On Tuesday (July 30), the City of Vancouver hosted an open house about the proposed rezoning and demolition of Heather Place.
The family-oriented social housing complex in Vancouver’s Fairview neighbourhood is set to be replaced with market rental suites priced above the reach of most of the current tenants.
At the helm of the rezoning of the 86-unit housing complex’s is the Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation (MVHC). The manager of the MVHC is Don Littleford, known for his statement that “growth and change cannot be stopped”.
Those words came to mind when we attended the open house. Littleford has styled MVHC as an institution marching ceaselessly towards progress, but we realized that those words of progress are disingenuous. They mask an effort to downplay the effects of displacement, deflecting legitimate criticisms of the Heather Place redevelopment.
While Littleford paints a favourable picture, the reality is that the tenants of Heather Place—mostly women and some single mothers—have been fighting to stop Metro Vancouver from evicting them since the beginning.
Early on they organized with the Independent Residents of Heather Place. Later they organized the Heather Place Tenants Against the Demolition, a collaboration between tenants and the sympathetic Vancouver Renters’ Union. And more recently tenants have created the umbrella group, Save Heather Place, to raise awareness about the impacts of the demolition.
Two years ago, 47 tenants in the 86-unit project signed a petition demanding that MVHC make repairs instead of demolishing the entire project. Any of the resulting concessions made to tenants by MVHC is a direct result of the tenants’ efforts. These improvements to the original plan can be taken as a sign that nothing, even the displacement of Heather Place’s residents, should be taken as inevitable.
As the housing crisis worsens, Heather Place is the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Metro Vancouver has stated that the demolition of Heather Place is a experiment with public-private partnerships, charting a course for future redevelopments.
“We think Heather Place is going to be the first of what I think will be a pipeline over the years to come of redevelopments where we have the existing land in transit-oriented locations,” said Littleford in an interview with the Georgia Straight.
In light of the commitments being made by Metro Vancouver, this statement is ominous. Even after changing the redevelopment plans to meet some of the demands of the tenants and their families, the redevelopment remains fatally flawed.
Only one third of new units will have MVHC subsidies tied to the unit—a baseline that exists in the current Heather Place. The remaining two thirds will rent at unaffordable market rates, with vague subsidies for some of the market tenants. Those subsidies are non-committal in the long-term, based on the "availability" of Metro Vancouver finances. Furthermore, the limited subsides do not take into account tenants’ basic costs of living, including student loans and childcare costs, thereby excluding families. Lastly, a large number of tenants who have already left due to the pressure of redevelopment will not be considered in the plans. As a result, the possibility of a one-for-one replacement of affordable units is out of the question, according to MVHC’s plan.
Based on its director’s statement, it is clear that an underlying ideology contradicts the stated social and environmental commitments of the MVHC.
“It comes back to the question: Does everybody have a right to live where they want for the rent they want to pay, or not,” Littleford said to the Vancouver Courier. “I think the answer is no.”
And that’s the answer—not because growth and change cannot be stopped, but because there is a vested interest in actively bringing about “change” in its current guise. As Littleford said in a letter to Heather Place tenants when making the case against doing normal repairs undertaken at other housing complexes, “the land under the buildings is very valuable.”
Vancouverites know that this isn’t so much the inevitability of natural processes as it is the venality of unnatural profits and inflated bonuses.
Local and provincial politicians blame their own inability to act on the political climate. They say that the municipal and metropolitan governing bodies are unable to interfere because we have a B.C. Liberal government at the legislature and a Conservative government in Parliament. There is some truth to this statement: the municipal government will never be able to raise the billions of dollars that those levels of governments can.
However, we will never be able to defeat the Conservative government if we adopt, both through our words and actions, their ideological position that governments can’t or shouldn’t intervene in failing markets. In fact, it was only through government intervention, led by a strong, grassroots housing movement, that positive ground was gained in the affordability crisis of the 1970s.
When affordable housing projects like Heather Place were originally built back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they were built to be more affordable than the existing housing in the city. While the new Heather Place will mean a few more units overall, they will only results in a greater number of unaffordable units.
Non-profits, especially governmental organizations, need to build housing that will bring down the average rents in the city instead of increasing them. If density is to be increased it should first take place on top of the developers’ own empty land banks scattered throughout the city—not on sites with current residents who see no replacements in sight.
If Vancouver is to truly address its ever-worsening housing crisis, we need to stop demolishing affordable housing in favour of unaffordable market housing. Because, though Littleford is right to say that growth and change cannot be stopped, we still have to determine what kind of growth and change we want in the first place.