Up until recently, Pam Burge was one of the few remaining tenants in the city’s Olympic Village social housing on False Creek. Since moving into the Olympic Village almost two years ago, problems with rent, utility bills and tenancy rights accumulated “without end.” Burge has been forced out of her housing in a post-Olympic drama containing many lessons but little in the way of answers and accountability.
Burge had been living in her one-bedroom apartment at 80 Walter Hardwick in the Olympic Village since April of 2011. The building is one of three city-owned buildings in the Olympic Village managed by COHO property management. The same company also manages The Athletes Village Housing Coop and 121 Walter Hardwick. All of these buildings are meant to provide a mix of market housing and non-market housing for low-income tenants. However, Burge states that a mix of housing simply does not exist in her former community: “There is no social housing at the Olympic Village.” Most of the units are more suited to higher income tenants, according to Burge, and she estimated that there were only about five tenants, including herself, who were “genuinely in core need of social housing.” However, she said that these tenants were in the process of being “forced out.”
Extra billing a stress on low-income tenants
Burge was a low-income pensioner in what was supposed to be a social housing unit, yet 40 per cent or more of her income went towards housing. “When they rented it [the housing] to us,” Burge states, “they told us that we could apply for a SAFER [Shelter Aid For Elderly Residents] grant so that our rent would be 30 per cent of our income just the same as it is in social housing, but that we would have to pay our utilities but because this building is the high-tech green wonder of the world, our bills would be ‘negligible’.”
Even after securing the SAFER grant, however, Burge says she was still paying more than she was guaranteed upon arrival. “I’ve had to pay more that 30 per cent of my income since I’ve been here and I’m just one of the really poor people here,” she says. In Canada social housing is defined by the widely accepted CMHC definition, namely that affordable rent should be no more than 30% of your income. “When you’re living close to the edge you can’t afford to be paying out an extra hundred here or an extra $50 there,” adds Burge. Currently the number of seniors “living close the the edge” is worsening in Metro Vancouver, where the waitlist for seniors’ social housing has nearly doubled over the course of the past three years.
In 2011, it was widely reported that tenants at the Olympic Village were being overcharged for utilities, receiving each month one bill from BC Hydro, and another from a company called Enerpro. Burge was one of the residents who had gone to the media, sharing a bill that she had received from Enerpro for $85 for the first month living in the Olympic Village. Besides a $12.50 administrative fee, the bill charged for heating, hot water, and cold water.
Burge says that new tenants were told nothing about Enerpro at the time they moved in. She says that they were, however, told by Jennifer Standeven — assistant director of business operations in the city’s community services group — that the residents were part of an “experiment.” Emphasis was also placed on the tenants’ personal energy consumption, to the point where residents were “discouraged from having baths,” Burge says.
Burge says that when the tenants first received the energy bills they set about trying to form a tenant association. Shortly after, one of the tenants involved received a warning. “Somehow this woman at city hall, Standeven, found out and wrote to us that we could only form a tenants’ committee if we had her permission,” Burge says. No reason was given.
In an interview with the Georgia Straight in 2011, Armstrong said that the administrative fee is the only income that Enerpro takes in, and that the rest goes to the city of Vancouver. He also said that while he was concerned that the metering might be inaccurate, he still “supported the notion of individual energy metering, because that’s the only incentive to lower energy use and lower the carbon footprint.” In response to the outcry of the tenants, the city did undertake a study into the building system. After the study was completed, bills resumed in January 2012 and Burge said that the billing had not decreased. Instead, a notice was posted in the lobby telling tenants that the utility bills were comparable to that of any other residential building.
According to Burge, all of these these incidences are just “touching the surface” of her very distressing and complicated experience in the city-owned units. “They refuse to even look at the situation of the people here who are poor,” she said. “There are a number of people here who are facing homelessness. Here’s the Mayor who wants to end homelessness, and we’re not young people. I’m nearly 70, and there’s a number of people here with disabilities, and it’s just appalling what’s gone on here.”
History of ‘False Promises on False Creek’
Pam’s experience is also inseparable from the controversial history of the city-owned housing at the Olympic Village — a history marked by broken promises, economic ineptitude and political corruption.
In the years leading up to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, the rapid changes in the city were contributing to a tidal wave of displacement. This was ultimately evident in the rising homeless population, whose numbers more than doubled since the city won the Olympic bid. For this reason, promises on the part of the city to provide social housing units at the former Athletes Village gained added importance and broad support. The initial plan was that two thirds of the 1,100 city-owned housing units would be affordable housing, half of which would be social housing for those in core need.
But the promise of a post-Games housing legacy at the Athletes Village was first abandoned in 2006 when Sam Sullivan and the NPA whittled down the social housing housing component to 250 units. The Olympic Village developer, Millennium, was then bailed out by city taxpayers two years later, during the 2008 economic crisis. Although Vision Vancouver had criticized the NPA’s broken promises and bailout, once in power Vision whittled down the social housing even further to 126 units, and conducted an even larger bailout for Millenium. Thanks to the bailout, Millenium continues to operate in the city, with a large condo development currently planned across the way from the old Waldorf Hotel on East Hastings.
Low-income tenants priced out
Thom Armstrong, the executive director of COHO, claims that the low-income units are intended to cost no more than a third of the resident’s income, unless the tenant is receiving a subsidy of some kind. According to Armstrong, “what makes these buildings so unique is that there is no senior government subsidy. They have to be viable just from the income that they raise, whether tenants are paying full market rent or below market rent.” In other words, the buildings are meant to pay for themselves, without any external subsidy.
COHO’s model of housing is part of a drastic change in direction in recent years, whereby not-for-profit housing operators are slated to be phased out to make way for pro-market housing operators. In Armstrong’s words: “It really is a new model for affordable housing because from the early seventies until the early nineties, social housing or affordable housing not just BC but in Canada was built with either significant federal or provincial subsidy to either the housing development or to individual tenants, and those subsidies are just no longer available.”
From this perspective, the experience of tenants in COHO’s buildings is a result of the city’s withdrawal of funding for non-market housing at the Olympic Village, and a sign of the times as housing operating funding disappears across the country.