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Opinion
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Housing
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Municipal Politics

Yet Another Housing Survey, for a City That Seems to Love Them

Vancouver should be focused on housing security for its low-income residents. Instead, we got more consultation.

Daniela Elza 19 Mar 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Daniela Elza is a Vancouver writer who lived on three different continents before immigrating to Canada in 1999. Her latest poetry collections the broken boat and slow erosions were published and launched under pandemic conditions.

When Vancouver sent out a new citywide survey last month as part of its most recent consultations on the future of False Creek South, it was hard to stomach.

The survey asked all of Vancouver what the city should do with the neighbourhood — my neighbourhood.

We’ve been down this path before. Two years ago, the city wrapped up a year-long consultation with many of the same stakeholders targeted this February. More than a year ago, the city launched its proposal to renew co-op housing leases. The proposal’s accompanying report acknowledged that “creation of new social and rental housing, as well as replacement of the existing stock of aging affordable housing has been significantly constrained since the 1990s.”

So why another consultation? Has city hall developed amnesia, or been asleep for the last 30 years?

Or is it, as many fear, trying to come up with answers that will justify pushing out co-ops and other affordable housing in the neighbourhood to let developers make big profits from more density?

False Creek South is different from most of Vancouver. The city owns 80 per cent of the land and has leased it for a variety of housing, including co-ops, non-profit or rental units. Those leases begin expiring in 2022, and residents fear loss of affordable housing options. It’s been nine years since the city said it would resolve damaging uncertainty about the leases. It still hasn’t.

I have lived in False Creek Co-op for close to 15 years, and it has done more for my housing security — as a single mom, part-time teacher and writer — than the city ever did.

I’ve had my fair share of housing experiences and know that housing design defines how you live your life, who you will or won’t connect with, and how it affects the memory of an entire city. I’ve lived in a rental unit in Richmond; I’ve owned a home in Maple Ridge, when my kids’ father’s commute into Vancouver meant that he left when they were asleep and came home when they were going to bed; and I’ve lived in a market rental unit in Vancouver, a block or so from where I currently live, a place we could barely afford and where the rent was raised the moment we vacated.

Putting False Creek South on the chopping block means I will either be homeless, not living in Vancouver at all, or living in some rat-infested, poorly kept basement. It is disappointing to keep discovering that your city does not have a vision for people who are vulnerable, and in lower income brackets — and that it has not learned anything in the last 50 years or so.

The city survey was filled with lofty statements that would be hard to disagree with, like, “Create an equitable, diverse and inclusive community,” and “Use City-owned lands in False Creek South to try innovative urban planning and sustainability practices that can be replicated in other neighbourhoods.”

It also included troubling questions like:

6. For the following statements about potential housing options in False Creek South, please indicate your level of agreement.

*The City should use revenue from developing market units (e.g., condos, townhouses) in False Creek South, to help pay for more non-market and affordable housing units in False Creek South.”

And:

9. Overall, with the expiry of most land leases taking place in 15 to 25 years, do you agree or disagree that the City should explore the potential opportunity to increase affordable housing options, and address other public priorities, in False Creek South?

Does this imply that the city is looking at convenient ways of pushing out the current leaseholders and welcoming developers?

I filled out the survey because numbers matter, but it also matters how these numbers will be put to use. When the numbers are eventually crunched, who knows what they will amount to and to what purpose.

Governments function on a four-year cycle, looking ahead to the next election. But False Creek South was created by thinking in terms of generations, creating a stable community that allows people to find homes, raise families and age in place. It was based on a vision that guided actions.

If the city is thinking greater density and more market rentals will accommodate the growing number of lower-income residents, it has learned nothing from the last few decades. Continuing to create more market-rate rentals is not the solution; non-market housing is.

Instead of another survey, the city should have been looking at its poor track record on its commitment to non-profit and non-market rental and co-op housing. (There are over 50 co-ops on city land still waiting on their lease renewals citywide.)

And it should have been asking itself why this exemplary model hasn’t been replicated across the city, even up till now?

But if we’re doing surveys, here’s mine for council and staff to help them assess their priorities. I’m asking them to address the roots of the problems the city is conveniently forgetting and consistently refusing to face.

And looking forward to their answers.

A RECIPROCAL SURVEY FOR THE CITY OF VANCOUVER

Dear Mayor and Councillors,

Please fill out this survey and send back to us before March 28.

Important note: My questions are all based on quotes from J. David Hulchanski’s 2007 article “Canada’s Dual Housing Policy: Assisting Owners, Neglecting Renters.” I urge you to read it here.

1. “In recent decades the growing gap between rich and poor Canadian households has increasingly manifested itself in the housing system. The social need for housing exists mainly among renters — tenants whose income (and lack of wealth) cannot generate effective market demand. Meanwhile, public policy decisions since the mid-1980s have further privileged the ownership sector and helped exacerbate problems in the rental-housing sector, problems that include widespread homelessness.”

Circle one: Agree or Disagree

What is the city’s vision on how to bridge this market discrimination against renters?

Your answer here: __________________________

2. “It is important to understand that homelessness is not a ‘natural’ phenomenon. It is the outcome of ‘normal’ — that is, socially sanctioned — practices and activities that are intended to achieve government goals, maintain well-established institutions, or allow certain enterprises to flourish. In other words, it is a byproduct of Canada’s housing system.”

Circle one: Agree or Disagree

What is the city’s vision on how to remedy this problem?

Your answer here: __________________________

3. “Only five per cent of Canada’s households live in non-profit social housing (defined here as including government-owned public housing, non-profit housing, and non-profit housing co-operatives) — the smallest social housing sector of any western nation except the United States.

Do you think reducing the non-profit housing footprint will help with the Vancouver housing crisis?

Your answer here: __________________________

4. “Canada’s housing system, unlike that of most western nations, relies almost exclusively on the market mechanism for the provision, allocation and maintenance of housing. This is a problem for households too poor to pay market rents for appropriate housing. These households generate a ‘social need’ for housing rather than a ‘market demand’ for it. A housing system based on the market mechanism cannot respond to social need.”

Circle one: Agree or Disagree

What is the city’s vision on how to remedy this problem?

Your answer here: __________________________

5. “Most of the history of the role of Canadian government housing policy and programs is therefore a history of efforts targeted at the ownership sector. There was never a policy of tenure neutrality — assisting owners and renters equally.”

Circle one: Agree or Disagree

Why should we believe that Vancouver is taking a different approach?

Your answer here: __________________________

6. “All three levels of government favour the ownership sector and provide good quality social housing to a minority of those in need of adequate and affordable housing. They tend to ignore the needs of most low-income renter households.”

Will the City of Vancouver address this grave observation?

Your comment here: __________________________

7. “There is no evidence that governments have ever intended to make progress towards a more inclusive and just housing system. This was not a policy objective, though it appears in political rhetoric around election time.”

What are the policies the city is considering to put in place to support this rhetoric?

Your comment here: __________________________

8. “Housing plays such an important role in the economy that, during recessions in particular, both the federal and provincial governments have a consistent record of introducing short-term programs that most often are focused on assisting ownership and tenants in the high end of the rental market (the primary part of the housing system), particularly those who are able to buy a house. This type of federal housing program activity results from economic and housing market conditions and the stronger political clout of actors in the primary part of the housing system.”

How does the city balance its responsibilities as a landowner and the house building and real estate lobbies?

Your comment here: __________________________

9. “In the end, the debate over whether and how to address housing needs and homelessness is a political problem, and there is no scientific or objective way to arrive at an answer to a political problem. The nature of the problem is well understood, and potential programs are not complicated or even very expensive for a country with Canada’s wealth. The question about serious and effective government action on current housing and urban problems is a question about political will.”

Now will you renew False Creek Co-op’s lease, and all the other non-profit housing on False Creek South in the same boat?

Yes ____ Sure ____ Of Course____

Your additional comments here: __________________________

10. Thirteen years later we are still asking the questions. Why?

Your comments and final thoughts here: __________________________

Thank you for your time and for participating in our survey.

Prepared for you by this single-parent occupant of a non-profit, non-market, over half-a-century-old housing co-operative of complete, connected and dignified living. I raised my kids here and was taken care of in the hardest of times by a community I love and support.

Kind regards,

Daniela Elza  [Tyee]

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