Concerns about Vancouver’s affordable housing supply dominated a public meeting at city hall today, as councillors voted to pass a 10-year housing and homelessness strategy.
The city’s 10-year plan includes a target of 38,900 new housing units over 10 years, including a mix of social housing, market rental and affordable home ownership.
The strategies to achieve the goals include a contribution from the city of $42.4 million in land and capital grants to fund 1,150 new units of non-market housing, expanding the zones and housing types that allow for secondary suites and laneway housing to be built, expanding shelter services for underserved homeless groups, and creating a rent bank.
Mayor Gregor Robertson called the plan “the most ambitious housing and homelessness strategy in Vancouver’s history”.
But before all councillors except Suzanne Anton voted in favour of the plan, they heard comments from over a dozen housing providers, Downtown Eastside residents and advocates, many of whom expressed concerns about preserving and expanding low-income housing in the city.
Thom Armstrong of the Co-operative Housing Federation of B.C. urged council to consider the state of the existing housing stock as much as creating a new supply.
“We’re going to painstakingly roll this carpet out in front of us around the new supply problem, but if we’re not tacking it down securely as we go, it’s going to roll up behind us,” he said. “If we let it, there will be no net gain. We’ll lose a unit for every unit that we generate.”
Armstrong also warned council that federal subsidies slated to expire between now and the year 2020 could impact many of the city’s co-op housing residents.
“The disappearance of the federal subsidies is going to potentially have a dramatic impact on the demographic mix in co-ops unless there are successor subsidy programs,” he told council. “The federal government has made it crystal clear that it’s out of the game. So our focus is going to be probably on the provincial government.”
He urged the city to formally commit to a policy to support existing co-ops and facilitate the development of new co-ops as part of a non-market rental strategy.
Margaret Eberle, acting research director of the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association, said her organization estimates that about 70 percent of non-profit housing societies will have their operating agreements expire by the year 2030.
“We’re just starting to see the impacts of this,” she said, noting that a response to the expiring operating agreements is to raise rents.
“I guess the non-profits are really at the mercy of the federal [and] provincial governments, who have sort of decided to walk away from this long-term problem,” she claimed.
According to Stephen Gray of the First United Church social housing society, existing affordable housing units in the city could be affected much sooner.
“The 156 units that we are operating in the Downtown Eastside and have been for over 25 years are right now at a crisis, where we can’t continue to operate those past September,” he said.
Gray said the society has exhausted all its reserves, and is predicting a “significant operating deficit” going forward. The mortgage on the two buildings is up in the fall.
He noted that about 60 percent of the building’s tenants are on some form of income assistance, while 25 percent are old-age pensioners. He’s concerned that if B.C. Housing takes over the units, there could be some evictions under less adaptive policies, and that as some units become vacant, the rents could spike.
“The faster they can empty out units, the faster they can increase rents,” he told the Straight in an interview.
“I don’t think B.C. housing wants to do this,” he added. “It’s just a really crappy situation.”
City manager Penny Ballem said the city is “opening up a dialogue” with senior governments about the buildings.
“The problem is now out there, and there’s no ready solution,” she told council. “It’s an issue that all of us need to get ahead of. In the meantime, as these crises emerge”¦ we need to open up the dialogue.”
Wendy Pedersen, organizer with the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP), urged the city to lobby senior governments “fiercely” for a national housing strategy. The call for such a strategy was echoed by several speakers.
CCAP wants to see the city purchase at least 10 lots for low-income housing in the Downtown Eastside, so the SRO hotels can be replaced in less than 40 or 50 years. Pedersen also called on council to create a definition of both low-income and social housing.
Gregory Miller, who has stayed at both a Vancouver homeless shelter and at the Wonder Rooms hotel in the Downtown Eastside, said he’d like to see more services to help people like him find suitable accommodation.
He said his living conditions at the SRO included dealing with rats and bedbugs.
“People are sent to live in these places like that, and sometimes they’re better off on the streets,” he said. “Something needs to be done.”
Ric Matthews of the First United Church shelter argued that simply maintaining a certain number of housing units in the city isn’t sufficient, but that there’s a need to ensure the units remain affordable.
“If those rooms are not affordable or there are social contexts that make it undesirable to stay there and people begin to feel unwelcome and they leave, then in fact we are eroding stock even though we can mathematically check the box and say the box is maintained,” he told council.
“We have to think very carefully and we need to have a very detailed strategy around how we not only protect the actual building and the rooms but how we ensure they are in fact connecting with a sliding level of affordability.”
Coalition of Progressive Electors councillors David Cadman and Ellen Woodsworth passed two amendments to the plan, to specify that the city look at inclusionary zoning, a city-run housing authority, and increase funding for land purchases.
“This is a shameful situation, that a country as wealthy as Canada is having the kind of circumstances that we have people living in here,” said Cadman.
Woodsworth also called on the mayor to “take a leadership role” on a national housing campaign.
An annual “report card” on the housing and homelessness strategy will be presented to council, and city staff said they will be coming back with more detailed plans related to actions identified in the 10-year strategy.