The City of Vancouver has recently announced that it will be using four city-owned sites to develop affordable housing. The announcement has been widely praised even though the policy contains no guarantee that the rents will be affordable.
The four sites proposal approved by council does not specify rent levels or rental mix in the proposed buildings. Like previous Vision Vancouver initiatives, the project is clad in vague and uncertain terms that prioritize market profits over affordability. Worse still, the affordability requirements will be decided behind closed doors and hidden in a private “operating agreement.” This means that the public will never know how many units will be affordable or what the rents will be.
The four sites have been in the planning process since at least the spring of last year. In August 2012 the City released a Request for Expressions of Interest for six sites of city-owned land, which would be leased for 99 years at a nominal rate for the development of affordable housing. Since then a consortium of non-profit partners led by Land Trust has been selected to lease four out of six sites (contracts for the other two sites have not yet been announced).
The Land Trust was established by the Co-operative Housing Federation of BC and is a non-profit charity. Land Trust and partners’ submission involves utilizing four of the six offered sites to create approximately 355 new units of housing. One of the sites, overlooking the Fraser river, will be used for the development of 82 luxury market rental units, which in turn will be used to subsidize the affordability of the three other sites.
However, there are at present no guarantees that three other sites will have affordable housing, and the rental mix will be specified in an operating agreement that will not be approved by council or made public.
The administrative report approved by City Council claims that the project will create hundreds of “new social housing units.” However, as with other Vision Vancouver housing projects, the term “social housing” is used with great elasticity, and in this case the social housing tally includes 82 units that will rent for “market rates.”
The city’s definition of social housing has increasingly loosened since the election of Vision Vancouver in 2008. The most recent case is Heather Place, where Councillor Geoff Meggs has recently written that the redevelopment of the public housing project will include “86 units of social housing.” The vast majority of these 86 units will rent for unaffordable market rates, with a one-bedroom apartment going for a minimum of $1,300 per month. This kind of “social housing” can only materialize when people gain external rent subsidies, which are limited, temporary, hard to apply for, are not tied to the unit, and are not granted to all tenants who need them.
The exact rent or affordability for the four sites project is not specified and the expected rent is expressed in vague averages. Already in August 2012, The Mainlander criticized the project’s RFEOI for not specifying firm rent requirements. The report clarifies that the reason for lack of firm requirements is that affordability of the housing units will be set out in private agreements, which will not be approved by city council or made available to the public. Furthermore, any such requirement are likely to fluctuate over time according to City staff’s analysis of market conditions.
The lack of transparency is deeply concerning in light of the record at the Olympic Village and Little Mountain. Nowhere in the four sites report is the affordability of the projects guaranteed, and the development is framed with a constant acceptance of the imperatives of the free market.
To add to the uncertainty of the future affordability of the projects, we don’t know when the affordable housing will arrive. The expected time frame for the deliverability of “affordable” housing is left unclear. “If other costs or market risks materialize,” states the report, “achievement of affordability may be delayed.” The report further elaborates that according to the City’s own risk analysis, “the Land Trust’s portfolio will be financially sustainable in the first year of operation, and the affordability target for non-market units can still be achieved within the first ten years with actual timing dependent on future market economics.”
The return of Olympic-style broken promises
Welfare rate housing units and low income housing units across the city are being lost as rents continue to rise. In the last year alone, 426 welfare-rate units were lost in the DTES. Yet the four sites initiative makes no effort to counteract this trend and in addition to making no firm affordability requirements, there is no specification of the proportion or absolute number of units that will cater to people on welfare. Nor is there any commitment to housing for the 42,000 tenants making below $20,000 in the City of Vancouver, which is disproportionately made up of indigenous people, people of colour and recent immigrants. Following the Olympic village experience, the number of housing units serving those below the poverty line could very well be close to zero.
The four sites project ominously models the Olympic Village. Both are modeled on the P3 approach of cost-recovery in which the little remaining social housing is rented to the higher income tenants. In the Olympic Village, the low-income and welfare tenants were expected to apply and qualify for grants and supplements in order to afford living there. Since moving into the complex, tenants on low and fixed incomes continue to be double-billed for utilities and charged for cold water and other fees. One tenant at the olympic village writes in a comment to a recent article, “I cannot afford to shower more than 3 times a week and do dishes and laundry with as little water consumption as possible.” As a result of continued supplemental costs, many tenants have been displaced from the project while other are squeezed to the limits of their income.
Similarly, the four sites project makes no mention or cost evaluation regarding utility costs and other fees to be levied on future tenants. Another striking similarity is the rental mix of the four sites buildings. The actual rental mix will only be decided later on in the development process and does not have to be approved by city hall. Again, the actual rental mix of the buildings, which is never specified, is left unclear and hinges on a perpetual if.
The report’s vague statements on the rental mix of the buildings raises the question: what is the exact mix and the exact range of rents? Given the recent record of city council on affordability, it is difficult to deem the four sites affordable before having answers to these essential questions.