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Stephen Quinn (Globe files/Globe files)
Stephen Quinn (Globe files/Globe files)

Stephen Quinn

Units sit empty in a city desperate for affordable housing Add to ...

There has been much debate over the fate of the 252 units of "affordable" and subsidized housing that were built as part of Vancouver's Olympic Village.

On one side, there are those who would sell off the units and use the proceeds to build much more social housing elsewhere; presumably on the least desirable parcel of land available. Beside a bridge for instance, where the residents' low-income bodies could absorb the traffic noise before it reaches people beaming with the pride of owning, on paper at least, a leaky but tastefully decorated 600-square-foot slice of the sky. Hey, it worked on the north side of the False Creek.

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And they say the people who may eventually (oh God please) buy the million-dollar-plus condos don't want to live next door to the crack heads and junkies who will inevitably migrate, zombie-like, from the corner of Main and Hastings to occupy the units.

On the other side of the debate: those who argue that social housing was guaranteed as part of the city's bid for the 2010 Olympics, and that to sell it off would be a betrayal. They say the plan for the community envisioned a mix of housing types, with market-rate rentals, subsidized housing for those in "core need," as well as condos priced in various ranges. A place where zero-emission streetcars glide past biodynamic organic community gardens. Where dedicated bike lanes, protected from evil, emission-spewing automobiles, are lined with chicken coops. And food carts. Let's not forget the food carts.

The point is that neither vision of what social housing ought to be is accurate. Sometimes social or subsidized housing works, sometimes it doesn't.

I know this because I grew up in social housing.

Not in Vancouver, but in Ottawa, in a complex called Strathcona Heights, which teetered on the edge of a lovely and desirable neighbourhood called Sandy Hill.

The project was referred to ironically as "The Mann Ave. Mansions." In reality it was made up of dozens of low-rise walk-ups. Like so many similar projects, the complex was built out of need by the CMHC in the mid-1950s to accommodate the new families that followed the war.

Think Little Mountain, but in red brick. Green spaces between the buildings, poplar trees and parking lots for the small minority of residents who owned cars.

My family of six shared a three-bedroom apartment, the largest unit available. Rent was based on income. Our building was occupied by government workers, single mothers, tradesmen, immigrants from Jamaica and at least one employee of the CBC.

It was random diversity it all its glory. Unplanned, and not a hint of having been socially engineered.

My recollection is that, mostly, it worked. Neighbours mingled, they babysat each other's children, they chatted together at the bus stop.

To be clear, it was far from perfect. The complex was also home to a cache of abusive alcoholics, pre-teen bullies and petty thieves and vandals. But from the ages of 7 to 18, it beat living over a storefront on Preston Street (our previous home).

The real tragedy of the Olympic Village debacle is not the exponentially inflated cost of the project. It's not the complicated financing scheme that has left taxpayers shouldering the debt. It's not the flaccid condo market that has left 450 units unsold. It's not even the menacing giant sparrows that loom in the lifeless public square.

It's the fact that eight months after the Olympics have packed up and left town, 252 units of rental housing remain unoccupied, in a city where affordable housing or any kind of decent rental housing for families is impossible to come by.

Would I purposely buy a home next to a single mother, a family of new immigrants, a tradesperson or even an employee of the CBC?

You bet I would.

But until the units are actually occupied, the Olympic Village site will continue to look like The Omega Man version of an urban landscape. And if the zombies do decide to migrate, they won't look at all out of place.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One in Vancouver. 88.1 FM and 690 AM.

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