In search of a better social housing strategy in an empty city lot

The idle lot at 58 West Hastings Street is a metaphor for the city’s surreal strategy on how to address its complicated social housing challenge. Nothing happens because everything is expected.

The city-owned site, an object lesson in anticipation gone awry, was originally touted as much-needed shelter in the Downtown Eastside to help those in financial straits. The longer the deliberation and dithering over its fate takes, though, the more expensive and elusive have become the solutions.

The charitable Chinatown Foundation, brought in seven years ago with its blue-chip board as the prospective leaseholder to assemble a plan, has had to pivot and adapt and stretch itself out of shape to render a mixed-housing project that can approach viability.

Its efforts might have gained traction had not the then-mayor, in one of those common moments of lapsed reason, driven it into the ditch by publicly signing a declaration under activist pressure in August 2016 to turn the lot into a 100% welfare- and pension-rate housing project under community control by the end of June 2017.

Embers and cinders, meet kerosene.

It was, like far too many gestures to help heal our most distressed, a moon-shot without a rocket. And because it came from the leader of the city and a council that appeared to have no limit to its power, it appeared to carry credibility. History will show it set a fraudulent benchmark that just can’t be shaken off easily.

Our former mayor was never one to worry about what a photo opportunity today might mean another day, so he pledged the unpledgeable at the Carnegie Centre and moved on.

Calls for the fulfilment of the mayor’s messy mistake are ceaseless, finding their contemporary champion in rookie councillor Jean Swanson, the Order of Canada anti-poverty activist. But her refrain does not find a chorus in the new council chamber, and she is outnumbered in the new midst.

Council is due soon to tackle the mess city staff has been handed: what kind of funds are needed for full welfare- and pension-income housing, where the other money needed might come from, how renting the building at income-assistance levels will affect its viability and alternatives if the full-fledged model isn’t feasible.

Even on moral grounds, the construction of social housing cannot be exempt from basic business principles; the two concepts have to coexist in creation and operation. They also cannot be weighed down by the pretension that there are magic elixirs ready to meet the significant needs. Our disparities and tragedies are not snap developments, so there can be no snap developments to mitigate them. That being said, if there is optimism, it is in the current alignment of federal, provincial and municipal governments to gang-tackle. But that doesn’t mean 58 West Hastings is home-free. The Chinatown Foundation, comprising a wide swath of the political spectrum, is unanimous in its belief that a 100% welfare- and pension-rate project cannot fly.

Besides, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. is unwilling to entertain a project featuring only welfare- and pension-level rents, as is BC Housing, in part because even after construction its operating deficit would be $2 million annually.

Even a 50-50 split of welfare- and income-geared rental housing is an expensive stretch.

Construction costs for the 10-storey structure have grown to $108 million from the original $60 million estimate. The foundation now believes it needs to find more funds beyond the initial $30 million it was committing.

For those expecting a new life chapter at 58 West Hastings, political leadership appeased them disingenuously and will leave many behind in the resulting project, compounding the dispiriting and wrongfully pinning some of the blame and all of the task on the well-intentioned foundation.

It might be too much to ask of city staff to find the pragmatic path, but somewhere in this dilemma must be a proposal that makes just enough sense to proceed. The empty lot needs housing, and we are not talking tents. 

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.