Vancouver hosts ‘Big Conversation’ to address future of affordable housing
A large roundtable forum was held Saturday to allow the public to give input into Vancouver’s affordable housing strategy.
Dubbed “The Big Conversation,” the event was hosted by the City of Vancouver and allowed residents of all backgrounds to voice their concerns and suggestions. The city says it will use the feedback provided to shape its future strategies as it addresses a booming real estate market and a growing gap between housing prices and incomes.
Mayor Gregor Robertson said the key goal is “more”: more housing, more opportunities for those less fortunate, and more equality among residents.
“Today is really about capturing the best ideas and feedback and criticism – we’ll take the good with the bad,” Robertson told reporters. “We just need to be sure we’re doing everything we can to create more housing.”
Robertson said the city also wants more help from the provincial and federal governments, particularly when it comes to financing. In his opening remarks to the forum, he mentioned 20 sites of city land that are currently available for provincial and federal funding, and called on those governments to help get potential projects off the ground.
“The city has traditionally held these [sites] as a rainy day fund, and this is as rainy a day – in terms of housing supply – as I can imagine,” Robertson said. “We need to be deploying those sites. We need to be building a mix of housing on there, with as much affordable [housing] as we can, and that means provincial and federal governments putting money on the table.”
Robertson later told reporters he had sent a letter to federal finance minister Bill Morneau asking for an in-person meeting to discuss solutions to the housing crisis, including curbing speculation and other issues that are driving up the market. He said he will send a similar request to the provincial finance minister once that position has been filled.
The forum invited residents from across the housing spectrum: owners, renters, people with high and low incomes, even those who live with their parents. Michael Lee, MLA for Vancouver-Langara, was in attendance, along with city councilors Andrea Reimer and Geoff Meggs. Media were not allowed to stay for the discussion periods or talk to participants inside.
Homelessness left out
Lenée Son, coordinator for the Carnegie Community Action Project, says a key group has been left out of the conversation: the 2,100-strong homeless population currently in the Downtown Eastside and Chinatown.
“A lot of times when the city discusses housing, homelessness is often left out of the conversation,” Son said. “People who are the most marginalized in the community are not heard, and we are pushing for the government to hear those voices.
“People are dying on the streets, and we need immediate housing now.”
Son pointed specifically to the way single-room occupancy (SRO) housing has fallen into disrepair, mentioning the recently-closed Balmoral Hotel as an example. She said the housing that remains for rent in the area is simply too expensive to afford for most of the people she represents.
“People are given $375 for rent [through welfare assistance], when rent in the Downtown Eastside and Chinatown area is about $600 to $700,” she said. “Even if people are able to pay their rent, they have about two dollars a day to spend on transportation and food. It’s just not okay for people to be living like this.”
Robertson said the city does not have the resources to address the conditions of SROs alone, again calling on the provincial government to provide resources to housing they have “historically always been responsible for.”
“We will do everything we can do,” the mayor said. “We will go after the slumlords that are letting their buildings fall apart like this. We’ve been doing a lot of inspections over the last few years. The challenge ends up being when we go to the courts. We don’t get convictions at a scale where we can have confidence we can keep the buildings open and get repairs done. It’s a huge challenge for city staff, and it’s an unbelievably brutal challenge for the residents.
“The system is broken,” he added, “and we have to do everything we can as a city to rectify that, but we need stronger tools and enforcement options from the province.”
‘A long way to go’
In his opening remarks, Robertson highlighted several steps the city has taken to address the housing crisis, including the empty homes tax and the creation of the Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency. But he acknowledged Vancouver has a long way to go.
“There’s a number of steps that we have taken, but it’s not enough,” he said. “We need to do far more. We need to see across the city a lot more density in all neighbourhoods, a lot of different housing types, a focus on affordability and rental housing. And we have to keep the pressure on the provincial and federal government, who are making more positive sounds than ever before, but the delivery of the dollars to deepen the affordability hasn’t come yet.”
The mayor also hoped the “limbo” the provincial government currently finds itself in due to last month’s election results ends “soon” so that progress can be made.
The city is also hosting an online questionnaire for those who have opinions on housing in Vancouver, but were unable to make the forum. Vancouver residents can take the survey here, while those outside the Vancouver area who want to contribute can answer a separate survey here.
With files from Nadia Stewart
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