The City of Vancouver has unveiled early plans for 58 West Hastings Street, a large vacant lot near the intersection of Abbott Street that activists have fought to see used for social housing.
The city says it wants to a build a 10-to-12-storey complex consisting of 250 subsidized-housing units alongside an “integrated-health centre” plus retail space on the ground floor facing Hastings.
The city-owned site is currently occupied by a group of homeless people living in several dozen tents. The camp marks its three-month anniversary on October 9. The same site was home to a similar occupation in 2010 in the runup to the Vancouver Olympics.
In a telephone interview, Mukhtar Latif, Vancouver’s chief housing officer, said the city is proceeding with the help of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, a registered charity, which has pledged significant financial contributions for the project.
But Latif acknowledged the city has not secured the funding it requires to fully meet a promise Mayor Gregor Robertson made earlier this year.
At an August 4 meeting at the Carnegie Community Centre, Robertson signed his name below the following statement: “We commit to 100% welfare/pension rate community-controlled social housing at 58 West Hastings, working with the community to develop a rezoning application to proceed to council by the end of June 2017.”
Laif told the Straight that the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation’s support will allow the city to rent approximately half of the planned 250 units at B.C.’s welfare-shelter rate, which stands at $375 a month for a one-person household.
He said the city will now seek additional financial support from provincial and federal levels of government that it hopes will allow it to rent 100 percent of the proposed building’s units at the welfare-shelter rate.
“Through our partnerships, we can deliver a certain amount of affordability,” Latif said. “But we do need other levels of government to come in as we move projects forward.”
He noted the provincial government recently announced it was making $500 million available for affordable-housing programs on account of an unexpected surplus collected via property-transfer taxes, and that the federal government is also making money available to local governments’ housing initiatives.
In addition, Latif said the city will lobby the provincial government to help cover costs by increasing welfare-shelter rates.
“The income-assistance rate of $375 doesn’t cover the actual cost of operation,” he explained. “That is a real challenge for existing housing as much as it is for new housing. We are looking to ask the province to see if they can increase the income-assistance rates, as well. Because I think we see operating costs in the ballpark of about $600, and income-assistance rates haven’t increased since 2007. So the last 10 years, rates haven’t increased, whereas the market has been rising exponentially.”
An October 6 city media release states that Vancouver wants B.C.’s welfare allowance for shelter raised to “at least $600 per month…to reflect the rise in cost of living as Vancouver faces a homelessness and affordability crisis.”
The Ministry of Social Development declined to grant an interview.
Lama Mugabo is a community organizer with the Carnegie Community Action Project, one of the groups that led the push for the redevelopment of 58 West Hastings alongside the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users and others. He told the Straight he hoped the most significant impact to come out of this deal with the city might not be just one social-housing development but, rather, a long-overdue increase to the province’s welfare rates.
“We’re not looking at just 58 West Hasting,” Mugabo said. “We want welfare rates to be raised and for the shelter rate to be bumped up from $375 to $600. That is very important to us.”
On other components planned for the site, Latif said Vancouver Coastal Health will help subsidize the project via rent it will pay for the health centre it plans to operate there. That will occupy 55,000 square feet of the lot.
Regarding the portion of the development that will be leased for commercial purposes, Latif stressed that in selecting tenants, the city will remain conscious of the Downtown Eastside’s largely low-income character.
“That will look to pass a fitness test for the neighbourhood, to make sure that is not a zone of exclusion for local people who are low income,” he said. “We’ll make sure it is accessible.”