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Province Pledges More Social Housing

After pulling plug in 2001, BC Liberals promise new projects.

By Tom Barrett 14 Dec 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Tom Barrett is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Housing Minister Coleman: cites local delays

The provincial government is ready to fund as many as a dozen new social housing projects in Vancouver, Housing Minister Rich Coleman said Wednesday.

Coleman, who met Monday with Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan, said the two discussed a dozen properties that are owned or optioned by the city for social housing.

"Some of them are good for supportive housing for the homeless strategy and some are good just for affordable rentals," Coleman told The Tyee.

Supportive housing provides mental and physical health services to residents, either on site or through agencies in the community.

The province thinks the properties can be developed at a rate of "three per quarter or per six months," Coleman said.

The provincial government will put up the money to assist with preliminary design work on the properties, as well as sharing in the capital costs, Coleman said.

He said he did not know exactly how much the province will pay for the projects.

Behind the curve

The properties are among a total of 19 sites the city has bought or optioned for social housing. Most are in the downtown core outside of the Downtown Eastside.

Coleman's promises are part of a series of homeless initiatives that have come from Victoria in recent months. After pulling the plug on social housing in 2001, the Liberal government has been pledging new money for the homeless in recent months. However, the plans so far have concentrated on rent subsidies, rather than new construction.

The hiatus in social housing construction has left the city playing catch-up when it comes to dealing with homelessness.

The city's official homeless strategy says Vancouver needs 800 new units of subsidized housing every year for the next ten years.

The city figures half of those units could come from subsidizing rentals in private-sector buildings. That means governments have to build 400 social housing units a year for the next decade to keep up with homelessness.

However, there are fewer than 500 units scheduled to be built in the next three years -- not even half of what's needed.

That figure includes the 200 units of non-market housing that will be included in the Woodward's development, which will open in December 2009.

City urged to fast track

Coleman refused to say if he considers the 800 units-per-year figure, contained in the city's Homeless Action Plan, realistic.

"The City of Vancouver has their action plan, then I guess there's a little bit about the reality," he said.

Coleman said the city could speed up social housing construction by cutting red tape and accelerating its development approval process.

"In the city of Vancouver, a normal development is anywhere from two to three years," he said.

Sullivan's Non-Partisan Association has made similar complaints. In November, the NPA-dominated council passed a motion calling for city staff to fast-track the development process for social housing.

City staff, however, say privately that the holdup lies with a lack of funding from senior governments rather than red tape, a view echoed by opposition councillors.

Coleman said that delays exist around the province and are caused in part by NIMBYism.

"We could have tens of millions of dollars sitting on the table for capital and for operations in projects but be unable to deliver it because we can't get the zoning or the approval locally," he said.

Coleman blames local resistance

"We have to recognize the pressure that local government guys, councillors and mayors go through whenever they try and do a form of housing that is outside the box. So if they want to do a shelter or they want to do a supportive housing project -- whether it be for mental health or addictions or whatever the case might be -- nine times out of 10 they run up against a big furor at a public hearing."

Added Coleman: "People never say, 'I don't want these people living in my backyard.' They'll come up with all the other excuses. They'll say it's traffic or crime or whatever the case may be."

Meanwhile, the federal government is working on a housing strategy of its own. A plan should be announced in the next few months, a spokesperson for federal Housing Minister Diane Finley said Wednesday.

"Our government has signalled that we are looking at all options right now to find the most effective, efficient and accountable means of addressing the issue," the spokesperson said.

The Conservative government has budgeted a total of $170 million nationally this year to fight homelessness.

The previous Liberal government cut federal social housing assistance in 1993.

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