Vision Vancouver sets its sights on the city's housing crisis
There was a festive mood inside the gymnasium of the Creekside Community Recreation Centre on December 5 when Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson and the rest of city council were sworn in to office. In the presence of family members, friends, and even a contingent of young cooks from Templeton secondary school, politicians basked in the feeling that they were the chosen ones.
The mayor wore a kilt for the upbeat occasion, which took place at the former Olympic Village. And in his inaugural address, Robertson declared that everyone, yes everyone, should be able to afford to live in Vancouver. “This council may have its political differences, but I trust that we are united in our conviction that in a city this prosperous, nobody should ever be forced to sleep on the streets,” he said.
Following the ceremony and a few photos with the young cooks, the mayor explained to the Georgia Straight that housing will be his top priority over the next three years. “We’ve got to create different types of low- and middle-income housing, use the city’s land more efficiently, and make sure we’re trying new things to break the crunch we’re in,” he said.
Earlier this year, the Vision Vancouver–controlled council approved a 10-year housing and homelessness strategy, which carries the grand title “A Home for Everyone”. Not only does it address street homelessness, the document also promises to alleviate the rental and home-ownership crises in Vancouver. In the gymnasium at the Creekside community centre, the lead councillor on this policy, UBC professor of psychiatry Kerry Jang, claimed that the city’s approach is entirely driven by data and research.
“A lot of what we’ve had to deal with in the last three years has been crisis management—trying to fix all of the problems that existed for many years,” Jang told the Straight, referring to the city’s efforts to open more shelters. “This term is really about looking forward, to looking at the next generation.…It’s about affordability issues.”
On the day of the inauguration, the Straight spoke to three people who are feeling the effects of the housing crisis. One is facing homelessness. A second has been homeless, but now lives in a subsidized apartment at the Olympic Village. The third can’t afford to buy a home, even though he and his wife have good jobs in the city. Each provided insights into Vancouver’s affordability crunch.
Marina Kogan, a 76-year-old single pensioner with no children, has been handed her eviction notice, effective January 1, from the Pendera social-housing building at 133 West Pender Street. Sitting in her tidy apartment, Kogan told the Straight that she had open-heart surgery several years ago and has nowhere to go. She also claimed that she is being tossed out because of her repeated complaints about mice in her suite. She even alleges that she has trapped 72 of these rodents this year because the building manager, the Vancouver Native Housing Society, won’t fix holes in the exterior wall and the floor.
The society’s CEO, Dave Eddy, told the Straight by phone that he’s not at liberty to discuss the particulars of Kogan’s case without written permission from her. Speaking generally, Eddy said that he’s not in the business of rendering people homeless. “In almost every case, unless there’s violence or a need to deal with something immediately, we will work with the tenants to preserve their tenancies,” he said. “We also work with tenants to find housing that is more appropriate to them, given their particular situations. Sometimes, we find tenants are inappropriately housed in our building, which doesn’t have the supports that they require.”
This is no consolation to Kogan, who showed the Straight numerous letters of complaint written by her advocates and lawyers. She claimed that one in particular—which demanded action within 10 days—triggered her eviction notice. On November 16, the Residential Tenancy Branch granted the Vancouver Native Housing Society an order of possession, allowing it to take over her suite on January 1. That prompted the director of the Salvation Army’s pro bono program, John Pavey, to write a letter to the branch claiming that there had been a “miscarriage of justice”. He maintained that there was an agreement that she could stay in her suite and the society would not pursue a notice of eviction until early in the new year.
“What is really alarming for me is the fact that the tenant has been asking to have holes that have been created by mice repaired for nearly 18 months,” Pavey wrote, adding that “it appears the landlord is not serious about resolving a very dangerous environment for Marina.”
Kogan, who has lived in the building for more than six years, said she has scheduled a review hearing on December 20 at the Residential Tenancy Branch, where she’ll try to get the eviction overturned. Sitting in her apartment, she pleaded tearfully for Straight readers to write letters to the branch on her behalf so she won’t lose her home. “I don’t have anybody approaching me now to live somewhere,” she said. “I need low rental. I am very sick. After surgery, I can’t move anything. I’m a handicapped person.”
The second person who spoke to the Straight, Glen Loft, is a 50-year-old father of three with a somewhat happier outcome. He became unemployed after a serious automobile accident four years ago. He cheerfully stated that he campaigned for Robertson because he thinks the mayor’s heart is in the right place on housing issues.
Two men who've experienced homelessness, Glen Loft and Darrell Zimmerman, comment on the city's plans and the mayor's intentions.
Standing outside the Creekside community centre, Loft explained that he initially dealt with his injuries—which included multiple fractures in his spine, whiplash, and depression—by self-medicating with alcohol. Even though he had previously been a successful automotive salesman with a high income, he ended up homeless and in detox, before sobering up and attending a personal-development program. In 2009, he moved into a social-housing project downtown, but asked to be relocated after a nearby resident died of an overdose.
“I was in my room and started to smell this dead person’s body,” Loft recalled. “For four days, they didn’t check on him. He had killed himself below me. I couldn’t handle the smell of it anymore.”
That’s how he ended up at Kindred Place at 1321 Richards Street. Like Kogan, Loft was evicted. He claimed that this was because he complained that management wasn’t enforcing a “crime-free addendum”, which required other tenants to obey the law. He also alleged that he was assaulted in the building, which led to a lengthy battle in B.C. Supreme Court. Loft, who is disabled, was lucky enough to be placed in an 800-square-foot social-housing unit at the Olympic Village, where he said he pays $320 a month in rent.
But there’s a catch. He claimed to have no heat or hot water. After Loft moved in, the city changed the way it charges for utilities. A company called Enerpro Systems Corp. was brought in to impose new fees based on usage, which means Loft must pay an extra $80 a month on top of his B.C. Hydro bill. So he’s living in luxurious accommodations without basic conveniences of modern life. But he’s still grateful, particularly to members of his church who helped furnish his apartment. “I have a lot of people who help me,” Loft said.
The third person reached by the Straight was hoping to be among those sworn in to office at the Creekside community centre, but he wasn’t elected. RJ Aquino, a 30-year-old COPE candidate for council, discussed his housing situation over lunch at a West Side sushi joint. The Provincial Health Services Authority employee described himself as “middle class”. His wife, Jerilynne, who works in advertising, is on maternity leave after giving birth to their first child. Aquino said they’re renting an apartment near the Joyce SkyTrain station as they pay off their student loans. “To raise a family in a one-bedroom is difficult,” he acknowledged.
When asked if they’ll buy a home, he replied: “It’s out of reach.” The couple has considered various options—including pooling funds with their mothers, who are both immigrants, and living with them—but at this point, they’re not possible in Vancouver. With a wry smile, Aquino revealed that there’s a house in his neighbourhood that’s listed at $2.7 million. The Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver reported that the benchmark price for a detached home on the city’s West Side was just over $2 million in November, whereas on the East Side it reached $863,183.
“Ultimately, what we want to establish is peace of mind,” Aquino said. “We’re not out to get a luxury sports car.”
Aquino is a younger member of the city’s Filipino community. One of the veterans, retired union staff representative Rey Umlas, sought a council nomination with Vision Vancouver in 2008. In a Starbucks coffee shop, Umlas explained to the Straight that ordinary families across Vancouver, including many immigrants, are struggling with the cost of housing.
“You cannot promise continually that you’re campaigning on affordable housing when the electorate doesn’t see any evidence,” Umlas declared. “This is the test. This three-year term is crucial for the Vision party to fulfill what they say they’ll do.”
It’s a challenge that Robertson, Jang, and their Vision colleagues appear eager to embrace. “We can’t rely on just the market to deliver solutions,” the mayor said. “The city has a huge land base. And we need to leverage that better to get new types of housing built on it that are more dense and more affordable—different types of rental and ownership.”
City officials often point out that the number of street homeless has dropped by 82 percent since 2008. Jang sees this as a sign of progress. A former COPE mayoral candidate, however, has a problem with this statistic. Jean Swanson, now with the Carnegie Community Action Project, told the Straight by phone that there are more homeless in Vancouver, compared to the 2008 figures, when you include all the people living in shelters. This total homeless count stood at 1,605 in 2011, up from 1,576 in 2008. “They haven’t bought any land in the Downtown Eastside for housing for three years,” she said. “We desperately need some action.”
She added that just a quarter of the units being built at the remand centre will be for people living on welfare. Swanson also claimed that gentrification is driving up rents in the SROs. Swanson noted that the Columbia and Lotus hotels are being upgraded to accommodate a different group of tenants, such as students, which is driving former residents into the shelters. And the veteran activist expressed “huge concerns” about the risk of a tuberculosis outbreak at the shelters. Jang dismissed this fear, noting that there are regular health checks.
Swanson also called on the city and province to come up with a long-term plan to replace 5,000 units of SRO housing in the neighbourhood. “If you’re a woman, every time you have to pee, you have to go out of your house,” she said. “People are getting beat up and jumping out of windows—or getting pushed out. They are not safe places to live.”