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Olympic Partners Said to 'Fudge' Housing Claims

Critics, and a Tyee review, cast doubt on figure of 1,109 'new units.'

Monte Paulsen 28 Jun

Monte Paulsen is a contributing editor at The Tyee. He welcomes your feedback via e-mail, and invites you to participate in the online discussion happening below.

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For homeless, it doesn't add up. Photo by Oker Chen.

The organizers of the 2010 Winter Games claim to have spurred the creation of 1,109 new units of social housing in Vancouver. But a Tyee review of the numbers shows little to justify the claim.

Yesterday, on the eve of a city council meeting where the numbers are slated to be presented, officials and activists argued over whether the public is being misled.

In a draft report circulated late last week, the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) and its governmental partners reported that they "have made good progress toward meeting the housing-related ICI Commitments since 2003, when the games were awarded to Vancouver."

But a Tyee review of the 1,109 units cited in the Olympic partners report finds shelter beds being counted as housing units, pre-existing units being claimed as new housing, and a double-counting of the 250 units of athlete housing at False Creek -- which will not necessarily become low-income housing after the Games.

The Tyee has also found that all but one of the remaining projects were approved and funded years before the Olympic bid was awarded in July of 2003.

"I don't see a single project on this list that is both new housing for low-income people in Vancouver, and was initiated in response to the Olympic bid," said David Eby, a housing watchdog at the non-profit Pivot Legal Society.

"VANOC and the partner governments have issued this misleading report in an attempt to fool the public," Eby said. "It's a public relations exercise. And it's one that's going to fail, because if the partners had actually built 1,100 units of new supportive housing, there would be a significant decrease in the homeless population. But there's not."

"I think it's incorrect to say the mayor is misleading people," replied David Hurford, director of communications for Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan. "It's a matter of degrees, of number, of which specific number are accurate."

"It's a profound embarrassment," said Vancouver City Councillor David Cadman. "The Olympic partners have failed to meet their binding commitments. And now we have an attempt to cover up that failure by fudging the numbers."

Shelter beds counted as 'units'

Vancouver City Council is scheduled to consider the VANOC report this afternoon, along with a city staff report that similarly asserts, "Since being awarded the Games in 2003, over 1,000 additional units of supportive and affordable housing for the homeless have been committed in Vancouver."

Both reports are based on the same data. But the Tyee's examination of that data does not support the claims in the report.

For example, the Olympic partners claim to have created "22 units" of new housing at the Kate Booth House.

The Salvation Army's renowned Kate Booth House has over its 22-year-history provided refuge for more than 4,000 women and children fleeing domestic abuse. Last November, The Salvation Army replaced its aging 12-bed house with a new facility that provides 25 beds in 12 rooms. There are no distinct units in the facility.

Likewise, the Olympic partners claim to have created an additional "117 beds/units" within Union Gospel Housing Society's proposed building at 601 E. Hastings. That facility would incorporate regional offices, a soup kitchen, a 43-bunk shelter and relocation of an existing 37-bunk treatment centre. The only new units there would be the creation of 36 small apartments for abstinence-based supportive housing.

Taking credit for 2001 facility

The Olympic partners claim to have "completed" another "85 units" of supportive housing at 595 East Hastings St. But in fact, that facility was built in 2001. The Salvation Army bought the 89-unit building earlier this year, and will convert four units into program space. So while the new Grace Mansion will undoubtedly become a worthwhile housing project, it represents not an addition of 85 units, but a net loss of four.

Similarly, the Olympic partners claim 46 new units under construction at Millennium Development's upscale L'Hermitage condominium project at 768 Richards St. L'Hermitage is being built on the site of a demolished 43-room SRO called the Passlin Hotel. Millennium agreed to develop 46 small self-contained units in exchange for some cash and a density bonus. But under the terms of the deal, the units must be offered first to former residents of the Passlin Hotel, an actual gain of three units.

Old projects reborn

Five of the 11 listed projects do qualify as "new units." But all five were in the works years before the Olympic bid was awarded.

Housing was promised on the Woodward's site by Premier Mike Harcourt in 1996. The site was purchased by the province in 2001 and was sold to the City of Vancouver in March 2003. Yet simply because the funding comes from a new program within B.C. Housing, the Olympic partners now claim the 200 units of non-market housing at the Woodwards redevelopment were not "allocated" until late 2003.

Triage Emergency Services and Care Society's recently opened 30-unit facility at 5616 Fraser St. is in the same situation. The City of Vancouver acquired the land in 2000 and named Triage as the site sponsor in 2001. The project was then killed by Premier Gordon Campbell's BC Liberals in 2002, then revived in the summer of 2003.

Same with Triage's 92-unit building under construction at 65 E. Hastings St. Vancouver purchased that site in 1998, rezoned it in 2000, and permitted a nine-storey social housing project in 2002. When the plan was revived in 2006, the city housing staff wrote, "The building design for this application is basically the same as the design proposed and approved on April 18, 2002."

In the same vein, construction was scheduled to begin at 1321 Richards St. in the summer of 2002 before it was killed. Likewise, the yet-to-be announced project at 966 Main St. appears to be a revival of a Portland Hotel Society project killed several years ago. All three were among the more than 1,189 units of social housing scrapped by the BC Liberals in the first year of Premier Gordon Campbell's government.

Olympic Village counted twice

About 250 units of athletes' housing in the Olympic Village at False Creek may or may not become homeless housing after the Games. (The developer gets to decide how many units to allot, after all capital costs are determined.)

Yet the uncertain future of those post-Games units did not stop the Olympic partners from listing those 250 units twice in their draft report -- once as new social housing available to alleviate homelessness during the Games (which they are not), and again as post-Games housing.

The draft report, which bears the cumbersome title Joint Partner Response to the Inner-City Inclusive Commitments (ICI) Housing Table Report, is a response by the federal government, the province, the city of Vancouver and VANOC to a report by a VANOC subcommittee called the ICI Housing Table. That earlier report called for the construction of 3,200 new units of non-market housing in Vancouver in order to ensure the Olympics would not contribute to rising homelessness.

Report's author: 'You have misunderstood'

Celine Mauboules, a planner at Vancouver's widely respected Housing Centre and the author of the report that goes to city council this afternoon, replied to The Tyee's concerns yesterday afternoon.

Mauboules confirmed that some beds were misrepresented as units and that there will be no net gain of units at some projects, and did not dispute the long histories of these projects. Without disputing any of The Tyee's concerns, she merely restated the criteria for inclusion on the list.

"You have misunderstood the term 'committed' to mean that a project has received development approvals or some other form of commitment [e.g., Harcourt committing to the creation of social housing in Woodward's in 1996]. Our focus is on projects where money has been allocated by the partners," Mauboules wrote in an e-mail.

"The inventory includes all non-market and supportive housing projects since 2003 that have received funding allocations," Mauboules wrote. "Appendix A of the Joint Draft Response includes units/beds with funding allocations that are either under construction, in process (going through the development approval process) or have been completed since 2003 when the Games were awarded."

Mayor Sullivan's 1,300 units

"You are raising legitimate questions," David Hurford, director of communications for Mayor Sam Sullivan, told The Tyee. "On Thursday, we'll have an open process by which these questions can be addressed."

However, Hurford also repeated the mayor's frequent assertion that there have been "more than 1,300 new units" of supportive housing committed in Vancouver in the 19 months since Sullivan took office. When asked to cite a list of these 1,300 units, Hurford referred to B.C. Housing claims that were shown in a previous Tyee report not to add up.

When this reporter challenged those claims, Hurford replied: "You may reasonably disagree with some of the items. That's your prerogative. I'm telling you there are 1,300 new units of non-market housing in this city. Actually, I think the 1,300 number is low."

When asked again for a simple list of the 1,300 new units of supportive housing promised Vancouver, Hurford replied, "I've just told you. There are 1,300 new units. Stop interrupting me."

Sullivan's spokesman did agree that the conflicting counts of new housing are confusing. "I do think you've put your finger on something," he said. "There needs to be a better way to measure our progress."

Fry: 'Hold feet to fire'

Neither provincial Housing Minister Rich Coleman, federal MP David Emerson (who oversees the Olympics portfolio) nor VANOC responded to The Tyee's requests for interviews.

MP Hedy Fry, the Liberal critic for sports and an MP from Vancouver, convened a homelessness roundtable in Vancouver last Tuesday.

"Certainly we need to hold all three levels of government's feet to the fire about these Olympic commitments," Fry said. "We also need to think beyond the Olympics, beyond Vancouver. This is a basic issue of health and rights affecting all Canadians."

Emergency meeting proposed

"I do think that the inclusion of all of these projects is misleading and that we should request further clarification," Vision Vancouver Councillor Raymond Louie said. "The mayor's outrageous claims need to be pushed back on, because they appear to be pure fabrications."

Louie added, "The bottom line is, how may people can we get off the streets? If we are indeed losing SRO rooms faster than we are building new supportive housing, it seems reasonable to assume that homelessness will continue to increase."

Vision Vancouver called for an emergency meeting to be held with senior levels of government, VANOC, and housing stakeholders. Vision's motion will be debated at this afternoon's council meeting.

"There was a clear, written commitment from the Olympic partners to build a social housing legacy, and it is unacceptable for them to break it," said Vision Councillor Heather Deal. "What does that say to the world when our governments are willing to spare no expense to build ice rinks, upgrade roads, but when it comes to housing they say 'sorry, but it costs too much?'"

Sullivan spokesman Hurford scoffed at Vision's call for a meeting.

"Wake up," Hurford said. "The emergency debate was the last election. The voters tossed you out because you didn't do the job."  [Tyee]

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