Province worried about social-housing tower City of Vancouver has planned for 58 West Hastings

B.C. Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay questions wisdom of putting 250 welfare-rate units near the corner of East Hastings and Abbott Street

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      If the City of Vancouver is going to make good on a social-housing project planned for the Downtown Eastside, it needs the help of the province. But B.C. Housing, the prospective partner for the development of 58 West Hastings Street, is less than thrilled with what the city has proposed.

      At a Gastown coffee shop, B.C. Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay told the Straight he has concerns about the city’s stated goal to construct a low-rise tower of 250 units to be rented at the welfare shelter rate of $375 a month.

      “That’s a lot of high-needs units in one location,” he explained.

      “It’s one that we would have some significant concerns with,” Ramsay continued. “We have a great partnership with them. But we would ask the questions: ‘Have you really thought that mix through? And is that really something that makes sense?’ ”

      He recalled problems at the Marguerite Ford Apartments, a social-housing complex at 215 West 2nd Avenue that opened in May 2013. During its first 16 months of operation, Vancouver police responded to more than 700 calls there. B.C. Housing subsequently criticized the city for how the building was managed, saying there should have been a more suitable mix of tenants with more balanced needs for support.

      As an alternative, Ramsay pointed to a number of social-housing projects under construction along the Hastings corridor of the Downtown Eastside. He noted those projects have a prescribed mix of 40 percent market-rate units and 60 percent subsidized housing. The details of those guidelines only ask for an operator to rent 20 percent of a building’s units at the province’s welfare shelter rate.

      Mukhtar Latif is chief housing officer for the City of Vancouver. In a telephone interview, he maintained that the Marguerite Ford is an unfair comparison.

      “I don’t think we’re looking at this [58 West Hastings] as a supportive-housing project,” Latif said. “The Marguerite Ford was designed to help those hard to house, who had a lot of mental-health issues and vulnerabilities….What we are building here at 58 [West] Hastings is  more a housing project which is targeted to people who are on low incomes.”

      On August 2, Mayor Gregor Robertson signed a pledge that said the city would develop a vacant lot at 58 West Hastings into a low-rise tower consisting entirely of housing units rented at the B.C. welfare-shelter rate.

      Latif noted Vancouver Coastal Health has signed on to operate a facility on the buildings ground floor.

      “If people do need supports, it will be housing with supports rather than supportive housing,” he said. "So it’s different. This is more a general-needs type of project.”

      A rezoning application for 58 West Hastings is tentatively scheduled to go to city council before the end of June 2017.