The redevelopment of Heather Place and why Vancouver's housing crisis is worsening

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      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.

      Sean Antrim is an activist and writer in Vancouver, and works as the executive director of the Coalition of Progressive Electors. Daniel Tseghay is a writer and member of the Coalition of Progressive Electors' City Council Committee. Nathan Crompton is a renter and writer based in Vancouver. He is a founding editor of The Mainlander.

      Comments

      17 Comments

      EG

      Aug 1, 2013 at 8:14pm

      This article does not make much sense. 86 old units will be replaced with 230 new ones, one-third of which will be social housing. How is this making the housing market worse? 140 more families will be housed in new units in a great location. If you want to complain, this isn't the project to focus on.

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      MikeVan

      Aug 2, 2013 at 1:05am

      You are parroting propaganda instead of using critical thinking. What connects the loss of the old units with the availability of new units somewhere else, other than the desire to spin the loss of 86 units as progress.

      Until the massive shortage of affordable housing units ends, there is no excuse for closing ANY units at all, period. Those 230 units were planned to help ease the shortage, not to serve as an excuse to close more units.

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      Gideon

      Aug 2, 2013 at 9:00am

      This project is just the same as the Olympic Village and Little Mountain. The tenants are made promises that never come through, so that the project can get support when really it's just another renoviction.

      Now we don't even know were most of the tenants who lived at Little Mountain are. How are we going to find them and house them.

      It's good to hear that some of these tenants are going to keep their homes, but what about the rest?

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      Affordable

      Aug 2, 2013 at 9:08am

      The reason this type of displacement is taking shape is that Property prices are being driven thru the roof artificially by mostly rich offshore Communist from mainland China speculating and/or parking their wealth here.

      With few checks and balances.

      Canadians can not easily...

      (a) obtain Permanent Residency easily in Communist China,

      (b) easily obtain citizenship via Business or other means

      (c) buy property in mainland China, especially as offshore residents,

      (d) flow capital in and out on a whim due to strict Communist Capital Controls.

      Why are we allowing offshore speculators and communists dictate high housing prices here?

      The Mayor and Council are mostly wealthy they don't want 'poor' Canadians in metro Vancouver so they marginalize and 're-locate' subsidized housing to less desirable neighborhoods far from where they themselves live.

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      do the math

      Aug 2, 2013 at 9:10am

      @ Mike, you are parroting the whiners instead of thinking. The new units are not "somewhere else". The 86 units will be torn down and 230 new units will go up in their place. The very good news is that there will be 144 more units and they will all be rental.

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      UG

      Aug 2, 2013 at 9:11am

      This piece, like so many like it, illustrates the complete lack of understanding of the development process and the costs of building affordable housing. The bottom line is that in the absence of senior government funding, creating new affordable housing is very very difficult. Municipalities simply do not have the resources to fund affordable housing (and neither does Metro Vancouver as it too is funded by municipal tax revenue). MVHC provides affordable housing across the region without significant senior government funding. Of all of Metro Vancouver's corporate entities, MVHC is the only one that is NOT funded by the region's taxpayers. MVHC's operations are almost entirely funded by the rents from it's various properties (essentially operating as a non-profit). It is market rents that make the rent-geared-to-income subsidies possible for the affordable units in all of MVHC's properties including Heather Place (present and future). If you look at the numbers behind all of this you will then begin to understand that to achieve affordable housing you NEED senior government funding. Period. While the redevelopment of Heather Place is not perfect, it is an example of a municipal/regional body doing what it can to leverage its assets to maintain affordable rental housing in the region using a sustainable financial model.

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      Ohhhhhhhhhh Canada what happened..

      Aug 2, 2013 at 1:00pm

      This must be repeated again
      Canadians can not easily...

      (a) obtain Permanent Residency easily in Communist China,

      (b) easily obtain citizenship via Business or other means

      (c) buy property in mainland China, especially as offshore residents,

      (d) flow capital in and out on a whim due to strict Communist Capital Controls.

      WHY don't we do the same?
      Canada is still the "young" country that doesn't quite understand how important this is... and will one day (very soon) regret not taking better care of it.

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      Alan Layton

      Aug 2, 2013 at 3:35pm

      Affordable - I thought the idea that rich Chinese were the main reason for our extremely high housing prices was debunked months ago. Apparently it's not the case. The problem is the overall desirability of the city and the fact that many people, from Canada and elsewhere, want to move here - and they are not all rich. That's why even though there are condo towers going up everywhere, they sell out quickly and supply still can't keep up with demand.

      UG - thanks for the information. It's very useful.

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      Martin Dunphy

      Aug 3, 2013 at 1:36pm

      RUK:

      Your post was accidentally deleted. Please repost (without the multiple redirecting links).
      Thanks, and our apologies.

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      sicntired

      Aug 3, 2013 at 5:02pm

      Every time these public/private partnerships lose support due to failed projects and bad policies.Someone brings them crawling back and touting them as a solution for something.The Vision Vancouver council has a policy.It goes something like this:"Nowhere in the city of Vancouver cannot be improved with the introduction of high occupancy,high end condos".They will promise all manner of social housing includes which will be cut back several times until they are at the absolute minimum.This is not the first social housing that the Vancouver council has given over to market housing.They always promise to include the current tenants,knowing that very few will ever actually see a unit.It's a pattern and it's fixed.They think either no one will notice or at least no one will care.One day,someone will make a list of such projects and add the numbers so that everyone will know just how these projects displace the vast majority of former tenants.Then,everything will go right on as if nothing happened.This is the bet that Vancouver council has made.Are they right?

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