Do Vancouver’s social-housing projects attract crime? It’s a question with a complicated answer
A new supportive-housing facility at Princess Avenue and Powell Street is generating a lot of calls to police. In June, Vancouver Police Department officers made 61 visits, an all-time high since the building at 111 Princess Avenue opened six months earlier.
It’s one of 14 sites the city is developing as social housing in partnership with the province following an agreement that was approved in 2007. The projects are characterized by things like below-market rents, units set aside for at-risk youth, and, in the case of the Princess, limited health-care services.
As the 139 rooms began to fill with tenants in December 2014, the number of police calls rose steadily, starting with 32 the first month it was open and increasing to the high of 61 recorded in June.
“When you start going to a building 20 or 30 times a month, that is a lot,” conceded Const. Brian Montague, a spokesperson for the force. “But there is some fear there that is not necessarily justified.”
According to VPD data supplied at the Straight’s request, things are likely to improve at the troubled Princess.
So far, 11 of the city’s 14 sites are up and running. Review VPD statistics for the first year each of those buildings was open and a pattern emerges.
Eight of the 11 recorded a steady increase in the number of calls to police for the first five to seven months of operation. But after that time, the number of calls began to decline. By the end of each building’s first year, VPD visits were substantially fewer than the number around the midyear peak. (There were a small number of deviations for those eight addresses. For buildings that did not fit this pattern, the number of calls was significantly lower to begin with.)
At Pacific Coast Apartments (337 West Pender Street), for example, there were 11 calls during its first month, 17 at the midyear point, and six during month 12. For the Sorella (525 Abbott Street), those numbers were eight, 22, and 10. And for the Marguerite Ford Apartments (215 West 2nd Avenue), they were four, 49, and 34.
What’s more, the pattern’s decline generally continues beyond the one-year period analyzed by the Straight.
“If you look at the more recent data, say, for the last couple of months, again there is a downward trend,” Montague said. “The Marguerite Ford is a good example: calls for service in the last year compared to the first year are about half."
Montague emphasized a number of caveats. For instance, the data only pertain to calls to each specific address and so would not include an incident that involved a tenant but occurred down the street. But he described the pattern as an indication that social-housing projects are not as damaging to a neighbourhood as residents of some communities worry. (In Yaletown, for example, people have started petitions in failed attempts to keep supportive-housing developments out.)
Montague also noted that any large residential tower is going to attract a certain number of calls. “We do attend regular buildings,” he said. “Not every day, but we do go multiple times in one month, depending on the size of the building.”
On a walk around the Downtown Eastside, B.C. Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay stressed that buildings with a high volume of police calls are housing people who need support for issues such as mental illness.
“That’s largely related to the client groups that have been housed in those developments," he said. “The 14 city sites and those kinds of projects really try to tackle the issue when you’re faced with it at the end of the line."
Both Montague and Ramsay noted the nature of the calls in question. The majority were for events like a suicide attempt or a drug overdose, or to check a person’s well-being.
“This isn’t people harming other people,” Ramsay said.
Vision Vancouver councillor Kerry Jang told the Straight he’s observed similar patterns, where calls to the city spike when a site opens and then decline to a point where a building is considered a “success story”.
Jang described the VPD’s data as evidence in favour of “housing first”, a social policy proposing that support for a homeless person is most effective when it begins with a room that doesn’t have behavioural conditions attached, such as zero tolerance for drug use.
“It [the VPD data] is a very broad indicator, but it suggests that as people are getting inside, people are settling down,” he said. “That is what we are seeing. People start to accept help.”
This article is part of a series.
Part one: Do Vancouver’s social-housing projects attract crime? It’s a question with a complicated answer
Part two: Neighbours say police visits to supportive-housing sites no cause for alarm
Part three: Police calls reveal growing pains persist at Vancouver supportive-housing projects
Part four: How do you improve social housing? Choose the right mix of tenants
Jul 8, 2015 at 4:22pm
You only compared the police calls to a building with other social housing buildings instead of comparing the number of police calls for ALL residential buildings of comparable size.
I thought the intent of the article was to establish whether or not the number of police calls 'visa ve' an increase in crime occurs with social housing or not?
The article indicates to me that social housing does attract crime because the police calls increase, but the article does no establish what the 'norm' is for comparable sized buildings.
Jul 8, 2015 at 4:52pm
@James Jesney, you make a good point. That information was cut from print due to space constraints. I've added it to the online version of this article.
From VPD Const. Montague: "We do attend regular buildings with calls like that. Not every day, but we do go multiple times in one month, depending on the size of the building.”
Jul 9, 2015 at 11:01am
I live across the street from the social housing project at 1st and Main and until quite recently had an uninterrupted view of the building. I can tell you that there is either police, fire, or ambulance at the building at minimum once an evening, often much more. My roommate and I kept a running tally for a while.
I can't speak to how many units are in the building - my guess is 150? - but that seems to be a lot emergency services contact. But I don't know what constitutes 'normal' for the at risk. And it does mean that they are getting the services they ostensibly need.
What I don't like is the attitude that some of the residents treat their building with (garbage is routinely thrown from the building), or the hostility that some show to their neighbors. Perhaps these buildings would be well served by something similar to a liaison officer in the building? They seem to warrant the attention.
Jul 9, 2015 at 6:50pm
I live in BC Housing and for some of us, it is stressful indeed. Obviously, not as stressful as not having a home. BC Housing, could and should review all tenants (enlist in building managers, past apt inspections etc) and build a file of people who have the skills to live with other people,and are reasonably clean and move them into nicer homes, in good neighbourhoods, or give them adequate rent subsidies in the private market. BC Housing renovates suites which, often, are trashed within months. It isn't the fault of those tenants. In years gone by, they would have lived in the hospital, a group home, or on skid row. Tenants similar to myself have had to put up with inappropriate aggression, harassment and severe misogyny. This has severely effected my health and I know it has effected others, too. BC Housing will not address these issues unless the police are called and an actual police report is done. The police, understandably have better things to do than fill out a report. This abdication of responsibility ends up costing society more than hiring some extra staff and actually take action in situations that merit intervention. I realize many complaints are not legitimate and people who can not get along with others have a myriad of complaints against each other, but it is wrong and frustrating to have a non response to legitimate concerns. This lack of response is what is, in part, what is behind the problems we are seeing in the broader community.
Jul 10, 2015 at 1:01am
I should have been more clear. I live in a regular BC Housing building, not supported housing - the type of housing talked about in the article. These buildings are now filled mostly with people who really can't live in the community with other people, but fly just under the wire in needing supportive housing.
Jul 10, 2015 at 7:26am
it is not about how many incidents are AT the building. it is about how many MORE incidents that type of housing brings to the AREA.
Jul 14, 2015 at 4:24pm
The last comment under this name was not made by me. I posted this info before, but it isn't up. I won't post again so that it is clear that any further posts under, 'namewitheld' are from someone else. To the point, what brings more crime to an area is not social housing, but rather, punitive public policies towards people who need help and support, not derision and abandonment.
Jul 15, 2015 at 6:06pm
I have to agree with the non-conditional approach to having a ceiling over one's head, re drugs use. For many, after a certain point, it's all just medicine. However, behavioural problems in the general area need to be addressed. Like: shoplifting, harassment and violence, public drunkenness to annoying levels, diversion of cigarettes and booze to minors, etc. I've spoken to management of area businesses, and they don't like the residents of these places. For example, the people walk into a local 7-11, take something, and simply walk out. They don't care, and nothing of consequence happens. Such assisted living places often have a dealer or two on almost every floor, and they're tolerated by staff, on conditions: No violence, no outside people, and keep it all cool. If you're a dealer, there's a lot of money to be made annually, as long as you don't pay to have a tardy client beat up for missing a payment. And so what, as long as locals aren't affected. It's cheaper for us all on the average (they say) than putting them in jail, let us remember.