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The arrogance of profit: Metro Vancouver's redevelopment proposal for Heather Place

This is the first part in a series by Nathan Crompton on the redevelopment of Heather Place, an imperiled affordable housing development in central Vancouver. The second part of the article, titled “The Politics of Repairs,” addresses the politics of negligence and disrepair at Heather Place and similar housing projects in Metro Vancouver.

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For 30 years, Heather Place has been the largest affordable housing quarter in Vancouver’s Fairview neighborhood. Acting as the heart and the anchor of Fairview -- both geographically and socially -- the two-block development provides family housing for almost 300 parents and children in 86 separate apartments. VGH support staff, single mothers attending university, artists, service industry workers, and a large number of Canadian immigrants all live at the foot of the Vancouver General Hospital thanks to the housing of Heather Place. “As a microcosm of Vancouver,” Heather Place resident Julie Okot Bitek says, “we also represent the world, having at Heather Place people from all corners of the earth.”[1]

Vancouver curator and filmmaker Amy Kazymerchyk grew up at Heather Place and remembers the diversity and community. By six years old she could speak six languages and would visit neighbors by ducking in and out of the project’s interlocking buildings. With its overlapping 2- and 3-bedroom apartments, connected together by a unique network of elevated walkways, Heather Place is something of an architectural anomaly. Next to generic retail-inspired residential construction, its buildings are distinctly well planned. In more ways than one Heather Place has served as an affordable housing stronghold in Vancouver, safe from the rent increases, shock evictions, renovictions, and negligent landlords of Vancouver’s private housing market.

Today, however, the 86 homes of Heather Place are at risk of demolition. Since last February, the developer-backed politicians and home-owning bureaucrats who control the Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation have made the decision to collaborate with private developers to demolish Heather Place. Fifty-eight of the 86 affordable units will be lost forever in the redevelopment plans, to be replaced by three towers of condos, market suites and unaffordable rental housing.

Heather Place was constructed in 1982 by the Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation (MVHC) and today includes purpose-built housing for people with disabilities, subsidized housing for low-income renters, and housing for renters at the affordable end of the housing market. Despite bringing displacement, recent redevelopment projects like Woodward’s have been praised for their ability to produce social mix, with journalists like Frances Bula calling Woodward’s a “socially mixed microcosm of the city.” But in contrast to Woodward’s, Heather Place has been and remains an ode to inclusion in the city, and a version of social mix practiced without displacement. As the modernists would have said, Heather Place is a “social condenser,” and a unique version of Berthold Lubetkin’s motto that “nothing is too good for ordinary people.”

Today, sitting above the Fairview Slopes, the very existence of Heather Place seems to present a living challenge to the idea that World Class Vancouver is “too good for ordinary people.” In an attempt to justify the demolition of Heather Place, Metro Vancouver Manager Don Littleford has claimed that living in post-Olympic Vancouver is a privilege that trumps the right to housing security. “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.”[2] In joint meetings with Heather Place tenants, Littleford argued that moving to cities like Surrey and Burnaby is the only option for tenants. Leaving aside the lofty rebuttal of Berthold Lubetkin, however, the hard reality is that the housing crisis spans across the entire Lower Mainland.

Metro Vancouver (formerly the Greater Vancouver Regional District) has recently commissioned a study of the rental housing stock in the entire Metro Vancouver area. The study focuses on rental properties at risk of demolition and redevelopment. Of all its findings, perhaps the most alarming is that out of a total 27,000 units throughout Lower Mainland (excluding Vancouver), roughly 5,000 (18%) face a “moderate to high risk of redevelopment.”[3] If the study were to have included the rental stock in the City of Vancouver, the result would have been even more dire, with a similar 2009 study finding that in the City of Vancouver alone, roughly 21 per cent of the rental stock is slated for redevelopment by 2019.[4]

All signs point to the fact that there is a glaring housing crisis across the Lower Mainland. According to Metro Vancouver’s own predictions, the Lower Mainland will need 46,800 new units of housing in the next ten years.[5] Of these, 21,000 units will be needed by households with annual incomes under $30,000. Another 25,700 units will be needed for households with incomes between $30,000 and $45,000, which means that at least 4,700 units will have to be built each year. Yet for the past decade, the region has been averaging fewer than 1,000 new units of rental housing construction per year. These new rental projects have been exclusively in the upper-end and luxury rental market and have been dwarfed by the breakneck rate of demolitions and conversions.

Metro Vancouver, the governing body currently in charge of Heather Place, has meticulously documented the scale of the housing crisis. Their findings, however, do not translate into practice. In the proposed redevelopment of Heather Place, hundreds of people will lose their housing never to see it replaced. Instead, MVHC will partner with a private developer to build market rental housing on the ruins of affordable family housing. As Don Littleford established in a meeting with the tenants of Heather Place, the priority goes to a new gentrifying demographic:

[Y]ou’re not the only people looking for affordable housing. We have 42,000 people that are coming to this region every year…We’re going to build more housing, for a whole lot of people that want to have a place to live. Now, you may think, “Oh yeah, those are condo owners.” But keep in mind who those condo owners are. They’re people like yourselves, they have kids, they want a community, they want to be near all of the amenities…”[6]

Littleford has stated that the demolition of Heather Place is unavoidable and that “growth and change cannot be stopped.”[7] But despite an air of inevitability, the redevelopment scheme is the first step of an experimental model still in the inquiry phase at Metro Vancouver. As a prototype for new “affordable” housing in the Metro Vancouver’s housing portfolio, the redevelopment -- spearheaded by Don Littleford and Vision’s Geoff Meggs -- is modelled on Meggs and Vision Vancouver’s STIR approach to affordability. According to STIR, all new market rental housing in Vancouver is defined as “affordable” irrespective of price. Simply, the city gives subsidized land and tax breaks to private rental developers, and if they use these city programs their housing is automatically deemed affordable by Vision Vancouver, with no restrictions on rent -- a quick fact that too few people are aware of in Vancouver’s housing debate.

STIR has been renamed the Secured Market Rental Housing Policy but has already been recognized as the indistinguishable “son of STIR.” For example: Vision’s most recent incentivized affordable rental project approved at 800 Griffiths Way this summer will rent two-bedroom apartments for $2,000 per month, despite being approved as part of the city’s Housing and Homelessness Strategy. The $2,000 per month development project will grant the developer, Aquilini Investment Group, a $35m tax break.

While the astronomical rents at 800 Griffiths Way are reminiscent of Vision’s “social housing” at $900 for a one-bedroom per month, it is the additional $35-million subsidy that makes the project so similar to the proposed Heather Place redevelopment. Like the $35-million taxpayer subsidy for the Aquilinis, rents paid by current tenants of Heather Place are being used to subsidize the rezoning and planning costs of the private developer. The early redevelopment fees are being funded from a tenant-funded $11-million Redevelopment Fund held by Metro Vancouver. Both recent projects -- the Aquilini highrise and the Heather Place redevelopment -- indicate that politics in Vancouver have reached a high point of ruling class self-assurance. On his recent visit to Vancouver UN specialist Miloon Kothari met with city planners and concluded that Vancouver is indeed marked by a worsening “arrogance in housing policy.”

At Heather Place, 26 units will be replaced for low-income tenants in the proposed redevelopment. The remaining majority of the tenants displaced from the remaining 80 homes will not be able to afford the new redevelopment, despite being given a token “first right of refusal.” Don Littleford has stated rents will be $1,600 but has hinted they will be closer to $2,000, a figure he has floated in meetings with tenants.[8] Currently market-rate tenants pay $900 per month for a two-bedroom. In recent statements, Geoff Meggs has refused to give a ballpark figure for rents on these units in the redevelopment, which means that yet again he wants to produce affordability without defining it. From Pantages to Griffiths Way, recent history shows that there is no way to get affordable housing for the private market without specifying maximum rents. As Engels said long ago in his Housing Question, “the building industry, which is offered a much better field for speculation by more expensive houses, builds workers’ dwellings only by way of exception.”

Despite being confronted with the need for the preservation of affordable housing, I will argue in this upcoming series on Heather Place that Vision Vancouver’s politicians are testing their ability to use the unelected Metro Vancouver board as a way to funnel kickbacks to the private development industry, their number 1 financial backer at election time. If there is doubt that Metro Vancouver’s structure is unaccountable for Vancouverites, we should quote its board members. Geoff Meggs recently stated to the Georgia Straight that Vancouverites should not criticize Metro Vancouver’s decisions about Heather Place, since “[its] decisions are not even made in Vancouver.” In the same Straight article it was predicted that private contracts for the Heather Place redevelopment will go to Vision supporters from Vancouver’s development industry. The prediction was accurate, with Jim O’Dea’s Terra Housing winning early thousand-dollar contracts for the Heather Place redevelopment. Terra, the number consultant for P3 public-private contracts in Vancouver, is also the firm behind the Sequel 138 development, thegentrification project on East Hastings whose “social housing” will cost $900/month.

Heather Place residents are currently discovering that gentrification in Vancouver is not restricted to the DTES, but they are also learning that without developers, there is no Vision party. It is a lesson that will hit hard, because their housing has fallen in the crosshairs of Vision’s ruthless political alliance between the economic forces of monopoly capitalism and the stringent ideology of neoliberalism. Yet nothing stays the same in times of political and financial crisis.

If residents at Heather Place fight back against the corrupt developer-backed politicians who want to flatten Vancouver’s dwindling housing stock, Heather Place could be their Waterloo. Everything depends on whether or not tenants can shake off their hesitation and plunge into the class struggle -- and equally on whether Vancouverites will support them. The Vancouver Renters’ Union is supporting the tenants of Heather Place and is openly opposing the demolition, but the rest of the organized left appears passive. Heather Place reminds us more than ever that it is only shoes-on-the-ground organizing that can determine the future of the renting-class in our bustling Vancouver.

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Photo courtesy of Coupe

[1] Heather Place presentation to Metro Vancouver (February 24, 2012)

[2] Cheryl Rossi, “Housing complex tenant pans redevelopment plan,” The Vancouver Courier, September 24, 2010

[3] “Purpose-Built Rental Housing: Inventory and Risk Analysis,” Coriolis Consulting Corp. (May 8, 2012) p. 33

[4] “Purpose-Built Rental Housing: Inventory and Risk Analysis,” Coriolis Consulting Corp. (November 2009) p. 35

[5] Carlito Pablo, “Big plans for Broadway,” Georgia Straight June 17 – 24, 2010

[6] Transcript of MVHC Meeting the Heather Place Tenant Association (February 23, 2012) p. 19

[7] Transcript of MVHC Meeting with Heather Place Tenants (July 21st, 2011)

[8] Transcript of MVHC Meeting with Heather Place Tenants (July 21st, 2011)

 

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