Councillors question City of Vancouver's definition of social housing

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      Social housing used to mean housing for low-income people.

      In Vancouver, social housing means another thing.

      In 2014, the ruling Vision Vancouver party of then-mayor Gregor Robertson changed the definition of social housing.

      Social housing in Vancouver now means entire residential developments where a majority of the housing units are going to be rented for as much as the market can bear.

      For first-term councillors Pete Fry and Jean Swanson, that definition is misleading.

      In separate interviews, Fry and Swanson indicated their interest in having the present council review what social housing means in the city.

      “It sort of leads the public into thinking that we’re meeting certain targets when, in fact, a lot of the new purpose-built rental housing that we’re building isn’t really what one would consider as social housing in the traditional sense of the word,” Fry told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.

      Fry said that it is “disingenuous” to label entire projects as social housing when only a small percentage of the development is to be rented below market rates.

      Swanson said by phone that the current definition not only fails to meet the city’s objectives around housing but “it [also] isn’t meeting the needs of lower-income renters.”

      Robertson and his Vision Vancouver team were on their second term at City Hall when they changed the definition of social housing in 2014. They believed that the meaning of social housing needed to be updated.

      As a result, social housing came to be defined as an entire development where 70 percent of the dwelling units are rented at market rates and only about a third—30 percent—of the homes charge lower rents.

      In the Downtown Eastside, a whole project qualifies as social housing with 70 percent of residential units charging varying rates and the remaining 30 percent renting at the shelter allowance for people on government assistance.

      In a ruling on a dispute concerning two downtown developments, the B.C. Supreme Court in January 2015 declared that the city’s public-hearing notification process that led to the change was not sufficient.

      In the wake of the court’s ruling, the city held a new public hearing in March of that year.

      At the public hearing, Swanson, who was not yet an elected councillor, appeared on behalf of the Carnegie Community Action Project, a citizen-based program dedicated to housing and welfare issues in the Downtown Eastside.

      Coun. Jean Swanson objects to a whole building in the Downtown Eastside being described as "social housing" when 70 percent of residential units will be offered at varying rates

      Swanson told councillors at the time that doing away with the traditional definition of social housing is “Orwellian”. According to Swanson, the new definition would exclude people who were included in the old meaning and result in “plumping up” the numbers of new social-housing units to be built.

      On a motion by then Vision councillor Andrea Reimer, Vision Vancouver councillors upheld the new definition of social housing in 2015. Voting against were then opposition councillors George Affleck, Elizabeth Ball, Adriane Carr, and Melissa De Genova.

      Carr and De Genova are back in council, having won new terms in the October 2018 election. Fry and Swanson were elected for the first time in the same election.

      It took Fry only a bit more than a year to undo one of Vision Vancouver’s housing legacies.

      That matter involved classifying new market-rental projects that receive incentives from the city—including exemptions from paying development cost levies—as “affordable housing”.

      On November 26, 2019, council approved a wide-ranging motion about rental housing, and an amendment successfully put forward by Fry ordered staff to stop referring to these rental developments as “affordable housing”.

      At the time, city guidelines provided that a monthly rent of $3,559 for a three-bedroom unit on the West Side of the city was “affordable”.

      Using the traditional standard that affordable housing costs a household less than 30 percent of its pretax income, a rent of $3,559 is affordable only for households earning at least $142,360 a year.

      Fry told the Straight that it’s in the “interest of fairness and transparency” to let the public know the real extent to which new social housing is being developed across Vancouver.

      “I am not sure that the way the definition is currently formed really does that,” Fry said.