Post-Mortem of a Failed Policy Fix: Temporary Modular Housing in Vancouver (2016–2023)

Photo by Javier Carcamo

This summer, City Council voted to demolish direly needed low-income housing in Vancouver’s downtown core. On July 12th, 2023, Mayor Ken Sim and the ABC majority green-lighted the demolition of modular housing at Larwill Place, a Temporary Modular Housing site (TMH) located at the intersection of Cambie Street and Dunsmuir Street.  

In early July 2023, OneCity councillor Christine Boyle brought forward a motion to renew or extend the leases for all existing TMH sites in Vancouver, which currently provide over 750 units of shelter-rate housing across the city. Although the program was only initiated five years ago, the leases for all TMH sites are nearing expiry.

In August, Larwill Place – which once provided 98 units of decent, self-contained housing on city-owned property – was emptied and boarded up to make way for the wasteful new Vancouver Art Gallery and a corporate office complex. Despite the City and Province’s vague commitments to preserve affordable housing, there are no plans to relocate the units to another site

Council’s rationale for the site’s eviction is equal parts self-satisfied and sadistic. When voting to close Larwill, a chorus of ABC councillors joined behind City Manager Paul Mochrie to present the gee-whiz argument that ‘permanent’ affordable housing is preferable to temporary fixes. When faced with the undeniable harms of ‘relocation’ – a thin euphemism for eviction – Council shrugged. Didn’t everyone know that the TMH project was temporary. It’s in the name, stupid! 

All of this comes amidst the staggering losses of social housing units and single resident occupancy hotels (SROs) across Vancouver from suspicious fires, illegal evictions, and underregulated rent increases. In no uncertain terms, ABC’s decision to wind down TMH sites starting with Larwill Place is another escalation in the City’s war on the poor. The eventual destruction of these homes will further exacerbate mass homelessness in the name of developer profits.  

Throughout 2023, Premier David Eby’s Housing Supply Act has been widely touted as a promising new measure to ‘force’ municipalities to deliver on affordable housing supply. The Act, in short, compels municipalities to meet provincially-mandated construction targets for new residential projects, “starting with those [cities] with the greatest need and highest projected growth.” The Larwill decision, given silent approval by the project’s provincial partners, reminds us that “supply” is a crude signal for juicing the private market in residential construction and has nothing to do with preserving genuine affordability. With this and countless other evictions and mass displacements across the province, Eby has made it clear that his government is not in the business of protecting the dwindling stock of affordable homes.

 Stop-Gap Delirium

The decision to knock down Larwill signalled the death of Temporary Modular Housing (TMH) as a celebrated policy fix. It spelled the bankruptcy of a short-cut strategy to create temporary solutions to a permanent crisis. It was only a decade ago, in heady days of elite urban optimism, that 3D renderings of shipping containers converted into housing became emblems of tomorrow’s equitable cities. With monikers like ‘inspiring’ and ‘visionary,’ modular housing and its willing ambassadors told us that mass homelessness could be solved with clever design thinking.

The less coherent an idea is, the more it generates a strange frisson and excitement among city planners and the urban professional class. Modular housing’s policy fetish and late-late-industrial aesthetic became wildly popular in 2010’s-era publications from Canadian Architect to The Tyee.2 Beneath the hype the policy innovations of TMH amounted to little more than plain old capitalism. The basic premise of TMH was that housing precarity could be miraculously solved by the creation of equally precarious leases on public and private land. By their second term in the 2010s, Vision Vancouver – the ruling municipal party at the time – was entering into partnership with non-profits like Atira to open a handful of temporary sites. The first official TMH site was opened in 2016 at Main and Terminal Avenue.

Design drawing of temporary modular housing development at 220 Terminal Avenue

Government refusal to purchase and permanently lease public land for social housing was effectively reframed as a bold experiment testing the ingenuity of temporary housing. Beneath the blustery language of innovation, the logic of TMH is deceivingly simple. Vision city councillor Kerry Jang elaborated in 2011:

The plan is to put temporary modular units on those sites [along Kingsway] and then move the units elsewhere if the city or developer wants to build on those properties at a later date, if and when land values rise.3

In a seamless and circular geometry, homeless residents are warehoused in temporary housing, waiting patiently to be evicted when a developer inevitably capitalizes on the highest and best use for the land on which they reside – all while the city provides the landowner with new tax exemptions for their trouble. Developers who sit on land banks for years and often decades were effectively handed yet another method to gain financial reward for the time-honoured tradition of elite hoarding. 

What was triumphantly proclaimed as a creative solution was an admission of the City’s total obedience to market profits. Describing his own “stop-gap” housing proposal in the late 2000s, architect Gregory Henriquez put it like this:

All of us in the community have long been advocates for permanent housing, but we’ve gotten to the point where the numbers of homeless are so staggering that one is left wondering if we will ever catch up doing it that way. We don’t think we can. We think there has to be a stop-gap measure.4

Kerry Jang presenting his vision for temporary modular housing (2011). Rebecca Blissett photo, Vancouver Courier

When it comes to housing, the concept of “stop-gap measures” has been a useful temporal trick for those ultimately uninterested in actually fixing the problem. The bad faith premise was that stop-gap measures are to be adopted while conditions spontaneously ‘improve’ or ‘regain balance,’ as markets are assumed to do. Stop-gap and temporary housing was never intended to intervene into a housing system that profits from the unending destruction and construction of homes. TMH in fact accelerates displacement by further embedding the provision of low-income housing to real estate’s ever-churning cycle of accumulation. 

In short, Kerry Jang and Vision Vancouver were forerunners in the art of using slick PR and number shuffling to spin non-solutions like TMH into grand declarations of housing supply coming online. Yet it wouldn’t be until the election of Eby and the BCNDP that the province started rolling out its temporary modular program in partnership with then-Mayor Kennedy Stewart.

 Era of Missed Targets

In 2017, the City of Vancouver unveiled a 10-year target of building 4,100 units of affordable housing. By the five-year mark, in September 2022, the City had only approved 887 units – 22% of its original commitment. Worse, of those 887 units, over 750 are temporary modular units. Those same units that the ABC council now intends to demolish. 

The City and Province continue to announce new housing coming online to obscure the fact that the majority of the supply is counted from existing SRO units renovated in the wake of slumlord neglect. Not an unwelcome initiative if your building is on the list, but not new units. The latest housing strategy of both municipal and provincial governments boils down to little more than regularly publishing dishonest statements about supposedly ‘new’ supply to cover over the increasingly drastic net loss of affordable units.

This strategy of media manipulation was in full view with another housing supply announcement this past spring. In March of 2023, Eby and BC’s Minister of Housing Ravi Kahlon linked arms with ABC Mayor Ken Sim to announce that 330 “new homes” would be built in the Downtown Eastside. Journalist Dan Fumano looked under the hood and found out that only 20% of the 330 were net new units. A full 89 of these units are temporary “work camp” units.

Eby and Kahlon were eager to inform us that $6.9 million dollars was spent to build two single-level work camp projects that can potentially house 90 individuals. While originally announced in December 2022, the projects were not opened until the summer of 2023. The units are predictably small, with shared bathrooms and dining facilities. This points to a perplexing inconsistency at the heart of the BCNDP’s messaging. Was it not just a few days earlier that Eby had reiterated his commitment to “get rid of the SROs,” citing among other things the inhumane size of the average SRO unit? Eby’s work camp units are significantly smaller. Meanwhile the BCNDP stood by idly as SROs and modular housing units alike shutter their doors at an alarming rate (200 or more SRO units alone lost per year, to be precise). The City also quietly shut down the 46 units of TMH located at the Little Mountain site in 2021; to this day, these units remain in storage.  

TMH units (and even some SRO rooms) are significantly larger than those offered in the work camps coming online. So much for the BCNDP’s benevolent pretensions. SROs are certainly not a high bench mark for dignified housing, but only the most naïve observer thinks this declining supply will be replaced with anything other than private condos and overpriced micro-loft rentals. Eby’s housing targets for the DTES remain meager and dismal.5 Those targets are further undermined by Eby’s own multi-million tax exemption incentive for neighborhood gentrification and “revitalization.” 

Work Camp Hellscape

When Eby was BC’s Housing Minister in 2021, he started up talks with then-Mayor Kennedy Stewart and other housing agency stakeholders about ‘phasing out’ the SROs, citing the poor conditions and small size of the units. Eby has since reiterated that he wants to get rid of the SROs while giving less specifics about his motivations. What is the impetus behind this preoccupation? Why is Eby, a one-time defender of the SROs as a last stop before homelessness, now so passionate about razing them to the ground?6

It was then-Mayor Kennedy Stewart who let the cat out of the bag. The SROs need to be torn down, he said, because they’re no longer economically profitable:

Gradually [the SROs] became less and less profitable for private sector operators. The model was built for something completely different, and it’s a square peg in a round hole now…It’s just collapsing in terms of a housing option.

Prior to his time as Mayor of Vancouver, amidst the City’s TMH mania, Kennedy Stewart gave his approval to the mass demolition of rental housing in his own Burnaby riding as a BCNDP MLA. The evictions were truly on a vast scale involving hundreds of residents – 15 multi-storey apartment buildings were emptied in 2016 alone. Stewart argued that the city council who approved the demolition was blameless, instead pointing to a failed federal housing policy.

This scapegoat maneuver was textbook Horgan-era BCNDP. Without a federal housing policy in place, shouldn’t we expect city council to refrain from approving the demolition? Stewart never made a secret of his close relationship with the landlord and development community. According to Stewart’s own account, the feeling was mutual throughout his term in office as Vancouver Mayor. Developers were on good terms with him, until something shifted at the very end of his tenure.7 Vancouver’s largest developers made very significant individual donations to Stewart to support his candidacy in 2018. A similar approach seemed to be on track when a list of private fundraising targets was accidentally leaked in 2022.

Hundreds of DTES SROs now sit in the way of the profitable redevelopment of those remaining areas of the neighborhood not yet gentrified and redeveloped. Politicians like Eby and Stewart occasionally say they want something better than SROs while proactively facilitating evictions and creating worse housing for those displaced. In this article we have argued that the precipitous decline in housing provision, exemplified in Eby’s work camps, began with the failed experiment of Temporary Modular Housing more than a decade ago. 

Conclusion

The dream of TMH is dead. Today’s “work camp” housing is Eby’s fevered interpretation of the Vision-era TMH nightmare. Eby consistently finds a way to remind us that what’s worst can always worsen.

The old adage was once that nothing is too good for the masses, to paraphrase Modernist architect Berthold Lubetkin. Vancouver’s slogan is: if you dream of modular housing, you might get work camp housing. Eby’s new work camp units, it should be noted, are smaller than what the Red Cross says the minimum for a prison cell should be. Vancouver is the place where Lubetkin’s dictum is reversed: anything is too good for the masses.

The minimal solutions have been minimal indeed – less than zero. In a ten-year period, housing provision in Vancouver has rapidly devolved from shipping container housing to prison cell housing. Those early temporary modular solutions – the trendy policy magic among Vancouver’s professional and media elite in the early 2010s – now feel quaint and harmless. But despite some deterioration of the policy, the logic has always been the same: protect real-estate profits at all costs while keeping the poor in a permanent state of displacement.

1 Editor’s note: Footnote temporarily removed. 

2 For a sampling of articles in The Tyee see Monte Paulsen, “Designers Challenged to Get Creative About Housing Homeless,” The Tyee (April 14, 2010); Niamh Scallan, “City to consider modular housing pilot,” The Tyee (July 15, 2010); Colleen Kimmett, “Shipping container social housing makes debut in Vancouver,” The Tyee (August 2, 2013); David P. Ball, “‘Inspiring’ Shipping Container Housing Set to Multiply,” The Tyee (January 30, 2014). 

3 Michael McCarthy, “City will ask developers for modular housing ideas,” The Vancouver Courier (January 21, 2011) p. 5. 

4 Gregory Henriquez quoted in “A Creative Step Towards Ending Homelessness: Stop-Gap Housing,” Eds. Marya Cotten Gould, Gregory Henriquez and Robert Enright, Citizen City (Vancouver: BlueImprint, 2016) pp. 193-208. 

5 There are at least 3,000 people living in absolute homelessness in Vancouver, and yet Eby’s total social housing construction announced for Vancouver is 1,183 units by the year 2030. In short, even if SROs and low-income rental units were to stop disappearing, it would take seven years to house those already on the street. Yet we know that by 2030 the crisis will have continued to deteriorate. Unless he creates a loophole-free RTA, and unless he does a policy U-turn on vacancy control, the number of homeless residents can be expected to be much higher by 2030. [Source: modular housing motion]. 

6 On Eby’s defence of the Burns Block SRO see “Vancouver residential hotel shut down, tenants evicted,” CBC News (March 31, 2006) https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/vancouver-residential-hotel-shut-down-tenants-evicted-1.609037  

7 Stewart blames his 2023 election loss on meddling by the Chinese government. According to this analysis, the Chinese consulate directed Stewart’s erstwhile developers allies to instead donate to Ken Sim. “All of a sudden the folks that I had worked with for four years…the money wasn’t coming in.” Stewart quoted in Robert Fife, Steven Chase and Nathan Vanderklippe, “China’s Vancouver consulate interfered in 2022 municipal election, according to CSIS,” The Globe and Mail (March 16, 2023)