Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Olympics and Social Housing in Vancouver

For those interested in how we got to where we are today with respect to housing initiatives in the DTES, may I suggest you check out a June 2007 Report to Council from the Housing Department <>

This document includes the report of the Inner City Inclusive Housing Table which makes very interesting reading in light of the current situation related to the homeless. I think it is significant that in a survey of 600 people, the largest number suggested that addressing homelessness would be the most important lasting legacy of the 2010 games.

While I appreciate that many people truly believe protests and shaming the government are the way to get results, I would suggest that it was the quiet behind the scene negotiations involving Geoff Plant, Ken Dobell, Judy Rogers, Don Fairbairn, the Premier and Coleman that resulted in what took place over the subsequent two and half years.

And yes, the coming Olympics was the significant catalyst for these actions.

So while we may differ on our assessments of the value of protests, I would still welcome thoughts on some of the other initiatives I and others are proposing…especially relocating people from the SRO’s into existing apartments, with support services, similar to the Toronto StreetoHome program, freeing up SRO units for the homeless…(I understand a similar approach is being taken with respect to the allocation of the 200 social housing units in Woodwards)…

Also more efforts to help some people get into the workforce; more reunification initiatives to connect some people with friends and family back where they came from…

And the need for a new coordinating entity to bring together the various governments, including the federal government, key community organizations, housing and service providers…

We need to re-think how we are housing lower income people. While many people heap accolades on Woodwards and its 200 units of social housing, I would note that we spent years trying to get away from such large social housing projects.

Instead, I would prefer to see us follow a number of different approaches…

We should limit the size of new purpose built social housing projects to no more than 50 to 60 units, and then make them available to only those in greatest need. I suspect that many of you don’t know this, BUT MANY PEOPLE MOVING INTO EXPENSIVE NEW SOCIAL HOUSING ARE NOT NECESSARILY LOW INCOME PEOPLE….. BY DESIGN!

That’s right, the goal as noted in the above referenced report is to mix people from different socio-economic backgrounds, with some CORE NEED, some paying LOWER END OF MARKET RENT, and some paying market rent.

This is the approach being proposed for many of the larger, new projects including OLYMPIC VILLAGE SOCIAL HOUSING. That’s right, the proposed 250 units of social housing were not intended just for the ‘core need’ poor…a significant percentage were intended for market renters.

LET ME REPEAT THIS….THE 250 UNITS OF SOCIAL HOUSING AT THE OLYMPIC VILLAGE WERE NEVER INTENDED JUST FOR THE HOMELESS AND ‘CORE NEED’ POOR (namely those in the lowest income quintile). A significant percentage were to be offered at market rent.

While some people have argued all 250 should be for the homeless and very low income households, housing experts around the world know that is absolutely the wrong way to go.

I was around CMHC and BC Housing when the initial decisions were made to create mixed income non-market housing projects. This approach worked at the time, because the units were not so expensive and there was ample federal money to fund the projects.

But now that Federal money is essentially non-existent, and provincial and municipal money is scarce, and projects are so expensive, we all need to question whether the expensive units in the proposed new tower at Broadway and Fraser, the Olympic Village and other current projects should be offered to market renters, (in addition to the lower income households) just to ensure a broader socio-economic mix in these larger projects.

Recently, my daughter wanted to buy her first car. She started looking at used cars, but then her mother said perhaps she should get something more reliable, and before we knew it we were looking at new cars…eventually she settled on a relatively new, but used car. What’s my point?

Why are we often putting the lowest income people in the most expensive new housing? This brings me to the StreetoHome Program. In Toronto over 2200 people were housed in a relatively short period of time by making use of existing rental housing, rather than always building new projects. While some argue this approach can’t work here since our vacancy rate is so low, I disagree. Every month there are an increasing number of rental units coming on the market and they could be leased and provided to people moving out of SRO’s, WITH THE NECESSARY SUPPORT SERVICES. Similarly, there are units for sale that could be purchased for significantly less than what it is costing us to build new. We should be buying some of these units, and not just in DTES….why not in Burnaby or Port Moody, and Langley and Coquitlam.

Thirdly, there are many basement suites and rooms in peoples homes that are not being used. With careful placement and monitoring, I believe it is possible to house some people in this accommodation. Now, I can appreciate that one immediately starts to think about the terrible things that could go wrong….but many things could go right too. It’s worth trying, as yet another alternative.

Monte Paulson, an investigative journalist with a particular interest in housing believes we just need to spend a billion dollars a year on new projects to house all the homeless; however, for a number of reasons, our society does not support this approach. Furthermore, from my experience, such expenditures would not necessarily be value for money. I believe that if we could be satisfied that we were getting value for money spent, there would be a greater public appetite for such expenditures. And I also believe that the Feds could be brought back into the picture (just as they have agreed to fund the demonstration program for the mentally ill across Canada.)


Michael said...

Frank, I hope others will pick this up. When I first joined CMHC as an idealistic 27 year old, on of the big debates with my colleagues in the Maple Leaf Lounge, was whether we should encourage supply side subsidies (to build projects) or demand side subsidies (to help people live where they want.) Few of us were in favour of projects in those days....the one argument that has stuck in favour of projects is that it is easier for the social worker to find the households in need. However, as Toronto and St. Louis discovered, large projects resulted in more people 'in need'.

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