Vancouver documentary filmmaker and activist David Vaisbord is giving away social housing, 29 grams at a time in neat little boxes marked “Genuine Medium Ground Social Housing.” It’s part of a campaign to promote and help finance the completion of his new documentary about the Little Mountain housing complex.
You know the site – 6.2 hectares of prime Vancouver real estate just east of Queen Elizabeth Park. It has remained virtually untouched for the past five years, ever since all but one of the 37 buildings – three-storey walk-ups and attached townhomes – were razed to make way for a new, mix-use development.
Mr. Vaisbord lives nearby and began the project in 2007 as a casual observer. “I came into it as a neighbour and the neighbours didn’t want less social housing, they wanted more,” he told me in an interview.
The neat little brown cardboard box he handed me this week lists among its ingredients old growth Canadian forest, leaded paint chips, glass, nails, wallpaper, glue and memories. Inside I found a small zip-lock bag of what looks like mulch but has the distinct mildew and wet concrete smell of a demolition site.
For Mr. Vaisbord and other activists who tried to save Little Mountain, that is the question that haunts: In a city so desperate for affordable housing and social housing, why were more than 200 serviceable housing units reduced to rubble, a community dispersed, and the land left vacant for five years?
The simple answer is that when the province inherited the land from the federal government, it agreed to deliver the property ready to develop.
The buildings were labelled “derelict” and boarded up. Residents would temporarily be moved from the substandard housing and return when the site was redeveloped.
“The reality did not fit the story,” Mr. Vaisbord said.
Included in the more than 400 hours of footage Mr. Vaisbord has collected is a tour of one of the boarded-up buildings. It begins with his tour guide doing a load of laundry in a completely functional laundry room, then moving upstairs to a 900-square-foot apartment with gleaming hardwood floors. Along the way, we’re shown decent bathrooms with new fixtures and electrical upgrades, tidy kitchens and a good-sized bedroom.
The interior was strikingly similar to the social housing I grew up in in Ottawa – utilitarian but spacious by today’s standards. The exterior configuration was similar as well, buildings arranged in u-shapes around grass courtyards – a place where kids could be seen from the kitchen window.
When the footage was shot in 2009, Mr. Vaisbord says tenants were told that they would be moved to their new units within two years. Two years came and went and the land remained vacant except for a single building where four families fought tooth and nail to stay.
It’s not fair to say that nothing has happened on the Little Mountain site since 2009. In fact, in April of last year, just before the provincial election, then housing minister Rich Coleman, shovel in hand, announced the construction of a new 53-unit building for seniors. A little more than one year later, that building is nearing completion and tenants will soon move in.
Mr. Vaisbord says all of the credit for the completion of the first building belongs to the four families who refused to leave their original townhomes on the site.
They will be among the first tenants, but the building will stand in isolation for some time with none of the community amenities that are part of the master plan, which includes 234 units of social housing and roughly 1,400 market housing units.
But the rapid rate of construction is a demonstration of what is possible when necessity, pragmatism and perhaps political expediency rule.
Weeks from now, Mr. Coleman or his successor will likely return to cut a ribbon and celebrate another step in tackling the city’s homelessness problem. When that happens, Mr. Vaisbord says he will be there, camera in hand and with mixed feelings.
“It will be a great day for the seniors who have been exiled and are finally able to return,” he said, “but I’ll be thinking about the ones who didn’t live long enough to see the day.”
Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One in Vancouver, 88.1 FM and 690 AM in Vancouver. @cbcstephenquinn – Stephen Quinn Host On The Coast 3-6 Weekdays CBC Radio One 690 AM