Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said today he hopes $51.5 million in new federal funds will help provide some new housing units for people who are homeless as early as Christmas, although he admitted the timeline could be overly ambitious.
“I have my fingers crossed for before Christmas. That's what I’m pushing people to do,” Stewart told The Tyee. “But I can't promise that at the moment, because I'm uncertain about when the federal money will come.”
The federal funding announced today is part of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.’s Rapid Housing Initiative, a $1-billion fund that includes money for municipalities and non-profits.
The fund is available to 15 cities across Canada and includes $16.4 million for Surrey and $13.3 million for Victoria. The biggest chunk of the fund, $203.3 million, will go to Toronto.
The $51.5 million for Vancouver adds to the $30 million of city funds council approved earlier this month to buy or lease hotels, motels, apartment buildings and single-room occupancies to quickly provide housing units for people who are homeless.
The federal money can only be spent on capital projects, meaning the city will still be looking to the province to fund the operating costs for new supportive housing, Stewart said. The new projects also have to be completed within six months.
Homelessness has risen across the city as COVID-19 restrictions led to reduced space at shelters, housing providers banned or limited guests, and services for people who are homeless or precariously housed were cut back.
In May, the B.C. government quickly purchased and leased hotels and motels in Vancouver and Victoria, shutting down several tent cities and moving residents into those properties.
But large encampments remain in both cities. In Vancouver, around 200 people live in Strathcona Park, and neighbours have complained about an increase in crime and violence tied to the tent city.
As winter approaches, Strathcona Park tent city residents don’t have access to showers, and struggle to obtain enough water as the park bathroom is locked every night at dusk.
While Vancouver’s council considered trying options like establishing sanctioned tent city sites with more services, the option they finally chose was to earmark $30 million to buy or lease properties.
Stewart said people are not only homeless in tent cities, but in neighbourhoods like the Downtown Eastside, West End and other parts of the downtown core.
City staff are continuing to work to identify new locations for emergency winter shelters, Stewart said. He said he didn’t know whether there are enough shelter spaces for the 750 people city staff estimate are homeless on the street right now
Stewart said he wasn’t sure how many total housing units the combined $81.5 million would buy. The province bought the 110-room Howard Johnson hotel on Granville Street for $55 million, for a cost per unit of around $500,000.
Andrew Newman, the city’s associate director of real estate services, previously told council the province paid a relatively high price for the Howard Johnson because it moved so quickly to secure the property during the COVID-19 crisis.
“We know from the Howard Johnson's other hotels that it’s anywhere from $200,000 to $400,000 a room if you're buying hotels,” Stewart said, adding one reason the city won’t publicly identify any potential sites is to prevent prices from rising.