and get them on welfare (rules get waived for this for the people the outreach workers are helping).  But Judy Graves and the outreach workers we know say that the big problem is finding housing; that the outreach teams are competing with each other for the same rooms; that there isn’t enough decent, vacant housing to put people in.

MG: 5.  more senior level funding along with private funding and coordinated
city initiatives to make all of this happen.  If we just had a national housing program with, say 800 units a year allocated for Vancouver, then people could plan to make it happen.  Private funding won’t make much of a dent we suspect.  The extra tax break that Dobell and friends want for housing could schlup money out of other charities that are doing useful work.  Housing is a fundamental human right and shouldn’t have to depend on charity.

MG: Now, what am I missing, and what should I be saying to try and help?

Missing:  What are you going to do to get people off the streets now, in the winter?  Suggestion:  the city should investigate opening up vacant sro rooms in the DTES and leasing them , with staff, as shelters where people could stay until decent housing is found and not be kicked out at 7 am.

What are you going to do to keep homelessness  from increasing because of sros that are renting daily, and weekly (illegally) to tourists and kicking out long term local low income residents?  Suggestion:  get city to proactively enforce the sra bylaw prohibiting daily /weekly rentals in more than 10% of rooms; repeal 10% rule.

What kind of proactive lobbying will you do to get $$ from feds and province?  Suggestion:  Build a huge city coalition of developers, builders, non profits, govt., etc, and work with them at the FCM and UBCM and develop creative lobbying tactics with both levels of govt.

What are you going to do to keep condos from overwhelming the DTES, pushing up land prices and pushing out low income residents and the services they need?  Suggetion:  support CCAP’s call for a moratorium on market housing in the DTES until we get a community plan and funding for low income housing.

How long should 4000 low income residents have to stay in crummy privately owned sro’s?  Suggestion:  At the current rate, about 100 new units a year are being built to replace the sro’s.  Forty years is too long to sentence sro residents to.  More low income housing has to be built in the DTES, not just in the rest of the city (that’s ok too).

MG: I realize it is an election campaign, and one cannot trust politicians during
such times, but I do have many opportunities to speak and be heard.  So I
would welcome your ideas and suggestions.  cheers Michael

CCAP position on shelters 
Jean and I thought you may want to know our tentative position on shelters in the DTES based on CCAP.  We plan to talk about this at our next ccap volunteer meeting on Friday November 7, but in the meantime, wanted you to have this. 
CCAP believes that everyone deserves a good 400 sq ft home with bathroom and kitchen facilities and we're working on that by
§  working with Citywide Housing Coalition to pressure senior governments for housing money
§  pressuring the City to lobby more effectively for decent housing;
§  Trying to get media to push all levels of government to fund decent housing.
In the meantime CCAP believes that no one should have to sleep on the street, couch surf or be otherwise homeless. We have endorsed the call for Storyeum to be opened as a shelter.  We believe the CCCA has done so as well.

CCAP also surveyed empty hotels and called for the city and province to lease empty rooms, fix them up, and use them for shelters where people could stay all day and have a little privacy.  Both Mayoral candidates have said they will look into this possibility.

CCAP's work on city land use policies is also relevant to homelessness. With hotels converting to tourist and upscale accommodation, with condos pressuring land prices upwards, and with developers drooling over the DTES for condos, people living in the 4000 privately owned SROs are at risk of eviction and homelessness.

CCAP is also working with Raise the rates and by ourselves to get the province to stop denying welfare to people in need and to increase welfare rates so people will be able to afford to rent places.
If we don't but the brakes on this process, homelessness will increase as it has increased in the last few years.    ~ Jean and Wendy

DTES activists dispute my claims...and my response

Jean Swanson and Tamara Herman of the Carnegie Community Action Project did not like what I wrote last week. Here are their letters to The Courier:

To the editor:
Gee, I wish I was as powerful as Michael Geller suggests: “It is worth noting that [the welfare shelter allowance] was fixed at $325 in part because Downtown Eastside activist Jean Swanson ‘did not want to put more money in landlords’ pockets.’”  

I actually worked for many years to get welfare rates raised, both the shelter and support portions which total a mere $610 a month today.

I am still working to get them raised.  If I were the government, I wouldn’t set up welfare shelter rates as they are set up now, with people getting a maximum of $375 per month and less than that if their rent is less, because then tenants have no incentive to look for a place that is less than $375 and slumlords charge couples $375 each for one lousy room with the tenants having no reason to object because the only way they can get the $375 is if they give it to their landlord.

However, since the $375 has been frozen for seven years, virtually no places exist for $375.  
This amount needs to be increases substantially if people are to be able to eat, pay rent, look for work and buy necessities.
Jean Swanson,

© Vancouver Courier

Here is Ms Herman's response: 

Please tell me this is a joke. The welfare shelter rate is fixed at only $375 because housing advocate Jean Swanson didn't want to put more money in landlords' pockets?! Either Michael Geller is hugely misinformed or has an absurd sense of humour. 

Jean Swanson has been advocating tirelessly for higher welfare rates for decades, while Mr. Geller certainly has not. What I imagine Jean said is that without rent control, higher shelter rates will mean landlords can raise rents proportionally, leaving people with just as little to spend on basic necessities.

Michael Geller routinely misconstrues arguments to advocate for policies that keep poor people poor and make wealthier people wealthier. But this one takes the cake.

Here is my response  which I emailed to my editor at  the Courier with copies to Ms Swanson, Ms Herman, and Wendy Pedersen, as well as my 2008 DECLUP colleagues.

I was both surprised and disappointed to read the comments from Jean Swanson and Tamara Herman in today's Courier, in response to my August 6th column.

While I do not intend to continue a debate in the Courier, lest you, like Ms Herman wonder if my column was a joke, attached is the draft op-ed that I prepared in early 2008 following my initial discussion with Jean while a member of DECLUP .
DECLUP was the original name for what today is the Building Community Society. At the time, other members included Michael Clague, Mike Harcourt, Joe Wai, Ray Spaxman, Gerry Zipursky, and the late Milton Wong.

I was shocked when I first learned that the shelter component of welfare had not increased in 14 years and I hoped to use my profile as a developer and member of DECLUP to try and change this.

At the time, my thinking was an op-ed piece signed by such odd-bedfellows as Jean and me might attract media and government attention and lead to an increase in the shelter allowance.
Initially Jean was supportive of the joint op-ed. However, Wendy subsequently disagreed, saying that if we were going to publish anything, it should support an increase in welfare rates, not just the shelter component. I was not prepared to do this.
Jean subsequently backed down, arguing that raising the shelter component of welfare would only put more money in landlord's pockets. She has subsequently clarified that she believed this would happen unless there were accompanying rent controls.
In fact, there were rent controls in place at the time.

I am sending this to you and other parties involved to demonstrate that my remarks were not a joke....nor a fabrication. 
As for Ms Herman's suggestion that I routinely misconstrue arguments to advocate for policies that keep poor people poor and make wealthier people wealthier....I will leave that to others who know me to decide.

Below is the draft OP-ED initially prepared for both Jean Swanson and my signature, which was subsequently modified to go under my signature, but never sent:

Draft ‘sound-off’ or ‘op-ed’ piece for the Vancouver Sun.

I first came across Jean Swanson over 30 years ago, when I was the Program Manager of Social Housing for CMHC.  She spoke out for the poor, and especially for those who were the 'hardest to house' in the Downtown Eastside.  As a result of her efforts, and the efforts of others like her, CMHC financed and built a number of developments in the area, including Oppenheimer Lodge, Cordova House, and Antoinette Lodge. 

In the subsequent years, I went on to do other things, while Jean continued to be an activist for the poor.  I often questioned the tactics she and others used to bring attention to the plight of the homeless and downtrodden, as reported in the media. I found it very hard to relate to what they were doing.

However, Jean Swanson and I recently crossed paths again.  She continues to be an 'activist' trying to bring government attention to the plight of the homeless.  This time, I am a volunteer with a group called DECLUP which is trying to assist the DTES community and city planners in developing a land use plan and other housing strategies for an area that is facing significant outside real estate pressures. With the price of land and housing rising throughout the city, many developers see this as the next neighbourhood in which to start building condominiums.

In reviewing the many housing reports produced by the city and others, I have come to the conclusion that one issue contributing to the current situation is that the shelter allowance for those on welfare is much too low.  It is astounding to report that from _____to 2007, when the cost of renting an apartment increased by 30%??? the shelter allowance DID NOT INCREASE AT ALL!  While it did increase to $375 in 2007, this amount is completely inadequate to cover the cost of decent shelter.  Anyone offering a basement suite for rent knows this. 

If we want to encourage the supply of more decent housing for those in the lowest income groups, we will have to further raise the shelter allowance to a level that will cover the cost of the most basic accommodation, and ensure that it continues to increase in step with the market.   

While some will argue this will only put money in the landlords' pockets, I believe there is nothing wrong with this, as long as the landlords improve the quality and maintenance of the housing being offered for rent. 

From reading the stacks of housing reports, I now have a better understanding of why Jean Swanson and her colleagues have been yelling and screaming and staging protests.  And it is a shame that few of us were paying proper attention to what they were saying.  

While I don't condone what they did, and their continued criticism of the City and Province, I now want to add my voice to theirs in calling upon governments and others in the housing industry, to continue to increase the shelter allowance component of welfare to more realistic levels. Hopefully, some of the CMHC officials in Ottawa will also hear what she is saying.

It's time for the Federal Government to get back into the business of helping those in greatest need in our cities, just as we did 30 years ago.