Jean Swanson: Where are next year’s modular homes?

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      Last week, the City of Vancouver announced that it's building modular housing at Gore and Union, bringing this year’s total to about 600. That’s a good start, but it’s only half of the 1,200 modular homes promised in the city’s housing strategy, and it’s certainly not enough to house the 2,200 homeless counted last March.

      People who are homeless have about half the life expectancy as others, so we need to get them a home fast to help improve their health and life chances. Modular housing is an affordable and quick way to do that.

      But I’m afraid the city is going to stop at those 600 units because it’s not being creative about finding land for new housing. I’d like to see the next batch built in time for the homeless count in March 2019. Getting the land for these homes should be a bigger priority than bicycle lanes or land for a new art gallery.

      The city has a property endowment fund worth about $5.7 Billion. Much is already being used for housing, retail, parks, or fire halls—all necessary in a city. But about eight percent of the fund is in “properties that are primarily unimproved, have no long-term encumbering commitment, or are held for future development”, according to an article on Daily Hive.

      That’s almost half a billion dollars worth of property that the city owns that could be available for modular housing. If it isn’t close to transit or services, it could be traded for property that would be suitable for housing.

      We should also remember that new modular housing won’t reduce homelessness if the city keeps closing low-rent housing.

      Last year, the city closed the Balmoral hotel (173 rooms) due to unsafe conditions, the Roddan Lodge (157 units) for redevelopment, and the Quality Inn (157 units) that housed former residents of the Oppenheimer Park tent city. This year, the city closed the Regent Hotel (153 units) because of unsafe conditions. The people evicted from the closed buildings bump homeless people off the wait lists for welfare-rate and pension-rate social housing.

      The city can stop this problem by using section 23.8 of its standards of maintenance bylaw to do repair and maintenance work that landlords refuse to perform. The law allows the city to bill the owner for the work and, if the owner refuses to pay, to add it to their tax bill.

      Of course, we need more action on homelessness even if the city does come through with the land for the second batch of 600 modular units. I’m running for city council with COPE in the October 20 election. We’ll work for a mansion tax of one percent on the value of homes between $5 and $10 million and two percent on the value of mansions over $10 million. This could bring in enough revenue to build modular housing for all 2,200 people who are homeless in one year. It could help save their lives.

      In the long run we’d also save money on health and justice system services as all the studies show that it’s cheaper to house people who are homeless than to keep them on the street.

      We also need to pressure the province to increase welfare and disability rates. At $375 a month for shelter, a person who needs welfare or disability can’t make the rent unless they’re in social housing. But with thousands on the B.C. Housing wait list, the low shelter rate is a guarantee of homelessness for someone who can’t work, unless they have a really good personal support system.

      And to make sure that increases in welfare and disability, as well as minimum wage, don’t go straight into landlords' pockets, we need real rent control under which landlords can’t jack up rents as much as they want whenever tenants leave.

      The good news is that homelessness is not inevitable. It was created by government policies and we, as voters, can change those policies and drastically reduce it. First step: the city should allocate land for the next 600 modular homes now. 

      Jean Swanson is a Coalition of Progressive Electors candidate for Vancouver city council.

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