Tenants fear redevelopment of Heather Place
The Vancouver Renters’ Union is suspicious of the planned redevelopment of a public property that is currently used for affordable housing.
Organizer Nathan Crompton suggests that it’s all about carving up the almost-one-hectare Heather Place near City Hall for private developers.
“What’s special about Heather Place is that it’s in a high-value area,” Crompton told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “It’s a question of gentrification.”
The 86-unit housing complex owned by the Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation is four blocks south of West Broadway, near Vancouver General Hospital. Surrounded by newer multi-unit residential buildings, it almost seems out of place. Its two-storey homes for low- and moderate-income tenants look outdated in a neighbourhood that’s moving up.
The idea is to put market housing on the site. Revenues from the sale of either a portion of the land or additional density that the City of Vancouver may grant the regional housing body will fund the construction of replacements for the 86 units on the same site. But these replacement units will charge rents higher than the current ones.
“They’re essentially trying to maximize their assets in the same way a private landlord would do,” Crompton said of the MVHC, whose board is composed of elected politicians from across the Lower Mainland. “It’s just so ironic because…they were formed for the very reason that private landlords shouldn’t be the only people providing housing.”
According to Crompton, the Heather Place situation aligns with the “developer-friendly school of urban planning” that holds sway at city hall under the Vision Vancouver civic party.
“What’s really important is to find out who’s going to get the contract in the end,” Crompton said. “And I can guarantee almost 95 percent that it’s going to be one of the developers who have given big contributions to Vision.”
Vision councillor and MVHC vice-president Geoff Meggs strongly objected to Crompton’s suggestion that Heather Place is being gamed for developers friendly to his party.
“These decisions are not even made in Vancouver,” Meggs told the Straight in a phone interview. He pointed out that he is the only representative from Vancouver on the MVHC board.
Meggs also noted that some past board members wanted to simply sell the whole property and invest the money in housing outside Vancouver. “We had to fight to protect the stock, and now we’re trying to make a model out of it,” he said.
The two-term councillor said that the regional district is working to address several concerns of Heather Place residents. This includes the possibility of phasing the
development so they will not be
displaced. He added that the MVHC board will also consider giving subsidies to those who will have to pay higher rents later.
Heather Place is part of Vancouver-Fairview, where Meggs wants to run as a candidate of the B.C. NDP. He’s competing for the party’s nomination against George Heyman, currently on leave from his position as executive director of the environmental group Sierra Club B.C.
“I was invited to meet with some Heather Place residents recently,” Heyman told the Straight by phone.
According to Heyman, tenants are “extremely concerned” that they may not be able to afford to move back in. “They have a very understandable desire to remain in the community in which they currently live, and I think that’s a very legitimate desire,” he said.
MVHC manager Don Littleford explained that the regional district intends to build as many new rental units as it can at Heather Place.
“Here’s the kicker,” Littleford told the Straight by phone. “It’s going to take money. We’ve got about $10 million in cash reserves in our development reserve fund. The size of that project is probably, for our end, for the minimum…somewhere around $30 million. So the balance of the money has to come from either a mortgage or through some selling some of the density on that. It’s undecided.”
As for future higher rents, Littleford said that it’s a matter to be decided by the MVHC board.
Littleford also said that the housing corporation is about to hire an architectural firm that will prepare a rezoning application before the City of Vancouver.
The uncertainty is affecting residents like Tamara Szymanska. She and her husband have lived at Heather Place for nearly 15 years. They pay $1,020 for their two-bedroom apartment. She noted that a one-bedroom place in the neighbourhood charges up to $1,500.
“It’s an absolute disaster, because my whole network of support is here,” Szymanska told the Straight by phone. “And we both have major health issues. I don’t know where I will go.”
The final approval of the Heather Place redevelopment project is expected to be two years down the road. What’s certain is that Crompton and other housing activists will be keeping close watch.