Affordable housing can be built at an affordable price

Michael Geller

Should really poor people be living next to really rich people in expensive housing on Vancouver’s waterfront?

This is a question on many peoples’ minds following the recent revelations about the cost of the southeast False Creek social housing. But it was also a question being asked in 1975 when plans were being completed for the first phase redevelopment of the south shore of False Creek. And it was asked again in the early 1990s when the Westin Bayshore Hotel parking lot was rezoned for a new community.

To better understand the current situation, it is helpful to look back at these earlier projects. On the south shore False Creek, planners socially engineered a broad mix that replicated the income profile of the region with one-third low-, one-third mid-, and one-third high-income residents. However, it did not cost the city a lot of money since ample subsidy dollars were available from the federal and provincial governments.

And, in the words of former CMHC assistant regional director Keith Tapping, the poor were not really that poor. Rather, many were the “deliberate poor” — teaching assistants, writers and artists, excited about the opportunity of living in an innovative waterfront community environment.

Today, many of the original residents are still living in their government subsidized housing, some maintaining “primary residences” on the Gulf Islands. But the idea of income mixing was firmly established, and it has become a trademark of Vancouver’s major projects in subsequent years.

By the 1990s the federal government had withdrawn its subsidies and the province and city targeted limited subsidy dollars to those in greatest need. At Bayshore, the Non-Partisan Association council of the day insisted that 20 per cent of the units be occupied by low-income families and seniors. As the development manager, I questioned the appropriateness of housing low-income families in this prime area, with little social infrastructure and few affordable shops.

Eventually, led by Libby Davies, council agreed, and the developer was required to make a cash payment-in-lieu of building the family housing. A few years later, after raising money to pay for facilities the city would not fund, the highly successful Performing Arts Lodge was approved as the low-income seniors’ component.

In the rest of Coal Harbour and the Concord lands, the 20-per-cent requirement for low income housing has continued. However, due to a shortage of funds, many of the Concord social housing sites have remained vacant.

From this perspective, I cannot see how the city can justify spending more than $450,000 per unit to house the poor in southeast False Creek. Instead, I would recommend that the units be sold as “affordable ownership” housing to cover the cost over-runs. This will still result in income-mixing and more cost-effective units can be built on future sites in the area.

I would also like to see the city and Victoria fund truly affordable housing to house the truly homeless. For the price of one southeast False Creek unit, governments could build 10 homes using pre-fabricated modular homes. They could be set up on public and privately owned vacant sites around the city while permanent social housing is built.

I know there is often nothing more permanent than a temporary solution. However, once the sites are required for other purposes, the modular homes and residents could be relocated to other sites. Eventually, the units could be set up as permanent housing elsewhere around the region or province.

I appreciate that many will fear these developments might look like suburban trailer parks. However, through creative design, including stacking and colourful murals, they could be very attractive. Indeed, some have now expressed the fear that the housing might be too attractive, and deter governments from building permanent projects.

While this concern cannot be ignored, I believe factory-built, relocatable housing could be a cost-effective and quick solution to getting people into homes. I have estimated the cost between $38,000 and $45,000 a unit, depending on whether there are private bathrooms. Support services would be provided by qualified non-profit organizations.

If we start now, we could have a couple of demonstration projects underway and the first residents in place by Labour Day. Now, that would be something to celebrate.

Pre-fabricated modular homes could be temporary now, permanent later
Michael Geller
Special to the Vancouver Sun

Michael Geller has a background in architecture, planning and development. He serves on the adjunct faculty of Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Sustainable Community Development.

SFU Centre for Sustainable Community Development