Everyone has likely heard of social housing. Most probably have an idea what it is.
Their impression is likely close to the City of Vancouver’s previous definition of this term. Until quite recently, social housing meant “residential units, purchased by a government or non-profit housing group using available government funding, for housing senior citizens, handicapped persons or individuals or families of low income”.
Last year, council adopted a new definition. Social housing now means rental housing operated by either a nonprofit or government agency, in which at least 30 percent of dwelling units are occupied by households that don’t have the income to be able to pay market rents.
Even though the remaining 70 percent is rented out at market rates, the entire development is considered social housing. For areas of the Downtown Eastside, it’s social housing if a third of the units are rented at welfare rates.
Because the city recently lost a B.C. Supreme Court case, council will revisit a number of issues—including the definition of social housing—at a public hearing on Tuesday (March 24).
That court decision concerned a judicial review sought by the Community Association of New Yaletown. The judge quashed a development permit, a rezoning decision, and an amendment to the Downtown Official Development Plan (DODP) related to a land swap between the city and a developer.
The city is appealing the ruling with respect to the development permit and the rezoning decision. It is issues regarding the DODP that will be subject to a new public hearing on Tuesday, and an open house on Thursday (March 19) at the Vancouver Central Library (350 West Georgia Street).
The New Yaletown court decision does not directly relate to the matter of the meaning of social housing. That new definition came about when council amended the DODP with the approval of the Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan last year.
Since the public notification used for the Downtown Eastside plan was similar to the flawed process cited by the judge in the New Yaletown case, several changes previously made by council to the DODP will now be reopened.
That includes the removal of the term low cost housing from the DODP. A staff report regarding the Tuesday public hearing notes that low cost housing is an “outdated term no longer used in the affordable housing sector”.
When council voted on the Downtown Eastside plan last year, Green councillor Adriane Carr moved to have the matter referred back to staff for further work on the definition of social housing. Her motion was defeated by the ruling Vision Vancouver caucus.
While councillors cannot discuss issues subject to a future public hearing, Carr noted that based on the current definition, a development can be considered social housing even if 70 percent of its units are “rental at any price”.
“I absolutely will ask questions about every angle on the actual definition of social housing, the way it’s written,” Carr told the Straight in a phone interview on March 13.
Like Carr, Vision councillor Geoff Meggs would only speak in general terms and not specifically about matters connected to Tuesday’s hearing.
According to Meggs, a development “may meet the definition” of social housing “if market units are required to ensure the viability of the housing project”.
“And this is because both Ottawa and Victoria have basically walked away from social-housing investment,” Meggs told the Straight by phone on March 13.
“So in the absence of federal and provincial involvement, the only way social housing can be replaced in many cases is to have it subsidized by market-rental units in the same complex,” Meggs also said.
Downtown Eastside activist Jean Swanson recalled that it used to be clear what social housing meant.
Now, according to Swanson, social housing is a tool to award bonus floor space to developers so they can build expensive rental projects.
“The city wants to appear that it is doing good things for low-income people,” Swanson told the Straight by phone, “and social housing has in the past always meant low-income people, so they’re just changing the definition.”