Saturday, September 7, 2019

Opinion: New strategy needed to tackle poor living conditions in Vancouver SROs Vancouver Courier August 26th, 2019

Add captionWhile we need to build more social housing in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and elsewhere around the region, we also need to focus much more on the existing housing stock, says Michael Geller. File photo Dan Toulgoet
Province should focus on existing housing stock in DTES and increase shelter rate

In 1973, Bill Teron, the newly appointed president of the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation wandered into the office where I worked.    “How many new homes were built in Canada last year?” he asked. The answer was approximately 250,000. 
He then asked, “How many dwellings are there in Canada?”   While the population was 22.5 million, none of us knew.  “Well, it is about eight million,” he responded, adding that the government focused much attention on new housing but very little on the existing housing stock. That year, CMHC introduced the Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program or RRAP. It provided financial assistance to homeowners to upgrade homes. In later years, landlords could receive benefits. too.
Having just returned from Ottawa, I was thinking about Teron’s remarks within the context of the Downtown Eastside.My first exposure to the DTES was in 1974 following an appointment as CMHC’s assistant architect for B.C. At the time, CMHC would only finance “self-contained” apartments containing a bathroom and kitchen. However, witnessing the decrepit condition of many single-room occupancy buildings (SROs), then-assistant regional director Keith Tapping convinced management to renovate some buildings. 
While a renovated SRO room did not compare with a new, self-contained apartment, many rooms could be upgraded for the cost of one apartment. Sadly, over the years, SRO buildings continued to deteriorate. In 2007, the province purchased 24 hotels in the DTES and surrounding areas as social housing, and upgrades were carried out.
In 2008, I began to volunteer in the Downtown Eastside with a community organization started by the late Milton Wong and a small group of dedicated individuals.
I was shocked when told at the time by housing activist and current city councillor Jean Swanson that the shelter component of welfare was only $325/month and hadn’t been increased for years. Since it was virtually impossible to own and operate decent housing for $325 per month, I suggested that Swanson and I write a joint op-ed in the Vancouver Sun urging the government to increase this amount. After all, who could ignore a plea from such strange bedfellows?
A first draft was prepared, but Swanson subsequently nixed the idea since as her colleague Wendy Pedersen put it, any increase “would just be putting more money into the landlords’ pockets.” While this was exactly what was required, the $325 allowance remained in effect until it was increased to $375. Many SROs became increasingly uninhabitable.
While the city has the power to conduct repairs in privately owned SROs and bill the owner if maintenance orders aren’t followed, the city doesn’t typically take that route, preferring instead to use the courts and other enforcement strategies to hold owners accountable. One reason is the Columbia Hotel.
Many years ago, the living conditions in this SRO were so bad the city did go in and repair and billed the owner. Unfortunately, the owner claimed the city spent too much on repairs and took it to court… and won. A fire at the Pandora Hotel in 2010 led the city to step up enforcement of regulations and inspections, particularly at the 10 highest risk buildings.
In 2011, B.C. Housing announced the SRO Renewal Initiative project to upgrade 13 of the 24 SROs it had purchased and previously renovated to varying degrees. A fixed-price contract was agreed upon with a consortium to design, build, partially finance and maintain the buildings for 18 years at a capital cost of $143.3 million.
However, many privately owned SROs continue to deteriorate. Their condition is often despicable. While we need to build more social housing in the DTES and elsewhere around the region, as Teron said, we also need to focus much more on the existing housing stock.
The reality is no one can be expected to own and maintain decent accommodation, even a room with a shared bathroom, for $375 a month. A new strategy is needed to address the poor living conditions in privately owned buildings.
When I first proposed modular housing as a solution to homelessness in the DTES, Swanson was strongly opposed. Now she has become an advocate.  I therefore urge her to join me in seeking a significant increase in the shelter component of welfare. This could be far more cost effective than asking governments buy and renovate the remaining properties or building new structures.
You just need to examine the costs to date.

Opinion: ‘Abnormality has become normalized’ in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside Vancouver Courier August 12, 2019

CBC Early Edition radio host Stephen Quinn recently interviewed Mayor Kennedy Stewart about his first nine months in office.  During the discussion, Quinn mentioned he had recently been to Main and Hastings in the Downtown Eastside and had never seen the neighbourhood look worse. The mayor agreed.
When asked what he was going to do about it, the mayor responded it’s all about senior government investment in housing. With palpable emotion, Quinn asked what goes through the head of the mayor of a wealthy city when he sees such a terrible street scene. The mayor responded it’s a tough place for sure and he must do a better job of getting senior government funding for housing. 
Mayor Stewart’s comments reminded me of a mid-1990s CBC radio interview with another mayor — Phillip Owen. He too was asked about improving the DTES and he too blamed senior governments for not providing enough funding for housing.  I greatly admired Mayor Owen but recall being very disappointed with his answer. I subsequently proposed to him that the DTES tragedy was much more than a shortage of housing.  It had to do with an over concentration of people with mental illness and drug addiction, inappropriate policing, and poor planning. 
In 2000, Mayor Owen was instrumental in creating The Vancouver Agreement, an initiative undertaken jointly by the three levels of government to regenerate the DTES through collaboration between government and community and business groups. Mayor Owen also shocked many, including his closest friends, by implementing a “Four Pillar Approach” to fight drug addiction. The four pillars were prevention, treatment, enforcement and harm reduction.  Soon after, Vancouver opened Insite, North America's first legal safe injection site for intravenous drug users in 2003. Sadly, other pillars have not been as successful. 
When Larry Campbell became mayor, I had high expectations for him, given his previous roles as an RCMP and Vancouver police officer and chief coroner. Tragically, he did little to improve DTES living conditions. Although he did write a book.  I also had high hopes for former mayor Gregor Robertson. Although he naively campaigned on ending homelessness, he was committed to creating a new DTES neighbourhood plan. During the planning process, then city manager Penny Ballem was the speaker at a Lambda Alpha International dinner I attended. She was asked how we will know when the city’s new neighbourhood plan is working. "We will know when the empty and boarded up storefronts are replaced by vibrant businesses." I was impressed by her answer.

Unfortunately, the city’s neighbourhood planning process was hijacked by a small constituency led by Jean Swanson and the Carnegie Community Action Project. It wanted a ban on any ownership housing in the DTES core and argued instead for predominantly social housing.  At the time, I questioned whether the DTES should remain a low-income precinct with a high concentration of shelters, social housing, and community services or become a more broadly mixed community.  Stephen Quinn also questioned the likely effectiveness of the plan.  
Sadly, since approval of this plan, the DTES has become worse, not better.  So, what should be done? While there appear to be insurmountable problems, the city might learn from its South Shore False Creek community.  To overcome the myriad of challenges, in the mid-1970s Mayor Art Phillips created the False Creek Development Group led by Doug Sutcliffe, a highly respected, charismatic individual. Through bi-weekly meetings over three years, he convened government and community representatives and key stakeholders to build a remarkable and innovative community.  Perhaps it is time to create a DTES working group, council or cabinet. With the right leader, it could manage the oftentimes competing activities and initiatives.   Hopefully it would develop a strategy to improve the deplorable single-room-occupancy hotels so that residents no longer prefer to sleep on the streets; create more community spaces and facilities for those suffering from mental illness and addictions; address illegal drug dealing and improve the appearance of storefronts, sidewalks and open spaces.  
As Karen Ward, a Downtown Eastside resident and drug user advocate observed in another recent interview with Quinn “abnormality has become normalized in the DTES.  To better understand this, just head over to Hastings and Main.

An August Weekend in Ottawa

The Royal Ottawa Clubhouse (which is actually in Quebec)

Cruising the Rideau Canal
A number of years ago, Brian McGuire a former banker at Scotiabank approached me at a men's night at Point Grey Golf Club. "You're interested in travelling and playing golf" he said. Would you like to join the Canadian Seniors' Golf Association. I'll sponsor you, and I'm sure I can find someone else to do so as well.
     Having had a few drinks, I said sure, send me some information. And he did. I discovered it was nearly 100 years old and seemed like the sort of organization that would probably not really want me as a member!  But I did join (although my handicap was just on the required threshold around 15.6 index) and am glad I did. Over the years, I have attended three national events in Montréal, where we played the Royal Montréal and Beaconsfield courses; Toronto where we played Rosedale and Scarborough, another to venerable establishments; and this year Ottawa where we played Royal Ottawa and Hunt club, generally regarded as the two best courses in the city.
     In addition to the golfing events I decided to be a tourist in the city in which I twice lived for a total of four years. I took a hop on hop off bus tour which took me past a building I once helped design while moonlighting for Bill Teron as a young CMHC architect, as well as boat cruises along the Rideau Canal and Ottawa River. I went across to Gatineau for a very French dinner at le Pied du Cochon and also enjoyed a memorable dinner in the market area.
A selfie in front of our old house at 12 Harvard Avenue. 
  I took a trip down memory lane to see our old house at 12 Harvard Avenue which we bought in a day while looking to rent a place and subsequently sold to Lloyd Axworthy when we left Ottawa to return to Vancouver.
     I went into the Château Laurier to find the small giftshop where I once had a memorable conversation with Ron Basford. At the time I was working for CMHC and Ministry of State for urban affairs in Toronto and had to choose between returning to Vancouver or moving to Ottawa. Basford White rock wisely said eventually I would move back to Vancouver but working with Bill Teron in Ottawa would be worthwhile experience. He was right.
    So here are a few photographs from the trip including a new housing development on the site of a former monastery called Greystone. Are also a few photographs of Le Breton Flats which at one time was going to be a very innovative development undertaken by CMAC. Today it doesn't look terribly innovative. But then again, one must always judge project's within the context of the day when they were first conceived.
Greystone Presentation centre

The community includes a restored monastery, fee-simple townhouses, apartments and seniors housing

One development that did impress me was the redevelopment of Lansdowne Park, where the football stadium and annual fall fair were held. It was well done.

Some photos taken on the River Cruise.

The Chateau Laurier where a major debate was taking place regarding the design of Larco's addition. Yes Larco owns the Chateau Laurier

While I am not planning to buy one of these red jackets, who knows?  Fortunately I wasn't the only one in navy blue!
At the annual national Canadian Seniors Golf Association tournament.