Heather Place is a non-profit housing complex built in 1982 by the Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation (MVHC). Today it includes 86 homes, two thirds of which rent to tenants at non-market rates while the remaining third of tenants are subsidized on a rent-geared-to-income basis.
In 2010 it was publicly announced that Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation was contemplating either the demolition or repair of Heather Place. In a letter from September 29th, 2010, MVHC Manager Don Littleford explained to tenants that the difference between Heather Place and other housing complexes that have been repaired is that at Heather Place, “the land under the buildings is very valuable.” In February of 2012, Terra Housing Consultants advised Littleford that redevelopment plans “would generate approximately $7,000,000 in additional value.”
Littleford is pitching the planned densification of the site as a contribution to the city’s affordable housing stock. Yet in his own words, “market rents for new suites will be substantially higher.” In a letter to MVHC, City of Vancouver Rezoning Planner Karen Hoese informed Littleford that, “City-wide policy supports consideration of new affordable housing and other public benefits such as child care” but that Littleford’s Heather Place proposal “does not provide a directly identifiable public benefit.”
Significantly, the planner decided that replacing 26 of the 86 non-market units cannot be considered a public benefit of rezoning given that the current zoning requires these units. The public benefit of non-profit housing would be lost if 60 non-market units were replaced with housing at “substantially higher” rates. Nonetheless, Littleford and Vancouver’s politicians have thrown their support behind the redevelopment plan.
Tenants push against displacement
In May 2011, 47 Heather Place tenants signed a petition against the demolition of Heather Place and called on Metro Vancouver to repair their homes. Again in February 2012, tenants sent a delegation to the board of Metro Vancouver calling for the repair rather than redevelopment of Heather Place. Despite impassioned speeches from tenants, Metro Vancouver decided on that same day to demolish rather than repair Heather Place.
MVHC hopes to build 200-300 housing units on the Heather Place site, of which 26 will be reserved at current rates for current RGI tenants (rent-geared-to-income). The remainder of the units will rent at market rates. This means that 60 affordable housing units could be lost forever in the midst of a worsening housing crisis in Vancouver. While the initial plan was to sell all but the 86 replacement units to a developer, MVHC currently states that they intent the development to be 100% rental housing.
Many tenants remain concerned about their future and have joined Heather Place Tenants Against the Demolition. Initial plans and statements drafted by MVHC were aggressively anti-tenant. However, constant pressure from tenants in recent months has forced Metro Vancouver to modify their position — at least in words.
MVHC’s recent promises
The latest promise is to offer rent subsidies to current market tenants who will be unable to afford the new market rates. The subsidies are laden with multiple conditions and caveats, and tenants have been given no assurance that the process will not end in broken promises like at Little Mountain and the Olympic Village. This latter concern is particularly palpable because the promised subsidies are not guaranteed but are instead contingent on the “availability” of MVHC finances.
The subsidies are also based on gross income and do not take into account tenants’ basic costs of living, including student loans. Single mothers on modest incomes and student loans are currently being told point blank that they will not be able to return to their homes.
Lastly, many of the tenants cannot afford to wait for an eviction notice to make a decision about their future. Yet, if they leave prematurely they are immediately disqualified from receiving a subsidy. At least nine families have already left Heather Place, which means that at minimum nine affordable units will be lost forever under the current plan.
Meeting the landlord
On March 11, 2013, Tenants met with MVHC officials to discuss the potential subsidies being offered to current tenants. When asked if the subsidies would be “fixed in stone,” Littleford replied with a no, stating “[w]e can withdraw this.” He elaborated the point: “You can never guarantee that something strange won’t happen five or ten years down the road,” adding that the chances of a reversal are “very slim.”
Tenants again raised the concern that the buildings could be fixed without raising the rents. “I’m not willing to negotiate that,” Littleford replied. While tenants offered numerous proposals — including “grandfathering” current tenants into the new units at the current rent and repairing the building — Littleford snapped that tenants were doing “nothing other than complaining.”
One tenant suggested that their lack of trust stems from MVHC’s failure to operate like a responsible non-profit housing provider. The story she shared was that despite her multiple complaints filed about about serious mould problems in her suite, she and her daughter were never moved into one of the renovated units as they became available, nor was the problem given any attention beyond a fresh coat of paint. Littleford has stated that he considers himself to be “running an affordable housing business,” but the tenant argued that those cost-saving measures are compromising the health of the residents.
Not all tenants agreed on how to respond to MVHC’s most recent “offer.” While two tenants left the meeting upset that other tenants were voicing concerns (rather than following MVHC’s agenda), Littleford was dogged most of the night by tenants’ insistence on negotiating rather than being dictated to. Some tenants have been paying rent to Metro Vancouver for decades.
At least twice Littleford reminded tenants of the dangers of negotiating and of making demands on their landlord. If the redevelopment is stalled, he threatened, the MVHC Board may sell the land to a developer and “build housing elsewhere.”
Littleford’s threat to sell Heather Place leaves tenants in a catch-22. But the threat also lays bare that Metro Vancouver is no longer interested in fulfilling its responsibility to provide affordable housing — certainly not to low-income people. Heather Place Tenants Against the Demolition can be expected to continue to call for accountability and pressure Metro Vancouver to fulfill its mandate to provide affordable housing.
Connor Donegan and Nathan Crompton are both organizers with the Vancouver Renters’ Union and are actively involved with Heather Place Tenants Against the Demolition.
 80 of the units are family units. Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation has been referring to tenants in “non-subsidized” units (i.e. non rent-geared-to-income units) as market rate tenants. However, thisand deceptively hides the fact that all 86 units are below-market units listed in the City of Vancouver’s Non-Market Housing Inventory. This is especially important when it comes to counting how many non-market units will be lost in the proposed redevelopment.
 Letter to Don Littleford, “RE: Enquiry – 774 West 14th Ave,” Feb. 7th, 2011. From Karen Hoese, Rezoning Planner. City of Vancouver, Community Services Group. The full quote reads: “While recognizing that this is a preliminary enquiry, staff note that the proposal does not provide a directly identifiable public benefit (noting that the proposed replacement affordable and RGI housing is a requirement of the current zoning and therefore would not be a public benefit in a rezoning.) The lack of an identifiable public benefit needs to be resolved prior to the City being able to consider site redevelopment.”
 Metro Vancouver Manager Don Littleford openly argued that tenants should make way for the market, and re-locate to another city. In an interview with Vancouver Courier Littleford stated flatly, “It comes back to the question: Does everybody have a right to live where they want for the rent they want to pay, or not. I think the answer is no.” Cheryl Rossi, “Housing complex tenant pans redevelopment plan,” Vancouver Courier, September 24, 2010
 Tenants who would be spending 30% or more of their income on the new rental rate may be eligible for a subsidy which, according to a personal conversation with Metro Vancouver officials (i.e. not yet promised to tenants on paper), will reduce rent to 30% of their income. As discussed above, restrictions and conditions apply.
 MVHC letter to Heather Place tenants, March 11, 2013. The document states that rent subsidies are “based on certain qualifications and availability.”