City of Vancouver staff say 450 supportive housing units needed by 2015

Vancouver will have to build 1,200 units by 2020 in order to meet the gap in the city’s supportive housing supply, according to a report presented to city council today.

City manager Penny Ballem told councillors that 450 supportive housing units are needed by 2015 in order to eliminate street homelessness, a goal set by Mayor Gregor Robertson when he was elected.

Another 750 units are needed by 2020, according to Ballem, which means the city will have to secure land for another 12 to 15 supportive housing sites.

Robertson said identifying the additional housing sites should be the next step for city council.

"We need to make heaven and earth move to put that land on the table with provincial and federal government," he said.

As part of a staff update on housing and homelessness today (February 1), Ballem told council the challenges to addressing homelessness, including accessing funding from senior governments, “are not getting any easier.”

“Over the next couple of years...our barriers are actually going to worsen,” she said.

Ballem said some of the “key drivers” of homelessness include what she described as inadequate shelter allowances and basic income assistance programs, and insufficient mental health programs.

She said the city doesn't have the fiscal capacity to support the operating or construction costs for supportive housing on its own, and criticized the federal government’s role in supporting affordable housing projects.

“At the end of the day they have many other levers that they can bring to the fore, and at this point in time they do not have a coherent approach,” she said.

Another gap identified by Ballem was in health care for homeless patients. She said a response centre is needed to provide urgent access beds and assessment and care for mentally ill homeless in crisis.

As part of the housing update, city council also heard that an estimated 1,500 new rental units per year are needed over the next 10 years in order to meet the rental housing gap.

Brenda Prosken, the city’s deputy manager of community services, said 60 percent of rental households can't afford the average rent for a one-bedroom unit.

According to the 2006 census, the majority of Vancouver residents are renters, at 52 percent of the city’s population.

The city currently has 17 applications under the Short Term Incentives for Rental (STIR) program, which could create up to 1,100 rental units.

Other housing initiatives outlined in the report include the laneway housing program, under which 200 laneway units are built or under construction.

According to city staff, the HEAT and winter response shelters implemented since December 2008 have brought more than 400 homeless people off the streets.

Judy Graves, the city’s coordinator of tenant assistance, said she's encouraged by the numbers.

“Absolutely a shelter is not a home, and at the same time they know that they’re safer, they know that they’re healthier when they’re in the shelter,” Graves told the Straight.

“So we’ve got people coming into the shelters and we’ve still got more banging on the door and wanting to get in than we have room for, but it was a really good move.”

Robertson credited the work of former city councils on housing and homelessness, including former mayors Sam Sullivan, Larry Campbell and Philip Owen.

“You look across successive councils here, and the work has been building,” he said. “It’s I think been frustratingly slow for everyone in the city when we see people sleeping in our streets and suffering and dying in our streets.”

“It’s challenging to put up with the slow pace, and at the same time we are on the doorstep of ending street homelessness in our city, identifying that gap and understanding what we’ve got to do for next steps,” he added.

City staff will now launch a public engagement process and report back to council with a final strategy by the end of April 2011.