Heather Place is a housing complex in central Vancouver with 86 units of affordable family housing. The housing is run by the Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation (MVHC), who has announced that plans for the redevelopment of Heather Place are moving forward. If the City of Vancouver approves the rezoning of Heather Place this spring, the affordable housing will be demolished and replaced with mixed market housing.
According to the current redevelopment plan, a small portion (26 units) of the subsidized apartments will be retained while the remaining affordable rental (60 units) will be converted into housing at “competitive market rates,” starting at $1,800 for a two-bedroom apartment. Despite constant pressure and organizing from tenants, including an upcoming open house event on March 1st, rents for the majority of the current units at Heather Place are planned to increase significantly.
To address the concerns of tenants and to counteract the dramatic rent increase, MVHC has now offered both a right-of-first-return and access to minimal rent subsidies for existing tenants. There are four fundamental problems with the subsidy model proposed:
1) Income testing loophole
While the new subsidies are a welcome development, given MVHC’s initial position, the plan comes with a significant loophole. Tenants’ incomes will be evaluated to see if they qualify for a subsidy at the new Heather Place, but the test is based on gross income. This standard is flawed because it does not take into account tenants’ basic costs of living, including student loans. Moreover, the calculation does not take into account child care expenses, which amount to $1,000 per month or more for single mothers at Heather Place.
BC currently has Canada’s highest child poverty rate in Canada. By relying on gross income as a base, the promised right of return will mean nothing for many single mothers at Heather Place.
2) Right-of-return loophole
This demolition has been hanging over the heads of tenants for years now. As a result, numerous tenants have already decided to leave Heather Place due to stress and uncertainty, and their units have been filled with tenants paying market rates. All of those new tenants will not qualify for the promised rent support, because MVHC established an arbitrary cut-off date. Tenants who left before that date, and new tenants who arrived after, will not qualify for the subsidy program.
Almost a dozen households did unfortunately leave before the cut-off date, which means that the stated goal of a one-for-one replacement of affordable units is impossible under the current plan. Those rental units will be lost forever, amounting to an absolute loss of affordable housing for the City of Vancouver.
The redevelopment of Heather Place will contribute to gentrification and will put affordable rental units in the neighbouring area at risk of renovictions and rent hikes. In the midst of a housing crisis, it is irresponsible for MVHC and the City of Vancouver to actively gentrify neighborhoods with concentrations of affordable rental housing. Without strong rent regulations in place and without other measures that protect rental housing, the redevelopment of Heather Place is short-sighted and unsustainable.
4) Shaky finances and broken promises
Like the Olympic Village, there is nothing to prevent the government from altering their mostly-verbal agreement with the tenants and citizens of Vancouver. MVHC documents state that subsidies will be based on the availability of finances. This is not a secure model for guaranteeing affordability at Heather Place. The same politicians responsible for cutting social housing and bailing out the millionaire developer, Millennium Properties, at the Olympic Village are now in control of Heather Place.
Karen Gilchrist is a single mother living at Heather Place. She and her daughter Nadia Kim, age 8, have been fighting to stop the displacement of residents from Heather Place and Vancouver Fairview. Karen has a Masters of Social Work and works at the Burnaby General Hospital. Karen and Nathan are both members of the Social Housing Alliance. Nathan is an editor of The Mainlander.