Heather Place tenants deserve a better deal

Heather Place public housing near VGH, which is slated for demolition and redevelopment in the coming years, has received significant media attention this week. An article in the Straight, called Heather Place tenants wait in limbo, explains how many tenants are uncertain about their future, concerned about suffering the same fate as their counterparts at Little Mountain Housing. On Wednesday, Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation (MVHC), which owns Heather Place, posted on its website a response to tenants’ concerns, in the form of answers to “frequently answered questions.” Vancouver City Councilor Geoff Meggs also appeared on CBC radio to defend the demolition. However, the responses provided by MVHC and Meggs only serve to confirm the fears expressed by tenants.

First, it is now more clear than ever that the majority of the people living at Heather Place will be displaced. There are currently 86 units of affordable homes which house 200 people. After redevelopment rents will increase an extra-ordinary amount. Whereas today the highest rents are around $1,100, after redevelopment two- and three-bedroom units will rent at “competitive market rates” expected to exceed $1,700 and $2,100 respectively. This means that two-thirds of tenants who are not on subsidy will very likely be displaced unless they agree to an extra-ordinary rent increase. For these tenants the Heather Place redevelopment plan is essentially a large-scale “renoviction.”

On its website, MVHC says that tenants will have the “right of first refusal” on the new units. But that’s poor comfort for most families, as the rent will be set at new market rates, not at the previous rates. To stop renovictions, it’s necessary that tenants have the “right of first of refusal” at today’s rates.

For the one-third of tenants who are on subsidy, the MVHC website presents the situation as more hopeful:

“Generally, rents in the new development will be at competitive market rates. Existing tenants receiving a subsidy, or ones that will require a subsidy in the new development, will receive it if they qualify.”

But for these tenants there are no guarantees, either. Tenants currently living on subsidy will be allowed to move into the new building only “if they qualify” for the subsidy. There is a world in this “if they qualify.” BC Housing subsidies only cover up to a set ceiling in each neighbourhood; if the market rent exceeds that ceiling, the subsidy will not cover the difference. It’s key for tenants on subsidies to have a guarantee in writing from MVHC and BC Housing that they will be allowed to stay.

Even those few tenants able to move into the new buildings may suffer significant stress due to displacement and uncertainty of tenure. MVHC says it is planning to use a phased redevelopment to minimize displacement, but again it makes no guarantees. As the Georgia Straight article notes, the similarities between Heather Place and Little Mountain in this regard are striking.

It is not clear to me why tenants would accept MVHC’s proposal. If the redevelopment is presented as an opportunity to increase affordable housing, then it makes no sense to accept a plan that results in a net loss of affordable housing. Why would the tenants accept housing that’s less affordable than what they have now? Why would the non-subsidized tenants sign-on to a plan that will double their rents? Why would the tenants on subsidy assent to a plan that may cause stressful displacement, and where they may no longer “qualify” for subsidy? Why would the greater public as a whole support a plan that reduces the number of affordable units in Fairview?

I believe that we can do better. What would a truly progressive Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation do? First, it would properly maintain buildings so that demolitions are unnecessary. Second, where redevelopment is unavoidable, it would absolutely guarantee, in writing, all tenants a home in the new building without an extra-ordinary rent-increase. Not only would any development be phased, but it would be made clear exactly who will be forced to relocate and for how long, and those tenants would be compensated fairly for moving costs and associated stress.

In addition to maintaining the current amount of affordable housing, more truly affordable housing could be built – below “competitive market rates.” MHVC owns the land, making development costs lower than market. Further, MVHC collects revenues from a small property tax levy applied across the Lower Mainland; even a minimal increase in that rate would allow MHVC to fund the capital costs of key retrofits or redevelopments like Heather Place. After redevelopment, rents would be used to maintain the building so that it doesn’t fall into disrepair.

There is a huge demand for social housing in the city and the province. The newly formed BC Social Housing Coalition is calling for construction of 10,000 units of new social housing in BC each year to catch-up for the social housing deficit caused by 20 years of neoliberalism. Many will be watching the struggle over Heather Place closely: will it result in increasing that social housing deficit, or will it be the start of a new era where public housing is protected and new public housing is built through progressive taxation?