A pair of motions going before Vancouver City Council tomorrow (June 25) is expected to bring social-housing projects to two of the Downtown Eastside’s most vulnerable groups.
Vision councillor Kerry Jang told the Straight that the proposals will likely pass and go towards “filling a niche” in the neighbourhood’s housing needs. Meanwhile, advocates for low-income residents of the area such as the president of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) argue that a solution to a lack of affordable housing remains a long way off.
“It’s great that these projects are coming up and we hope that they do the right thing and put them through,” said VANDU president Dave Hamm. However, he added that there’s a lot more needed in the way of social housing—likely more than the city can ever provide on its own. “It all sounds good, but we’re still really not happy about how things have gone here,” he said.
The first of the two reports recommends council approve a $220,000 grant for the construction of 22 social-housing units for seniors at 611 Main Street (in Chinatown at the corner of Keefer Street). The money would go through SUCCESS, a social services agency that mainly works with immigrants, and secure 22 units of a 156-unit, 17-storey mixed-use tower planned for the site.
The second motion concerns a $40,000 grant for the Atira Women’s Resource Society that would provide for the construction of an eight–room hospice at 100 East Cordova Street (at the corner of Columbus Street). Those units would be reserved for women who are homeless or at risk of homelessness and who are approaching the end of their lives “due to serious physical or mental illness, addiction and other poverty related illnesses”. The building in question is currently home to 36 permanent residents and a 12-unit emergency shelter, as well as the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre.
In a telephone interview, Jang said that the City of Vancouver is working with a group of neighbourhood stakeholders dubbed the Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan Committee (LAPC) to improve the area in a way that benefits its current residents.
“They are trying to figure out where are the best places for development, how much should be dedicated social housing, how much should be rental, how much should be condominiums,” he said. “It is a way of maintaining social housing so nobody is displaced and nobody is moved out, but at the same time, ensuring that there is a renewal of stock that is paid for by private industry.”
Jang explained that a major challenge is a lack of financial support from higher levels of government, which leaves the city relying on private real estate and development companies to help alleviate affordable housing shortages.
“How do we incentivize and get private developers to, for example, build something that is profitable, but also get some housing back for it that can be used for low-income individuals?” he asked. “How much should we ask of the development industry of each area for social housing? Is it this percentage or that percentage?…It is a really delicate balancing act.”
On the phone from VANDU’s head office at East Hastings Street and Dunley Avenue, Hamm told the Straight that he agrees a solution to a shortage of affordable housing in Vancouver will likely require assistance from the provincial and federal governments. He noted that Canada is the only member of the G8 group of wealthy nations without a national housing strategy. But Hamm laid much of the blame for the city’s struggles going it alone at city hall’s own doorstep.
“We really feel that this civic government has to really step up and start lobbying the provincial and federal governments again, like we did back in the late ‘80s and ‘90s here,” he explained.
Hamm is a LAPC member currently engaged in negotiations with the City of Vancouver. He was also a lead organizer of a large anti-gentrification protest that more than 200 people attended on June 11.
According to Hamm, providing affordable housing to low-income residents in the Downtown Eastside will require allocating 60 percent of new real-estate developments for social housing. He said that would meet the needs of an estimated 850 people currently homeless in the Downtown Eastside, as well as provide for the upgrading of 5,000 single occupancy rooms that exist but are badly in need of repair and expansion.
Hamm noted that the current zoning policies for the Oppenheimer District of the Downtown Eastside state 20 percent of new development permit applications should be classified as “social housing”. But in addition to that number being insufficient to meet the neighborhood’s needs, it’s also not being followed. Hamm claimed there are as many as 24 condominiums going in alongside each unit marked as social housing.
Jang cautioned that debate around issues playing out in the Downtown Eastside is often fueled by polarized “extremes”. He emphasized that the social housing recommendations going before council tomorrow are a positive step, and proof that the City’s work with LAPC is conducted in good faith.
“It’s been a long and arduous process,” Jang said. “But it is my understanding they are working on the housing portions right now.”