Thursday, October 7, 2010

Housing the very rich with the very poor: What I was trying to say!

For the past few weeks, many people have been concerned with my suggestion that the city should sell the social housing at the Olympic Village. However, some were aghast when I tried to suggest to Frances Bula, writing for the Globe and Mail, that one reason for doing this was to avoid the dampening effect that juxtaposing the very rich and very poor could have on the value of the remaining condominiums.

Let be begin my defence by referencing Daphne Bramham’s thoughtful story in today’s Vancouver Sun:

“In Canada, we pretend to have a classless society.

Ask most Canadians to define themselves and they’ll say middle class, regardless of whether they’re six-figure earners or barely scraping by with their credit cards maxed out to pay the rent.

We pretend that we have a social safety net that keeps the vulnerable from falling through.

So it’s no wonder that many people are aghast that earlier this week developer Michael Geller suggested one reason sales are slow in the white-elephant Olympic Village is that rich people don’t want to live with the poor.

But what Geller has done is open a debate that’s been festering in Vancouver ever since the city’s mass expansion began after Expo 86 and pioneering activists such as Jim Green and Libby Davies began the protectionist movement in the Downtown Eastside, a.k.a. Canada’s poorest postal code.

To be fair to Geller, his suggestion is more nuanced than rich versus poor.

What he’s saying is that if you spend $2 million on a waterfront condo, you probably don’t want to have a dual-diagnosis recovering addict with HIV/ AIDS living next door or a guy who’s lived on the streets and is in his first home in a decade.

But Geller goes on to say that if you’re spending $2 million, you’d probably be okay if some of your neighbours are single moms with kids and a job, seniors or double-income, working poor.

He’s probably right. After all, for many people, buying splendid isolation from the mundane, dismal and disturbing facts of other people’s daily lives is exactly what money is for”

You can find the rest of the story at

My father often reminded me that we usually judge people by what they say and do, but we expect others to judge us by our motives. So let me share my motives in saying what I did.

If the social housing was not significantly over budget, and if the City wasn’t facing what some estimate as a $150 to $200 million loss, I would never have spoken out on this matter. However, this is the reality. To exacerbate the situation, the social housing units have been empty for 9 months, and all of the non-profit management proposals were rejected by the province. The only one that appeared to have support was one from the Portland Hotel Society which historically has served the Hard-to-House. Add to this a Vision Councillor’s comment that his goal was to fill the social housing units as quickly as possible.

It was within this context that I wanted to caution the city about the potential impacts of placing the very low income people who PHS normally houses next to the market condominiums. From my four decades experience in the planning and development of housing and communities, including serving as Program Manager of Social Housing for CMHC, the federal Special Coordinator for the Phase One South Shore False Creek redevelopment, and involvement with Bayshore and UniverCity, I truly believe this would reduce the value of the remaining condominiums.

To help explain the five social and economic quintiles that are often considered by housing and social planners, I used the abbreviations A, B, C etc. While I regret doing this, my intention was little more than to help reinforce the idea that some mixing of incomes and household types will have little if any impact on values, but a significant disparity between the very rich and the very poor will impact values.

Given that the city should now be trying to minimize the potential losses at the Olympic Village, I am urging the administration and Council to sell the social housing and rental units to those seeking more affordable ownership housing. However, if they retain the units, as I suspect they will now do, they should not select the PHS since, in my opinion, regardless of who they place in the units, the perception that they bring will impact the value of the remaining condominiums, especially those priced in seven figures.

As I have often noted, this observation is not a criticism of the Portland Hotel Society. For years I have admired Liz and Mark’s commitment to serving the ‘hard-to-house’ with a variety of accommodation and services in the Downtown Eastside. I especially support what they have done at the Woodwards development which appears to be a successful mixing of incomes. Ironically, in the past, I have often been criticized for advocating more income mixing in the DTES where many advocates for the poor prefer to keep the more well to do out, in order to prevent gentrification.

To those of you who were shocked by my comments, I hope this provides some explanation. However, I do look forward to any comments or questions which I will happily try and answer.


Anonymous said...

A case of don't shoot the messenger if I ever saw one. You haven't said anything that most people aren't thinking.

E A WILLIS said...

I was glad to read this, although it would have read a bit better had it need seemed quite so defensive. I heard you on the radio on this subject by chance and also felt quite shocked hearing words that "sounded like" the hard to house, the mentally ill, the very poor and the disabled could not, should not be allowed into this project. I am very glad to read more and be more clear on what you MEANT...but to the casual listener, it didn't sound good. REALLY! TRULY! Clarification for those of us not aware of classifications of A, B, C, D and E classes - get our backs up hearing that some folks aren't good enough for social housing - and the word disability thrown easily into the chat.

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