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How Homeless Housing Got Stalled

And why this project will take a decade to get built.

Tom Barrett 21 Nov

Tom Barrett is a contributing editor to the Tyee. Read his previous articles here.

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Social housing slated for 65 East Hastings, Vancouver. Image courtesy GBL Architects Group Inc.

Back in 1998, Vancouver was going through a housing crisis. Homelessness was rising. Low-cost rooms in single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels were disappearing.

The city of Vancouver had a plan. It was buying up available lots and, in partnership with the provincial government, building social housing to replace the vanishing SROs.

In September of 1998, the city took $1.2 million from its property endowment fund to buy the old Lux Theatre on East Hastings between Carrall and Columbia. Staff began plans to replace the burned-out theatre with housing for the homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless.

Eight years later, Vancouver is going through another housing crisis.

Homelessness is rising. SROs are disappearing.

And construction is finally about to begin on the old Lux Theatre site.

By the time the project is expected to be completed, in the summer of 2008, it will have been almost a decade since the city purchased the site.

1,189 units stalled

It doesn't usually take this long to build social housing. If not for some badly timed provincial government belt-tightening, there would have been social housing on this particular site years ago.

What's ironic is that if the project had been built according to its original schedule, taxpayers might even have saved some money.

By the spring of 2000, the site, at 65 East Hastings, had been rezoned for non-market housing. A 98-unit project, to be managed by the city, was being designed.

By the fall of 2001, the Vancouver/Richmond Health Board had agreed to pay for support workers who would be on the site to assist as many as two dozen tenants with their recovery from various addictions.

A provincial government program called Homes B.C. was to pay for the building. The program, started in 1994, was undeniably successful.

By October 2001, Homes B.C. had put up the cash for 61 projects -- a total of 3,841 units -- in Vancouver.

Of that total, about half had been built and were occupied. Another quarter was under construction.

The rest -- sixteen projects including the Lux Theatre site -- were being prepared for construction. That represented a total of 1,189 units for seniors, the homeless and those with low incomes.

Then, on Oct. 14, 2001, George Abbott, the new Liberal minister responsible for housing, announced that all new social housing projects – even those that had been approved – were "under review."

Speaking on the eve of what his government had proclaimed as "Affordable Housing Week," Abbott said the province couldn't afford the previous New Democratic Party government's investment in social housing.

Turn to private sector

"We have a rapidly rising expenditure line in that program," Abbott said of Homes B.C. "That is unsustainable in any fiscal environment, let alone in these challenging times."

A few days later, Abbott said the private sector and non-profit groups had to step up to solve the affordable housing crisis.

"We need to move away from the notion that only government can supply affordable housing," Abbott told a luncheon sponsored by the provinces' major developers.

"There is no quick fix, but we need to form stronger partnerships in order to find solutions," Abbott said. "We need to find ways to ensure the private sector can build affordable housing as an investment."

The B.C. Liberals' review iced the plans for the Lux Theatre site for three years. Then, with homelessness in the headlines again and a provincial election on the immediate horizon, Premier Gordon Campbell founded the Premier's Task Force on Homelessness.

At a task force meeting in December 2004, Campbell announced that the provincial and federal governments would put up a total of $84 million for affordable housing and related projects.

"This $84-million partnership will help achieve a stable base for access to health and addiction services across British Columbia," Campbell said.

The money was earmarked for four projects around the province -- including the Lux Theatre site.

'Housing first' concept

The city dusted off the plans and went looking for a non-profit agency to run the new building. In November 2005, council named Triage Emergency Services & Care Society as the project's sponsor.

Triage and the architect tweaked the plans a bit, consulted extensively with neighbouring businesses and residents, and were recently awarded a development permit.

The site at 65 East Hastings Street will be home to a nine-storey, 92-unit building. The people living in 24 of those units will be the kind of people who usually don't fit into subsidized housing. They'll be frequent housing shelter users, people who may have what the social services people call behavioural issues.

Placing these people in permanent social housing is part of a concept known as "housing first."

Many homeless people have mental disabilities or addictions and can't cope with living in SROs. Often, they end up getting evicted and wind up on the street.

The housing-first approach is based on research that indicates that the best way to help such people is to first get them off the street into permanent housing, then deal with the problems that put them on the street.

"Housing first is direct access," Triage associate director Leslie Remund told The Tyee. "Bypassing the shelters and some of the other systems and getting people straight into housing. And then supporting them in that housing."

Long waiting list

Support in the new building on East Hastings will be round-the-clock. There will be a program for people who are taking psychiatric medications. Staff will be around to help in the event of a medical or mental health crisis.

Staff will also help teach residents how to cook, clean their apartments and manage their money.

The remaining 68 units in the building will be standard subsidized apartments. Tenants will be expected to clean and maintain their spaces on their own.

Choosing who gets to live in the building won't be easy, Remund said. After all, even the most conservative estimates put the number of homeless in Vancouver at more than 1,000. Remund believes the real number is well over double that.

"The need is so high, how do you pick 68 people?" she asked.

Remund hopes the residents will be a fair representation of the Downtown Eastside's homeless population, including Aboriginals, women and the transgendered.

"We really want to target the people who have been living in hotels and SROs," she said. "They're definitely in substandard accommodations right now...That's going to require me getting out there and talking to people, getting the word out."

Building may save money

When the building opens in the summer of 2008, it will have cost about $20 million.

Research, however, suggests that it is actually cheaper for governments to build social housing than to not build it.

A study, done for the provincial government eight months before Abbott froze social housing, concluded that such programs appear to reduce costs.

The study, by a team headed by Vancouver consultant Margaret Eberle, looked at the costs to taxpayers of homelessness and the costs of providing housing.

The results "suggest that decent, adequate, supportive housing not only ends homelessness, but may reduce the use of costly government services and ultimately save money," the researchers wrote.

The researchers followed a group of homeless persons through the system and tallied up their costs to different levels of government.

Providing social services -- including hospital beds, ambulance trips, jail time and emergency shelters -- cost an average of between $30,000 and $40,000 per homeless person for one year.

People who were placed in supportive housing, on the other hand, used the above services much less. The researchers tallied up the cost of such services plus the cost of housing, including the cost of servicing the debt that governments ran up to build or buy the housing.

The study found that each person in housing cost an average of $22,000 to $28,000 a year.

"Thus, even when housing costs are included, the total government costs for the housed, formerly homeless, individuals in this study amounted to less than the government costs for the homeless individuals," the study concluded.

"Providing adequate, supportive housing to the homeless people in this sample saved the provincial government money."

Playing catch-up

As for Abbott's 2001 challenge to the private sector and non-profits to help solve the problem of homelessness, politicians are still issuing the same challenge five years later.

Last month, Vancouver city council approved a $300,000 contract to hire the services of Premier Campbell's special adviser Ken Dobell and Don Fairbairn, a former executive with the RAV project.

The two have been hired to work on a "new partnership model that will allow individuals, governments, foundations and the private sector to invest in supportive housing for those most in need."

In part, the contract recognizes that, even with the $84 million from Victoria and Ottawa that allowed projects such as the Lux Theatre site to go ahead, Vancouver has a lot of catching up to do.

The city's Homeless Action Plan, adopted last year by council, states that to end homelessness, Vancouver needs a lot more supportive housing like what's going to go up on the Lux Theatre site.

How much?

About 3,200 units.

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