Wednesday, October 27, 2010

How best to spend limited social housing dollars?

Allen Garr, with whom I have often discussed housing issues for decades, wrote two opinion columns in the Courier, incorrectly criticizing my opposition to ANY social and income mixing in new developments. Even though I pointed out to him that this has never been my position, he refused to issue a clarification. So I have written my own in today's Vancouver Courier.

New (and old) thinking required in social housing debate

Housing sites sit vacant in False Creek, Coal Harbour

By Michael Geller, Special to Vancouver Courier October 26, 2010

When I was young, my father often reminded me that we tend to judge people by what they say and do, but expect others to judge us by our motives. I would like to share my motives in speaking out about the social housing at the Olympic Village, which has led to Courier columnist Allen Garr's repeated and I feel, unwarranted criticisms of me.

I first suggested that the city should consider selling the expensive, over-budget Olympic Village social housing in November 2009. I thought this approach would allow the city to recover $110 million, make a small profit, and build more social housing elsewhere. At the time, I never expected this proposal to lead to such heated debates and very public condemnations from Jim Green and Mr. Garr. Both accused me of being opposed to socially mixed communities. This is not true. What I opposed was the prospect of juxtaposing very low income people with very high income in very expensive social housing, at a time when the money might be better spent elsewhere.

I appreciate that ongoing public debate and the related uncertainty regarding the Olympic Village social housing could negatively impact the developer's ability to sell the remaining condominiums. Given an outstanding loan and land payment totaling $750 million, I do not want this to happen. I therefore prefer to withdraw from this debate, and allow what I hope will be a successful marketing campaign to proceed.

However, I do think we need to continue the discussion on how best to increase the supply of social housing around the city. As former mayor Mike Harcourt recently reminded me, when I was program manager of social housing for Canada Mortgage and Housing in the '70s, the federal government approved thousands of social housing units every year. Today, the federal government has effectively withdrawn its funding.

At the same time, the City of Vancouver and other regional municipalities often insist that new developments include social housing in order to get rezoning approvals. In Vancouver, the requirement is generally 20 per cent of the total number of housing units. In Richmond and other municipalities, the percentage can vary. The problem, however, is that even when developers are prepared to make sites available, there is no money to build the housing.

This is evidenced along the north shore of False Creek where five vacant sites are lying fallow and growing weeds. There is also a vacant social housing site in Coal Harbour, next to the community centre. Today it is being used as a parking lot, while the community grows up around it.

Meanwhile, the need for social housing is growing, too. In the Downtown Eastside, the provincial government has purchased and renovated a number of run-down hotels. This has led to better housing, and much needed support services. However, there are more cost effective alternatives to government purchase of these buildings. For one thing, the city should more aggressively enforce its maintenance and occupancy bylaws, so that the buildings cannot deteriorate to the extent that they have. Governments should also follow the lead of Toronto's Streets to Homes Program, which houses people in existing apartments, rather than rely on new construction. The city should also be encouraging new private investment in the area. I would like to see more "entry level" ownership housing, in combination with social housing, to broaden the social and income mix in the area.

Elsewhere we could be creating new social housing in conjunction with other new market housing developments, at significantly reduced costs. We could start with the five vacant sites along the north shore of False Creek. Developers could be granted increased densities in return for building new social housing units along with their condominiums. Similar developments could be included on the large tracts of city-owned land adjacent to the Olympic Village, and other city owned lands.

In summary, contrary to what Mr. Garr alleges, I do support mixed communities, especially those offering a broader social and income mix. Not just at Olympic Village, but also in the Downtown Eastside, the north shore of False Creek and Coal Harbour. However, we need to use our limited financial resources wisely. The $64.1 million we are spending to subsidize only 126 social housing units could have gone a long way towards this end.

Michael Geller is an architect, planner, real estate consultant and developer. He also serves on the adjunct faculty of SFU.

- - -

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