Vancouver’s housing challenge

The story below was the banner headline piece on page one of today’s Vancouver Sun, and is a perfect choice for the “we told you so” file. Three years ago, after being awarded the 2010 Olympics, our BC Solutions Budget (and in subsequent editions) made many of the same points as the Olympics Housing Roundtable’s soon-to-be-released report.

This report, and the fact that it is on the front page of the Sun, should put the BC government to shame for its bogus “housing budget” of two weeks ago. What’s sad is that only the fact that we have invited the world for a big party in 2010, and the prospect of global embarassment, seem to be the only things motivating the elites on the housing issue. One important missing piece from the story is a sense of how large current budget surpluses are – in the $3 billion range for the current and coming fiscal years. The money is there, but to date the political will has been missing in action (and time is running out).

Here is the story, with some comparisons from those past Solutions Budgets. As I have said before, policy-makers please steal more of our material!

$1B Olympic housing challenge: 3,000 low-income units, 250 for Games workers, 50% welfare rate hike among panel suggestions

Vancouver will need as much as $1 billion worth of housing and support in time for the 2010 Olympics in order to meet the promises the province and city made to prevent homelessness and protect inner-city residents.

According to the 24 recommendations made by the Vancouver Olympics’ housing round table, obtained by The Vancouver Sun and due to be released next week, the city requires in its three inner city neighbourhoods of the Downtown Eastside, downtown south and Mount Pleasant:

– 3,000 housing units, 80 per cent of them to be new construction, for low-income residents.

– 250 housing units for temporary Games workers, to be converted to social housing afterwards.

– 300 shelter beds for young people likely to flock to the city during Games.

– An increase in the subsidy for the 250 social-housing units at the Olympic Village so more low-income people can live in them.

It also recommends a provincewide, 50-per-cent increase in welfare rates, which the province’s recent budget only went partway towards meeting. And, the report says, work has to start immediately or finding a solution will become difficult, if not impossible.

Solutions Budget 2007: “Welfare rates must be raised substantially. Increasing the budget for income assistance benefits by 50% would cost an additional $500 million, based on current caseloads.”

“Unless this issue is tackled quickly through a focused program as set out in the report, the problem will become larger, more visible and increasingly difficult to solve. The national media and, to some extent, the international media already know of the social and homelessness issues that prevail in Vancouver’s inner city. When Vancouver welcomes the Games in 2010, what will the world’s media see?”

SB 2004: “In February 2010, gorgeous mountain vistas may be hard to come by, leaving rainy cityscapes that are not all “ready for prime time.” Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is but a short walk away from the new convention centre that is to be home to media from around the world. … Imagine British or American network producers doing feature story on the host town: what will they put on camera for the world to see?”

A sentiment echoed in our Fall 2006 submission to the provincial Finance Committee: “For the past few years, our Centre has published numerous studies and commentaries related to the growing problem of poverty amidst plenty in BC, and the role policy changes have played in exacerbating the situation. In addition to research reports, a growing chorus of anti-poverty, community and faith groups has sought to raise the profile of these issues. But all too often, these voices have fallen on deaf ears. This year, the alarm has grown to include prominent members of BC’s business community, municipal councils, newspaper columnists and even the influential magazine, The Economist. In the 2007 BC Budget, the provincial government must tackle poverty and homelessness boldly and comprehensively if we are to see substantial improvement before the province hosts the 2010 Winter Olympics.”

No dollar figures were supplied with the recommendations, but some members of the round table, which included representatives of social agencies, developers, apartment owners, along with the federal, provincial and city governments, say that $1 billion is a reasonable estimate of the investment required.

Social-housing developers say that it currently costs about $200,000 a unit for social housing, making the cost of the 3,000 units alone about $600 million.

SB 2007: “Housing affordability has become a top issue for many British Columbians. The market fails to build sufficient affordable housing for low- to middle-income families and vulnerable populations, and thus public solutions are required. To create 2,000 new units of social housing per year a capital cost of about $400 million per year would be required (assuming land must be purchased).” We are still more ambitious on this front.

All the recommendations were agreed to unanimously, except for two — the moratorium on conversions and a recommendation to change a current part of the residential tenancy act — which the private-sector members disagreed with.

Vancouver is the first Olympics to have included a promise to promote “inner-city inclusivity” and specifically to protect inner-city housing.

“It’s a big, hairy, audacious goal to put in there,” said Linda Coady, the Olympics’ organizing committee’s vice-president of sustainability.

Other Olympics have set environmental goals and Vancouver will build on what previous Games have achieved and try to go further in that area. But no Games bidder has yet tried to make promises and set goals with something as difficult to grapple with as social inclusion and housing.

“It’s tougher with a public-policy issue like housing but the expectations are there,” said Coady.

Vanoc has no financial ability to pay for that kind of goal and no legal power to force governments to meet it. But it did convene the housing roundtable to come up with clear targets, which does exert some force on a province and city that will have to prove to the world what they were able to do about one of its most serious social problems.

“What everybody wants to show in 2010 is a community that has responded,” said Coady.

“The story we want to tell the world is how Vancouver dealt with its problems in an open, progressive way. That’s the story that’s in the bid that we promised to tell.”

The question now is what the various levels of government will do to act on that.

“I think the report is great in that it acknowledges the magnitude of the problem,” said Martha Lewis of the Tenants Rights Action Coalition. “But I’m pessimistic because I don’t think we will see any level of government doing anything fast enough.”

Although the bid language appears to imply to some that there is a legal commitment to meet promises, “It’s not a legal commitment that’s very defined,” said Lewis.

She said the discussion at the roundtable indicated that the province believes that it can achieve the goals set out in the recommendations with private partnerships.

The answer to that is likely to be revealed in part today, when Ken Dobell, the former deputy premier and former Vancouver city manager, releases his report on how the city can build housing by leveraging in private investment.

According to those who have talked to Dobell, he is looking at options like setting up a city housing foundation, changing city policies to give developers bonus space if they build low-cost housing, and providing a financing mechanism that would encourage the private sector to invest money in low-cost housing projects in return for tax benefits and an investment return with four or five-per-cent interest at a later date.

But Al Kemp, CEO of the Rental Owners and Managers Society of B.C., said he doesn’t see any way the goals can be met.

“They’re valid, they’re desirable, they’re laudable. But where’s the money going to come from? It’s billions, well, a billion at least. If the money was to magically appear today, where’s the land, where’s the drawings for the buildings, where’s the labour.”

How much housing could realistically be built — factoring in both money and logistics — by 2010?

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