Saturday, October 9, 2010

My response to Jim Green

'Politically charged' piece on social housing erred in accusations

Sculptures keep an eye on a plaza in the former Olympic Village in Vancouver  on June 22, 2010.

There is nothing worse than opening your newspaper at the start of Thanksgiving weekend only to find a mean spirited, politically charged ‘op-ed’ article criticizing you for saying something that you did not say. ("Prejudice against social housing is not a Vancouver value")

That is how I felt when I read Jim Green’s error-filled and dishonest article claiming that I was prejudiced towards low income people and socially mixed communities in Vancouver. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I hope those who know me and my past accomplishments will recognize that what Mr. Green has written is malicious and false. But for the benefit of others, I would like to explain my recent comments about the social and financial issues that can arise in socially mixed communities.

I came to Vancouver in 1974 with CMHC to oversee the design and development of low-income housing for families, seniors and people with disabilities. As Program Manager-Social Housing I approved thousands of co-op, non-profit and municipally sponsored housing units around British Columbia. In 1976 I was appointed CMHC’s Special Coordinator for what is now the highly acclaimed redevelopment of the South Shore of False Creek.

I was subsequently involved with successful communities across Canada, including St. Lawrence in Toronto, Market Square in Saint John, NB, the redevelopment of BC Packers Lands in Steveston, Bayshore in Coal Harbour, and SFU’s UniverCity. However, I have also witnessed many unsuccessful projects and socially mixed communities over the years.

The South Shore False Creek had a very broad socio-economic mix that was achieved through significant federal and provincial subsidies and innovative housing programs. Many of these programs ended in the 80’s. When the planning began for North Shore of False Creek and Coal Harbour, the city required that these communities include 80% market and 20% non-market housing. Half of the non-market housing would be for seniors, and half for families with children.

Mr. Green claims that this mix was achieved at Bayshore. This is not true. Furthermore, he helped me successfully negotiate a ‘payment in lieu’ with Libby Davis and Bruce Erickson and the Council of the day, since he agreed this was not a suitable location for low income families. Instead, the developer made a contribution towards low income housing in the Downtown Eastside which he was happy to support. What is particularly infuriating is that I reminded him of this during a commercial break on Bill Good’s CKNW Civic Affairs Panel last Tuesday.

Furthermore, the 80/20 mix has not been fully achieved in the balance of Coal Harbour or the North Shore of False Creek. Why, because the city does not have the money to acquire and develop these social housing sites.

This is one of the reasons I initially suggested that the city should sell the social/rental housing at Olympic Village when the cost over runs and subsidy requirements were first announced. I reiterated this call six months later when the units were still vacant and all of the potential operators were rejected by the Province.

When I was told that the city might ‘go it alone’ and select the Portland Hotel Society (PHS) to manage the housing, I decided to speak out. Although I greatly admire the PHS, it has historically served the homeless and those often described as the ‘hard-to-house’ in the Downtown Eastside. Although the social housing at Olympic Village was never intended to accommodate this population, I was concerned that if PHS was selected, this could have a negative impact on the value of the unsold condominiums, whether the ‘hard-to-house’ moved in or not.

This is what led to my very unfortunate and misconstrued statement to Frances Bula about dividing socio-economic groups into A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s and E’s. At CMHC, we often spoke of these five quintiles. The homeless, hard-to-house and ‘core-needy’ households were the fifth quintile. While one can successfully mix different ‘quintiles’, when one tries to juxtapose the very rich with the very poor, there can be both social and fiscal consequences. You can find what I have been saying at You will see that I have never said what Mr. Green claims I have said.

The Olympic Village faces a number of financial challenges. We all want to see revenues from the remaining condominium sales maximized, so that the city’s loan can be paid back along with the outstanding land payment. For this to happen, it is time for politicians and former politicians, worried about the next election, to stop treating this community as a political football. I am concerned that Vancouver’s international reputation is suffering in part due to the unfounded accusations against the community. I hope that the city and developer can now collaborate on a new and successful marketing strategy so that Olympic Village can realize its potential as one of North America’s great communities, sooner rather than later.

Michael Geller is an architect, planner, real estate consultant and developer. He also serves on the Adjunct Faculty at SFU. He can be reached at

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