Downtown Vancouver
Downtown Vancouver - ©Duncan Rawlinson,

New Supportive Housing Projects

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Main actors

Local Government, City Government, Private Sector

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Project area

Whole City/Administrative Region

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2007 - 2015

The programme supports the development of social and supportive housing on municipally owned sites.

On October 12, 2007, the Premier of British Colombia announced that BC Housing fund and design pre-construction work required to develop social and supportive housing on municipally owned sites in several. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the city and province (BC Housing) sets out a partnership which enabled BC Housing funding pre-construction costs to develop 1,100-1,200 social and supportive housing units.

City social housing priorities were low. Council policy was tasked to replace hotels and rooming houses in the city center on a 1-for-1 basis; to maintain or increase the percentage of social housing in Vancouver City; to develop social and supportive housing throughout the city; and to eliminate homelessness, i.e. a 50% reduction, by 2010.

The main target groups were modest income families with children, seniors on fixed incomes or in need of support (Single Room Occupancy - SRO -residents), mentally ill, physically disabled, and persons at risk of homelessness. The supportive housing strategy was a good practice for other cities because of homeless conditions around the world. This problem is getting worse, especially in metropolitan areas. Projects providing approaches to eliminate homelessness and increasing housing opportunities are in great demand.

Sustainable Development Goals

Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
Reduce inequality within and among countries
Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
Vancouver, Canada

Size and population development
2011: 2,267,000, 1990: 1,559,000, 2025: 2,765,000, 2010-2015: +1,45% / year

Population composition
the most culturally diverse city in Canada / only 49% of the inhabitants speak English as their first language (25.3 % speak Chinese)

Main functions
industrial centre, transportation hub (seaport)

Main industries / business
forestry, film industry, high tech

Political structure
Mayor and City Council elected every three years.

Administrative structure
Mayor and Vancouver City Council, School Board and Park Board elected for a three-year term

Since the mid-1990s, homelessness has been a growing problem across Canada. Between 2002 and 2005, when the last regional count of the homeless was undertaken, the number of homeless had doubled. At the same time, SRO stock in Vancouver has become increasingly vulnerable due to aged buildings, lack of revenue (frozen welfare rates), more difficult tenant profiles (increasing mental illness and addiction), and competing uses (conversion to tourist hotels; demolition for condominium development).

On 06 June 2007, Vancouver Council approved the Supportive Housing Strategy for Vancouver Coastal Health’s Mental Health and Addictions Supported Housing Framework. Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) housing framework identified a need for 2,200 units of supportive housing for individuals with mental illness and / or addiction, who are linked to VCH services but at risk because they live in inappropriate housing (insecure, unstable and / or unaffordable). Vancouver Council adopted the supportive housing strategy including recommendations to balance geographically new supportive housing across the city in zones where apartments are permitted, and that Vancouver City, VCH, and BC Housing undertake community consultation regarding supportive housing and services for the mentally ill and those suffering from addiction.

The proposed City / Province social and supportive housing partnership will implement the supportive housing strategy by making 100 or so units available to VCH clients already linked to treatment and support services. However, many homeless and those at risk who will become residents of the projects developed through the partnership will not be VCH clients. Though they may use emergency wards and access walk-in clinics, most homeless and SRO residents are not VCH clients (i.e. are in treatment or recovery, and linked to programmes to address mental health or substance abuse issues).

One goal of supportive housing will be to link unconnected residents to the appropriate social and health services. Social housing accommodates families, senior citizens, and singles who cannot afford free market housing; supportive housing is social housing for people who need support in addition to safe, secure, and affordable housing. Supportive housing connects residents to services and provides a supportive environment which maximises residents’ independence.

The MoU set out the proposed City / Province social and supportive housing partnership. Through MoU, 11 municipally-owned sites were designated for affordable housing (which included social and supportive housing), plus one site - with a City option to purchase - designated for affordable housing, developed for social and supportive housing. City contribution to the partnership was to lease the sites to non-profit housing sponsors for 60 years at nominal prepaid rents, exempt the development projects from property taxes, and cover the cost of environmental remediation. An expedited process was proposed, beginning with the consideration of MoU at a public meeting, after which projects would be processed in accordance with the City Development and Building Permit and re-zoning processes.

The process began with referring recommendation to approve MoU to a public meeting. If MoU was approved, projects would proceed through the City Development and Building Permit processes. The expedited process compressed steps in the standard process but all steps would be included. To expedite the process for sites where rezoning was proposed, the rezoning and development permit applications would be processed together. Once the non-profit sponsors were selected, building and operational programmes for each project were defined and design of each building sufficiently advanced to make a Development Permit application.

At that time an ‘open house’ event was organised for sponsor and design team to meet with projects’ neighbours to review the proposed design, the building, and operational programme. Moreover the Development Permit Board (meetings are public) gave its recommendation to the application. To ensure the schedule can be achieved, specific Development Services and Planning staff were dedicated to all the projects, and a technical staff team was established to ensure that all issues were identified and addressed in a coordinated and timely fashion. BC Housing dedicated a project manager to oversee all the projects, and City / Province Social and Supportive Housing Partnership retained 12 consultants to assist with public consultation and moving the projects through BC Housing and City processes.

The consultation process provides three formal opportunities for public input: first, the public meeting where the council considered MoU; second, the ‘Open House’ for neighbours once a Development Permit Application for a project has been submitted to the City, third the Development Permit Board meeting where the application will be considered. As for requests for additional meetings, it was possible to accommodate requests from established organisations, e.g. Vision Implementation Committees, BIAs, Residents’ Associations, etc. for a presentation to one of their regular scheduled meetings. However, these additional meetings were accommodated without compromising the schedule which is to have the Development Permit Board consider all projects not requiring re-zoning before Summer 2008. With 1,300 units under construction or in development and 1,100 – 1,200 units to be developed through the proposed partnership, approximately 2,500 units of housing for the homeless and those at risk of homeless, including SRO residents and individuals suffering from mental illness and / or addictions, were to be under construction or funded and in design development. Half of these units will probably be some form of supportive housing. The proposed process would have had at least six of the projects under construction by the end of 2008, projects being completed over a number of years, with an average of 500 units being completed for low income singles and those at risk per year for the following 5 years.

The location of 12 sites was attached to MoU. Key components in the proposed partnership were:

  1. BC Housing to fund all pre-construction work required so that Development Permits and Building Permits can be issued.
  2. Funding from BC Province and other partners to build and operate the social and supportive housing projects available in 2008.
  3. City contribution to the partnership will lease 12 sites to non-profit housing sponsors for 60 years at nominal prepaid rents, lessees to be exempt from property taxes, and Vancouver City to pay environmental remediation costs.
  4. 12 projects will generate 1,100 – 1,200 dwellings as small studio units in supportive environments, with 400-600 residents connected to and supported by community-based non-profit mental health and addiction service providers.
  5. Projects are operated by non-profit housing sponsors partnered with non-profit service providers if the housing sponsors themselves do not provide mental health and addiction services.

In contemplation of the targets set in MoU to eliminate homelessness with at least a 50% reduction by 2010, the intermediate goal of the actions failed: i.e. there should have been just 1,050 homeless people left on the street or in shelters.

In 2010 there were a total of 1,715 counted as homeless, 1,294 in shelters, and 421 on the street. Subsequently better development followed.

In 2011 numbers of total homeless were reduced to 1,581 - 154 on the street and 1,427 in shelters.

However, this trend changed again in 2012. Concern stems from a homeless count on March 27, showing total numbers of homeless people - including those in temporary shelters and those on the street - to be 1,602. Of those, 1,296 were in shelters not considered to be permanent housing.

The blame for the increase was given to BC provincial government for its refusal to reopen several winter emergency response shelters in 2011, and a policy by BC Housing to use the majority of new units built on city-owned land to house people who already have accommodation elsewhere. As a result, many homeless people in Vancouver City who expected to be given homes in its new buildings remain unhoused.

Currently, project achievements are slowing down. Indicators for a successful operating plan do not exist, and the blame is being politically passed around. With provincial funding for existing emergency shelters due to end in 2013, and further municipal projects looking after 400 people with mental illness and addiction to end in 2014, the number of homeless people could hit record levels with nearly 2,000 people on the street by 2014. BC Housing Minister Rich Coleman was warned to not close several temporary shelters last year, however, the result, unsurprisingly, put more people back on the streets. Five of 12 city-owned sites containing a total of 439 units have already opened, but statistics say only 38% have gone to people classified as homeless. The numbers fall far short of MoU, that 60% of the units were to go to people who either live in shelters or who are homeless. Brenda Prosken, Vancouver Acting General Manager of Community Services, has said, if Vancouver is to achieve its 2015 target it needs help from BC and national government, including making 436 temporary shelter beds permanent; continuing provincial and federal support for 400 units in the Dunsmuir and At Home / Chez Soi housing programmes; dramatically increasing the percentage of homeless people who go into the remaining 1,067 supportive housing units left to be built on city land; adding 450 new supportive housing units in 2015.

As the conflicts show, there are several problems left which need to be solved in the future. If the current city government really wants to eliminate homelessness in Vancouver, they need to continue on the path they were following. Further development in newly implemented projects founded as a direct result of the supportive housing strategy can be pointed out as main success steps. Vancouver Housing and Homelessness Strategy 2012-2021 is one off-shoot programme. Furthermore, the results and impacts mentioned above show the programme’s success. The supportive housing strategy seems to be a good practice for other cities because thousands of people all over the world are already living on the streets or in inhuman conditions. The problem is also getting worse. Especially for metropolitan areas it is becoming a priority topic on the policy agenda. Projects providing approaches to eliminate homelessness and increasing housing opportunities are in great demand.

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Anne Schmidt
Berlin, Germany

Anne Schmidt

Individual | Architect, urban designer, researcher

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