An Authentic First Step for Affordable Housing?

Let's hope Vancouver's Heather Place learns from Little Mountain's big mistakes.

By Barry Growe 10 Apr 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Barry Growe is a member of Community Advocates for Little Mountain. He has been working with Heather Place residents since plans for redevelopment were announced.

In 2007, the B.C. government began pushing residents of Little Mountain in Vancouver out of their social housing community. In 2009, they demolished homes for 600 people to sell the public land to a private developer.

Now, one mile north of Little Mountain, Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation is also redeveloping a social housing community -- Heather Place -- but it is taking a different approach. What's different? What, if anything, did it learn from the Little Mountain tragedy?

The residents at Little Mountain, from the beginning, asked the government to follow key principles in redeveloping their community: rebuild in stages to avoid disrupting families; use the huge size of the site to dramatically increase the number of social housing units; and keep public lands in public hands -- don't privatize the site.

Dozens of demonstrations and marches, years of community mobilization, and comprehensive submissions to the city and province made no difference. The B.C. government sold the land to a developer, Holborn Properties. For six years and counting Vancouver has had 220 fewer social housing units, and there will be no increase when the developer rebuilds on the 15-acre site. High-priced condominiums will dominate.

Affordability crisis for all income levels

At Heather Place, Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation (MVHC) was contemplating the same strategy: sell the land to a developer and demolish the entire complex before rebuilding any social housing. Worse, MVHC said that most of the resident families would be welcome to return after redevelopment, but only if they paid market rents. Only 26 of the 86 units, those with the neediest tenants, would have been protected from major rent increases.

A tenant group, the Independent Residents of Heather Place, conducted surveys and meetings so that residents could state their concerns together to MVHC. In their communications they cited the mistakes made at Little Mountain and the Olympic Village.

It appears that they have had at least some impact on government thinking. MVHC has announced its intention to retain ownership of Heather Place. It says it will build rental units only, no condominiums. Construction is to proceed in phases so that current tenants who are disabled, families with children in nearby schools, and tenants who receive frequent treatment at nearby hospitals can remain on site throughout redevelopment. The plan is to demolish and redevelop Heather Place in a compact time period so that housing units are not lost for years.

After redevelopment, the rents of 26 families, those most in need, are to remain the same if their financial circumstances do not change. The remaining families are to receive subsidies if their new rents exceed 30 per cent of their households' incomes, a widely accepted standard.

But not all of the MVHC plan is positive. Recently it announced that the new development would open with only 68 subsidized units out of an estimated 225. MVHC should commit at minimum to replacing all of the current 86 social housing units, though even replacement would be inadequate. At a time when housing affordability is a crisis at every income level, it's unacceptable that a major redevelopment project be undertaken and the social housing units only be replaced.

Public lands in public hands

Keeping public lands in public hands is the key to progress. Because MVHC is retaining ownership of Heather Place, it retains the power to advance social housing at some time in the future, or to develop the land in other socially useful and needed ways.

For instance, since Heather Place stands between Vancouver General Hospital and B.C. Children's and Women's Health Centre, MVHC could benefit the region by providing low-cost housing for some of the hundreds of non-medical staff required for the care of patients at these large facilities. Their annual salaries are generally in the $30,000-$40,000 range, making city rentals unaffordable and forcing workers into the expense of long commutes.

Redevelopment provides an opportunity to increase social housing units, and to seek provincial and federal support to do so. Then MVHC could honestly say: "We took the first step, now it's time for others to step forward rather than passing the buck."

Heather Place is not yet close to an ideal model of how social housing redevelopment should take place, but it could become an authentic first step.

The lesson is clear. Even when battles for particular sites are lost -- like at Little Mountain -- campaigns for social housing can change public opinion and ultimately government policy. If governments' future decisions about social housing go in a humane direction, it will be an achievement of the residents of Heather Place and the numerous organizations, citizens and politicians who for many years have been articulate advocates for social housing.  [Tyee]

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