Monday, February 28, 2022

“It’s Really Life Changing:” How Modular Housing is Alleviating Homelessness by Neil Sharma

if this Toronto modular housing development looks a bit like one of  Vancouver's modular housing developments, that's because former Vancouver housing official Abi Bond took the idea to toronto. However, one key difference is that the Vancouver projects are deisgned to be relocated to another site; the Toronto projects are designed to be permanent 

Modular housing has quietly become a cost effective, not to mention dignified, way to house homeless people, as evidenced by a two-year-old City of Toronto program.

But to understand why modular housing is poised to become a resounding success in Canada’s largest city, one need only look at Vancouver, where it was first implemented. According to the creator of modular, or factory-produced, housing, its size, portability, and the method of production, prevents costs from ballooning

“Modular housing can be relocated; I thought of it as an idea that might well work, and it did,” said Vancouver-based Michael Geller, now a planning and development consultant for residential, mixed-use and large-scale planned communities.

“Normally in construction, you have consultants’ fees, but in this case there are no architects fees for every unit and you don’t have the costs of going through the approvals process. The standard module is produced in a factory. All of the Vancouver projects are virtually identical and you avoid property taxes during construction, the insurance costs are less, the legal costs are less, the soft costs on a project are often in the order of 20% of hard costs, and one cost you don’t have is the land cost.”

Modular housing typically sits on a site using steel screws for a period of time before being uprooted elsewhere. If it uses city lands, Geller says there are no costs, and if it is private land, such as a vacant parcel where a condominium will be built in a few years, property tax abatements can be proffered to owners as inducements.

“They need to be in a location for at least three years to justify some of the infrastructural costs,” Geller said. “You just found a vacant piece of land and the idea is you would put them up and when it’s time to move them, you wouldn’t want to have too much to tear up, like you would a concrete basement or concrete footing.”

An Idea With Torontonian Roots

The idea for modular housing is not new. Decades ago, it was Geller’s thesis topic at the University of Toronto School of Architecture — the steel screws were even an idea given to him by a professor — but it wasn’t until Geller ran for Vancouver city council in 2008 that the idea was adopted by the eventual mayor, Gregor Robertson. However, because Geller ran for the Non-Partisan Association and Robertson was a Vision Vancouver candidate, the latter was reluctant to implement the idea as a way to tackle homelessness, but it was one of his campaign pledges and meritocracy carried the day.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation subsequently funded a demonstration project, following a positive study from BC Housing. Nearly a decade later, the first units were delivered near Vancouver’s infamous Downtown Eastside, and, to date, over 800 modular housing units have been built in the province.

Former BC Premier Gordon Campbell, who used to work for a railway company, was reticent about the project because he believed the units looked like rail cars, Geller recalls, adding that resistance to a project intended to house the city’s homeless was often confounding.

“At first, the local housing activists opposed it because they feared they would look awful, and then afterwards they opposed it because they realized it looked too nice and their fear was it would replace permanent housing,” he said.

“To make [the inaugural modular homes] more attractive, we put a giant First Nations mural on the side. My study suggested they only go to two storeys but they actually went to three storeys. We talk about it being temporary, but there’s nothing more permanent than a temporary structure.”

“They Have a Front Door They Can Lock.”

The units averaged about 240 sq. ft. and contained everything a regular studio apartment has, including a bathroom and a kitchen. Geller remembers residents being interviewed on televised news segments and seeing tears in some of their eyes. Someone who’s been living on the streets for 20 years doesn’t believe such circumstance will ever change, he says, but modular housing can disabuse them of such notions.

The City of Toronto has already delivered two modular housing developments, and four more are in the pipeline. Toronto’s modular housing units are larger at 350-400 sq. ft., and each development has over 50 units. Moreover, non-profit organizations offer landlord services and each resident has security of tenure, meaning there’s no limit to how many times their leases can be renewed, and in addition to each resident receiving a case worker, the buildings have staff who are present 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“For the first sites we have opened, there have been a couple of people who were interviewed after they moved in, and it’s really positive, really life-changing,” said Abigail Bond, Executive Director of the Housing Secretariat for the City of Toronto. “They have a front door they can lock. There’s real security and a place where they can leave their buildings knowing their things will be there when they get back. It really makes a huge difference for people.”

Unlike in Vancouver, the sites are permanent in Toronto. As a way to expedite the Housing TO 2020-2030 Action Plan, a separate plan was created in June 2020 to deliver 3,000 new supportive homes in 24 months, 1,000 of which will be delivered through the Canada-Ontario Housing Benefit.

“We’re on track to complete all of that by the end of 2022 and create more than 2,000 units. They’re a mixture of rapid housing created through Toronto Community Housing units, new modular, and also we bought some hotels as well. All of this will be supportive housing and much of it has been paid for by the federal government through the Rapid Housing Initiative they have introduced across Canada.”

Construction costs for individual units vary by their size, but Bond says they average roughly $200,000 in Toronto. The Housing Secretariat is hoping for an additional round of federal funding.

Because modular housing is inherently affordable, Geller says it doesn’t have to be built exclusively for homeless people. He also warns that if the modular housing developments contain certain clusters — in this case, homeless people — the concentration could introduce troubling behaviours, like drug use, and compromise all of the progress made. Geller envisions modular housing containing a cross-section of vulnerable people, including single parents.

“There is potential to use this idea, especially as the modular housing industry becomes more sophisticated, as a form of affordable housing that can indeed be set up on a site for three years, five years, and then move it to another site,” Geller said. “The units won’t need to be privately owned; they could be owned by a housing corporation, or a non-profit could look after it, but there do have to be support services and these things do have to be managed, especially if it’s predominantly former homeless people living in it, but I think we should mix it up.”

Neil Sharma 

Ukraine Russia War - Commentary by Gwynne Dyer

 As someone whose family came from Odessa, and who visited Ukraine for a week in 2014 I find it extremely difficult to watch TV coverage of this most outrageous invasion by Putin. Much has been written in the past few days about the war, but this column by Gwynne Dyer impressed me very much.

24 February 2022


Ukraine: Ten New Realities

By Gwynne Dyer


Now that Russian President Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukraine and foreclosed his and everybody else’s other options, certain aspects of the near future have become clear. So have some aspects of the longer run. Here are ten predictions, made with varying degrees of confidence.


1. Ukraine’s organised military forces won’t be able to fight for long. Its armed forces are smaller and less well equipped than the Russian invasion force, they are being attacked simultaneously from the north, east and south, and above all they lack air cover.


Russian cruise missiles have already struck most Ukrainian air bases and command centres, and Ukranian forces in the field will be cut up into small groups, surrounded and overwhelmed. Arming civilians won’t help: it will just get them killed. Organised combat will probably be over in a week, although fighting in the cities could last a little longer.


2. There will be an underground resistance movement at least for a while, but don’t imagine Ukrainians are going to be the new Viet Cong. This is an urban society, and the resistance will rely on ambushes, assassinations and IEDs. The Russians will call it ‘terrorism’.


3. Putin says “We do not intend to occupy Ukraine,” but of course they will. The only question is whether the Russians will stop at Dnieper river (plus Kiev, on the west bank), or take the western half of the country too.


Resistance will be stronger in the west, where Ukrainian nationalism has deeper roots, but Putin’s denial of the legitimacy of the Ukrainian state and indeed of a separate Ukrainian identity means he can’t really leave the west out. The logic of his argument is that all the people on this ‘ancient Russian land’ must be re-submerged in a greater Russian identity.


4. Russia’s civilian and military intelligence services, the FSB and GRU, will have lists of Ukrainians who are to be arrested: certainly thousands, maybe tens of thousands. Some of them may be killed, but we won’t hear about that if it happens. A lot more people who fear they might be on those lists will flee west.


5. Several hundred thousand other people will also flee west just because they don’t want to live under military occupation and Russification. It could be more, if Russia leaves the border open for a while to get rid of the people who are likely to resent their presence most.


6. The border between NATO members and the countries Putin controls (Russia, Belarus and Ukraine) will be remilitarised, and defence budgets will rise in Germany and eastern European countries. However,  as in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, there will be no NATO military action to counter the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Why? Nuclear weapons.


7. Will a new Cold War spread across the world? No, because post-Soviet Russia is too small and weak to hold up its end of it. Moreover, there is no real ideological conflict: democracy is an ideology, but dictatorship isn’t. At worst, there will be a Cool War in the North Atlantic/European region.


8. Will Putin get away with it? For a while, yes. There will be more Western sanctions against Russia, of course, but he has build up a big war-chest ($600 billion in reserves) and outside the big cities Russians are still very ‘patriotic’ and pretty gullible. But Putin’s long-term project of re-Russification is foredoomed: there’s just no popular enthusiasm for it.


9. Will Ukraine regain its independence? Not while Putin is alive (he’s 69) unless there is a palace coup in the Kremlin. The Russians will install a puppet government in Kiev, but will find it too unstable to let them bring their troops home again. When Putin is gone, however, Ukraine will have a chance to regain its freedom. So may Russia.


10. Will Donald Trump win the 2024 US election? Maybe not. His fanboy adulation of Putin goes down well with the hardcore MAGA crowd, who admire the Russian dictator more than they do Joe Biden, but praising Putin’s “smart move” in invading Ukraine will not play well with most Americans if their country is caught up in a confrontation with Russia.


Has the world ‘changed forever’, as the pundits love to say? No, of course not, but this is a very big deal, and a hell of a lot has changed.


Thursday, February 10, 2022

UDI Webinar: FortisBC and CleanBC - Roadmap to 2030

I was pleased to participate in this UDI Webinar along with representatives of FortisBC, the province and City of Burnaby. I presented the perspective of a developer who has discovered it is increasingly necessary to commit to a fossil-fuel-free project when seeking a rezoning. But this discussion is not just happening in Metro Vancouver. It is happening all over the world. Here is my presentation with references to what I saw in Dubai during my trip to EXPO 2020. It's time to REIMAGINE ENERGY.

Friday, February 4, 2022


I must confess I was skeptical when I read that EXPO2020 would have a focus on sustainability given that much of the UAE's wealth has come from oil production. But by the end of 12 days at the fair, I was convinced that this was much more than just lip service. 

There really is a genuine desire to reduce reliance on oil, both the basis for its economy, and as an energy source. Fortunately, the sun shines a lot in the UAE and so solar power is a very viable alternative. But throughout the exposition, it was fascinating to see what other countries are doing to reduce greenhouse gases and get to 'net zero', which was a common theme in many pavilions, especially Germany, Singapore, and the Netherlands, to name just 3. 

As was the case at EXPO 86 in Vancouver, there were several major 'theme pavilions'. The Sustainability Pavilion, designed by the well-known UK firm Grimshaw Architects, is a self-sustaining building designed to generate 100% of its water and energy needs. 

A LEED Platinum building, the solar canopy has a diameter of 130 metres and converts sunshine into electricity for all the exhibits. The main canopy is surrounded by 18 'energy trees' clad in solar panels which rotate like sunflowers to track the sun. A 'water tree' captures humidity and converts it to water that in turn connects into the air conditioning system.

As you enter the building a wall graphic highlights how energy consumption has changed and increased so dramatically over the centuries. 
Inside, exhibits highlight "the madness of human consumption". 
One challenges the visitor to think about what they truly value by contemplating what they would save if their home were on fire. 
The tour ends on a more optimistic note with the 'Laboratory of Future Values' which highlights opportunities to save our planet.
Many of the pavilions in the Sustainability Precinct and elsewhere around the site are designed with wood exteriors and structures. They feature impressive exhibits, and my regret is that more of my colleagues in Vancouver who are interested in sustainability and sustainable development will not likely get the opportunity to experience them. 

Thursday, February 3, 2022


As noted in the EXPO guidebook, the colourful exterior of the Russian pavilion is your first hint of the creativity you'll discover inside. The pavilion was designed by Sergei Tchoban a highly respected and talented architect I met while working in Russian and Kazakhstan. He designed the building "in the shape of two hemispheres that are domes creating the image of a planet symbolising wholeness and universality." When I posted photos of the building on Facebook, one of my friends described it as a colourful slinky toy and she's right. But it is both delightful and beautiful. 

The inside of the pavilion is equally intriguing. It celebrates creative Russian inventors, artists, and musicians and many of the products they introduced.  These include powdered milk (1802) television (1911) icebreakers, foam fire extinguishers, synthetic rubber, and postal codes. Yes, postal codes. 

But the focus of the pavilion is the human brain and how it works. I could have spent the day studying the various panels. You can see some of it here:

One of the sub-themes is the need for world cooperation. Yes, cooperation!

If you're not interested in the brain, you might want to purchase some TEAM PUTIN clothing or home accessories.

An intriguing aspect of the Russian pavilion is that Russia is vying to be selected as the location for the 2030 World Expo. If it was up to me, I would say leave the Ukraine alone, and you can have the world fair. 


Of all the world expos that I have attended, the best was EXPO 2010 Shanghai. While it was wonderful during the day, it was extraordinary at night. EXPO 2020 was also impressive at night, especially the main Al Wasl plaza which has been described as the world's largest 360-degree projection screen. 

Elsewhere around the site there are concerts, changing illuminations, and lots of vitality. Many of the pavilions are transformed at night, especially the dramatic cantilevered Saudi pavilion and UAE pavilion that is designed to appear like a falcon, with movable wings.