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Why Modular Housing Stands Empty During Vancouver’s Homelessness Crisis

After pioneering the quick-build housing model, Vancouver is backing away from the strategy.

Jen St. Denis 6 Dec 2023The Tyee

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

When Phoenix Winter walks past two white apartment buildings on Cambie Street, she thinks of the people she knows who found stability there after being homeless.

But although the lights are still on inside, the units are now empty.

“It's really a crime that those usable units are sitting there and they're not being used,” said Winter, a member of the Carnegie Housing Project, during a November press conference to raise concerns about the need for more drop-in and shelter spots as winter approaches.

“They could be moved to another site somewhere else.”

Vancouver’s temporary modular housing program, first rolled out in 2017 under former mayor Gregor Robertson, was considered an innovative way to quickly build high-quality housing for people who were homeless or at risk of homelessness.

The idea was to use city land or sites owned by developers that were sitting empty until permits or rezoning could be completed. Modular housing is a type of prefabricated building that is quicker and less expensive to build than conventional construction. The components can also be deconstructed and moved to a new site, so the buildings were expected to have new lives in multiple locations.

The temporary buildings did not have to go through the lengthy public hearing process, a stage in rezonings that slows things down and provides a venue for neighbours to mount intense opposition to a building.

In 2017, the city was facing an increase in homelessness after a huge jump in real estate prices and rents. Today, the story is the same — Vancouver and most municipalities across the province recorded a sharp increase in homelessness between 2020 and 2023, following a COVID-19 era jump in both home prices and rents.

The number of unhoused people in Vancouver rose by 16 per cent between 2020 and 2023, meaning there are now 2,420 homeless people in the city, according to the most recent homeless count.

But after pioneering the temporary modular housing model to build supportive housing, Vancouver is backing away from the strategy. Rebecca Bligh, a Vancouver city councillor with the majority ABC party, says it makes better financial sense to focus on permanent housing — including modular construction — and to maximize city land sites with much denser, taller buildings.

And while the goal was to move the temporary modular housing to new sites, Bligh said that cost has proved to be prohibitive.

“They're not as temporary, in that sense, as I think one had hoped,” Bligh said.

Vancouver has opened 13 temporary modular housing sites since 2017 with a total of 814 self-contained studio apartments. Since that time, 144 of those units have closed, with residents moved to other buildings. In 2024, another 97 apartments at two other sites are set to close.

By 2026, 306 more temporary modular housing units will be shuttered. By 2028, 638 of the 814 apartments will have closed.

Bligh said the city has a number of permanent housing projects in the development pipeline, including 550 units of supportive housing and 39 housing projects that include 138 supportive-housing units, for a total of 688 units. “They're all at various stages of approval and development,” Bligh said.

Hover your mouse over the temporary modular housing site to see when it is scheduled to close.

But critics say that with the number of homeless people rising, continuing the temporary site program could help to add badly needed housing.

In July, Coun. Christine Boyle’s motion to continue the temporary modular housing program was voted down by the majority ABC city council, and ABC Coun. Brian Montague made it clear that his party wasn’t interested in continuing the strategy.

BC Housing says it’s still interested in temporary modular housing as a way to get housing built quickly, but that temporary housing should act as a bridge while permanent buildings are underway.

The Crown corporation says there is only one project in Vancouver that has been completely deconstructed. The 46-unit tə cecəw (The Beach) project was originally installed at 137 E. 37th Ave. at a cost of $7.4 million, or $161,000 per unit. (The temporary modular housing building was located on the Little Mountain site, which remains mostly empty after years of delay on both market and non-market housing construction.)

The deconstruction cost for tə cecəw was $2.9 million, or $63,000 per unit. The building has never been moved to a new site and is in storage.

According to BC Housing, the construction and deconstruction costs for the tə cecəw temporary modular housing building represent “strong value” compared with new-build construction. But the agency says relocating the buildings every five to 10 years is less cost-effective than relocating temporary modular housing to permanent sites.

Ethel Whitty was the director of homelessness services at the city in 2017, and her staff team came up with the temporary modular housing idea. At the time, the city was reeling from the bitterly cold winter of 2016, which had coincided with a spike in overdose deaths and injuries from the increasing presence of fentanyl in the illicit drug supply.

Although then-mayor Robertson had campaigned on a promise to end homelessness, the number of unhoused people had risen by 15 per cent since 2013.

With a newly elected NDP government in power and looking to make inroads on the province’s housing problem, the timing was right to suggest a new solution, Whitty said.

“They were looking at shelters as the only thing that’s possible,” Whitty recalled. “And so we put together the [costs] — if you're talking about temporary winter shelters, for instance, there was quite a bit of money spent every year trying to find new spaces for them and redoing them to make them livable with bathrooms.

“When you looked at the cost analysis, people could go, ‘Yeah, this is worth it.’”

Whitty said it was a challenge to find the relatively large sites that were needed for the buildings. That’s because BC Housing wanted to support buildings that were at least 40 to 50 units in size, according to Whitty. But, she said, there are smaller sites that could still be used for smaller buildings.

Whitty also pointed out that not all temporary modular housing needs to be the supportive-housing model, where staff are on site to provide services and security. There’s also a huge need for ordinary rental housing for low-to-middle-income people in the city.

When the city is finding new sites for combinations of below-market rental and supportive housing, Bligh said, it makes more economic sense to build denser projects that are at least 100 units.

But when decision-makers are looking at the cost of building and maintaining temporary modular housing, Whitty said, the cost of homelessness and precarious housing needs to be top of mind.

Shelter-rate rooms — housing rented at the rent allowance of $500 for people on welfare or disability benefits — continue to be removed from Vancouver’s stock of single-room occupancy hotels as owners evict tenants to renovate, or raise rents when tenants move out.

Those higher rents are then being charged to students, desperate young renters or people struggling to get by on welfare or disability cheques.

Whitty said the modular housing buildings also provide scarce high-quality housing for homeless people: the individual apartments have their own bathrooms and kitchens. Those basic features are missing from homeless shelters and SRO rooms.

“I do believe if the will was there, that somehow or other, we could find some temporary land to put those buildings on,” Whitty said.  [Tyee]

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