Friday, March 14, 2014

Presentation to Council March12, 2014 on DTES Local Area Plan

I signed up to speak at the Council meeting on Wednesday afternoon and was quite surprised to discover I was the first speaker after the staff and City Committee presentations. I had 5 minutes and it's no exaggeration when I say it took me 5 days to get my remarks down to 5 minutes. Fortunately, I found a website that let me know a 5 minute talk cannot exceed 650 words, and it was right! Here is the text from which I spoke.

I thank Council and staff for initiating a long overdue comprehensive planning process for the DTES, and I agree careful consideration must be given to how best protect its low-income population.

While the plan addresses a broad range of issues in a number of neighbourhoods, I would like to focus on four inter-related matters related to the DEOD:
·       I do not believe that banning condominiums will achieve the goal of creating new social housing without the need for public subsidies;

·       Moreover, it could exacerbate the unhealthy concentration of social housing;

·       It could prevent a much needed revitalization of Hastings Street & other commercial areas;

·       Density bonuses for social housing could threaten the heritage character of the area

My background experience in the DTES

I first started working in the Downtown Eastside 40 years ago as Program Manager-Social Housing for CMHC.  In the 1990’s I advised the province on the purchase and renovation of its first two SRO’s, the Washington and Sunrise hotels. Since then, the Province has purchased 22 additional SRO hotels.

On behalf of the province, I undertook the feasibility study that lead to its purchase of the Woodwards Building.

7 years ago I was invited to become a founding director of the Building Community Society which urged the city to initiate this local area planning process. I share this with you in the hope that it will help explain my interest in this planning process and motivation in standing before you today

Bob Laurie, who reviewed this plan for the Board of Trade put it this way:                This plan defies the laws of fiscal gravity.

It proposes a ban on ownership housing in the DEOD. Instead, all projects above 1 FSR must be 60% social housing and 40% rental housing.

While this goes against what planners are taught and Vancouver’s celebrated policy of creating mixed neighbourhoods, we were told this will reduce land prices to allow social housing to be built by non-profits and private developers without public subsidies.  I and many others questioned this.

Initially staff offered to share financial projections prepared by Coriolis which they maintained proved that non-profits and developers could build projects without subsidy in a no-condo zone. The Planning Director told the Courier newspaper this would happen.

However, the pro-formas were never distributed. Finally, after repeated requests, late Sunday afternoon a summary of the Coriolis report was posted on-line. In the case of the DEOD it essentially says

The 60%non-market/40% rental concept in the DEOD is not viable for a private developer unless the City (or other levels of government or a non-profit) purchase the non-market units at a price that makes the development viable. 

In other words, without financial support from the City or senior levels of government, little if any social housing development will occur in the Oppenheimer District under the proposed plan.

On the other hand, if government subsidies are available and projects proceed, this will further concentrate social housing in this neighbourhood, rather than create a more healthy mix.

Under the proposed zoning, to reduce costs there’s no requirement for residential parking anywhere in this 40 block neighbourhood. This isn’t going to work either.
So why the ban on ownership housing?

If the goal is to create social housing without government subsidies, I suggest you investigate a zoning for 1/3 social housing, 1/3 rental housing, and 1/3 ownership housing. I believe this could work.

But don't take my word for it. Invite a 'Blue Ribbon' panel of real estate experts to review the City's proformas and see if they can agree that projects are viable without provincial capital assistance.

Finally, throughout the document density bonuses are offered to encourage even more social housing. In some instances, FSR may exceed 7 or 8. This will threaten the heritage character of this area. This will soon become evident if the out-of-scale 14 storey building recently approved by Council at 41 East Hastings proceeds.

You now have the opportunity to make a significant decision affecting the future of the DTES. While much of the plan can move forward, I do hope you will reconsider the DEOD zoning. It is a mistake 

Questions and Answers

Following the presentation I was asked a number of questions, some of which I remember and many of which I do not. I do recall one councillor asking why I thought social housing cost more than regular housing and I shared a response I had once been given by BC Housing. Units have to be more durable...for example, the baseboards must be installed so that bedbugs cannot get in behind them.

Later that day I discovered that Twitter was aflutter with the allegation that I said poor people all had bedbugs!

Andrea Reimer questioned me on my statement that the Stockholm Syndrome had set in and the planners had been taken hostage. "If so, who were the hostage takers?" she asked. I promptly responded Wendy Pedersen and Ivan Drury.

The sad irony is that since the City did not distribute the pro-formas that were promised, it's difficult for others to know whether I am in fact right, or whether the social housing can be delivered without provincial subsidy. At the Council meeting, the Mayor asked Abigail Bond, the City's housing expert whether the social housing program can be delivered without provincial assistance. "Yes she said". 

I can only assume she claims this since the City plans to receive $100's of millions from developer CAC payments. However, I suspect she's wrong.

While many DTES anti-poverty activists had great fun heckling and laughing during my presentation, and mocking me on Twitter, at the end of the day, the question is whether the housing that is so desperately needed will be built. Time will tell.


Fern Jeffries said...

First, I want to thank you for your tireless efforts on behalf of many of us residents who believe that a mixed income community is a healthier community. Second, I completely trust your analysis of the viability of building social housing and am saddened to see how the City has twisted and obfuscated the work of their paid consultant to appear to be saying what is required to support the political agenda of Vision Vancouver. Like you, I spent much of my government career supporting social housing and social programs, in particular as Assistant Deputy Minister of Housing policy for the Harcourt government. So as a resident of the community, why am I not speaking up? Do I fear the heckling and abuse of CCAP and their ilk? no - I've tolerated that before. Do I fear the rude and abusive questions from certain members of City Council? No, I consider that a badge of honour. It's because the whole thing is a done deal. Clr Reimer has been a public supporter of the plan. Vision Vancouver will vote as a block. They have the majority. I regard this as a lost cause. I will wait for the failure of the current approach, and then perhaps we will have a more rational and evidence-based Council and Staff who will be open to innovative approaches. This Council wants to solve the problems of the DTES by doing more of the same. I believe that's how Albert Einstein defined as "insanity".

Michael Geller said...

Thanks Fern. The 12 Page submission to the City by the coalition of inner city neighborhood organizations, of which you were a part, inspired me to continue to question this planning process.

The sad irony is that we are well housed. We were fighting for those who are not. While I would like to be wrong and witness much new development in the next 3 years, I suspect I will be right.

Then, as you say, changes will be made.