City of Vancouver revisits definition of social housing

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      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 A staff report regarding the Tuesday public hearing notes that low cost housing is an “outdated term no longer used in the affordable housing sector”.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.”




      Mar 18, 2015 at 10:18am

      Vision have somehow managed to convince useful idiots on the left to support an agenda that enriches the 1% at the expense of taxpayers and society. They have overseen a massive transfer of city land to private hands, given away grants, density bonuses and tax breaks to their friend in the development & business community but use the phrase "social justice" enough and you can get all kinds of useful idiots voting for you. Eventually Vision will define a project as "social housing" if a homelss person can sleep in a doorway.

      Define the HOUSING not the Building

      Mar 18, 2015 at 11:35am

      So under this newly-contrived definition the 70% of units in the building that are occupied at market rents are still deemed to be "Social Housing." This type of obfuscation could only arise from the Vision Vancouver-controlled City of Vancouver Planning Department. The HOUSING in question should be defined, not the building. If 30% of the units are operated at reduced rents for people in need, then the building is a mixed social/market building. Changing the definition to identify 100% of the units in the building as "social housing" is a convenient way to bump up the numbers of "social housing units created" but does little to actually address housing need. Once again, the optics seem to be more important to Vision Vancouver than the realities.


      Mar 18, 2015 at 11:41am

      Social housing should be defined as anything Vision can use as an excuse to let their developer buddies break all the rules and continue making buckets of money. And really, how are developers going to make bukets of money by providing "low cost" anything?

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      Mar 18, 2015 at 1:24pm

      Who is funding Randy Helton? Every time there is an announcement by the City, his ramblings appear. I'm not saying he is wrong on some of his observations, but other than attack Vision he never offers any alternatives or solutions. For example, how would he build affordable housing units in the West End, say, with the cost of land so high, without some form of direct subsidy?
      Fine to attack developers as Nelson JB 100 does, but who's house, condo or apartment building was not built by a developer?
      How would Nelson and Randy address the influx of nearly 40,000 people a year into the Lower Mainland? How can we bring down the cost of land? How are we going to protect the elderly without some form of senior government assistance?
      C'mon guys, solutions too!

      Deborah OConnor

      Mar 18, 2015 at 4:53pm

      What it all boils down to is that the poor and disadvantaged are being driven out of downtowns all over Canada, in cities and towns everywhere. There seems to be magical thinking at work here, as if the victims, once cleared out, simply disappear. It's time for our senior levels of government to step up to the plate and start building real, income based subsidised housing again. Lives are at stake.


      Mar 18, 2015 at 6:46pm

      "How would Nelson and Randy address the influx of nearly 40,000 people a year into the Lower Mainland?"

      The first thing is to eliminate policies that encourage this out of control growth that we are told we must pay additional taxes to sustain...yet we don't want it. The city has to change zoning policies and destroy neighbourhoods to meet their developer established growth targets: if they stop their densification we don't need as much money for transit in the city.


      Mar 18, 2015 at 9:15pm

      Does anyone need any further proof of the intentions of vision, or does a simple "I'm sorry" from the mayor change everything?

      If they will call an entire building social housing because a handful of units*might* have low income people living in it, then the term has become meaningless. So when they tell you they've built xxxx amounts of social housing, factor in the displacement of whoever lived there before in an older building and you've probably got a negative. I have found in dealing with the city at workshops I've needed to be very specific and not allow them to throw terms like social housing, low income housing or affordable around without questioning what they mean by that. If you don't get that language broken down, very specifically, you may not realise that when they say affordable they don't mean affordable for families, or low income people. They meant more affordable than a multi million dollar home! Obviously! So don't be afraid to force them to define their words - they tend to lose meaning otherwise.


      Mar 23, 2015 at 11:23am

      The need for suitable affordable housing for seniors is staggering, and in light of the fact that BC Housing is selling off all of its assets to non-profit societies over the next three years a more pressing consideration comes to mind and that is, who's minding the conduct of these non-profit societies as they carry on the business of managing Social Housing. If every residential developer gave back a small percentage of its development in return for a density bonus this would somewhat help to alleviate the urgency for affordable housing and give priority to those seniors who are housed in shelters . The benefits for seniors as they integrate with their community is a sense of belonging. In the past, individual buildings were set aside for this purpose and it simply didn't work because it segregated this population of society and did not embrace what is meant to be part of a community. I believe it is time for the provincial government to enact legislation that expressly provides for the security of seniors who reside in these housing units and ensure that hose who manage the shelters and affordable housing units are held to a high standard of conduct.

      Reality Check

      Mar 24, 2015 at 5:53pm

      Seniors and youth should be housed and cared for by their families. This insistence on "independent living" is impractical, selfish and downright impossible in most major cities. Successful happy people need to be surrounded by supportive family members, and if the family is selfish and unsupportive of their children and elders, that's just the cancer spreading through the American (and Canadian) dream. What goes up must come down.

      J. Almond

      Mar 25, 2015 at 4:44pm

      As many people as possible should try to make it a priority to to address this outrageous re-definition of social housing to mean any rental building owned by a nonprofit that contains a minimum of 30% of units that rent at at a maximum of the "Home Income Limit ", which means up to $912.50/ month for a bachelor suite and up to $1000/month for a one bedroom apartment. This allows Vision to claim that they created 5000 units of social housing by creating 1500 micro-suite bachelor apartments that rent for $912.50/ month and no units that would be accessible to people who need shelter at welfare rates. These changes to the Downtown Official Development Plan, will allow a developer to build 1/3 “ as newly defined ‘Social Housing bachelor suites’ for $912.50 a month, then sell the other 2/3 regular units at Vancouver market rate $. If 1/3 is “social housing" the city will then count the other 2/3 which had been sold at market rate as social housing too (even though they aren’t! ). Essentially this allows developers to evade existing zoning restrictions, as the city will consider the entire building as social housing! Many people only receive $375.00 a month via social assistance.

      This is nothing more than engaging in semantic sleight-of-hand; using language to effectively further disempower those of lower income.

      I encourage everyone to address this and demand that city council not pass this amendment to the DODP that will destroy the fabric of our community.

      To speak at the public hearing you have to get on the speakers list.  You can do this by emailing before the meeting.