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Modular housing units at 620 Cambie Street in Vancouver, B.C., December 27, 2018. Jimmy Jeong /The Globe and Mail.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

Henry Braun was a city councillor in Abbotsford, a semi-rural municipality in the Fraser Valley where chicken farms share the landscape with shopping malls and other urban realities, the day that co-existence took a turn.

On June 4, 2013, city workers deliberately dumped chicken manure on a site where homeless people had been staying in preceding months in an escalation of efforts to make the squatters feel unwelcome.

The incident triggered a lawsuit and a 2015 Supreme Court of B.C. decision that struck down city bylaws that prohibited homeless people from sleeping overnight in parks.

Today, Mr. Braun is in his second term as mayor, having won the job in 2014 after promising to take a new approach to homelessness.

In that role, he’s embraced the province’s push to build modular housing for people living in camps, doorways and hidden pockets of the city. Under the initiative, the province typically pays for factory-built modules to be put up on city-owned sites. The province also pays for support staff.

“We’re very pleased with the provincial government for investing,” Mr. Braun said in a recent interview.

“It’s not just [the housing] – it’s all the wraparound services that come with it,” he added.

With two new modular housing projects announced last year, Abbotsford is part of one of the largest “housing first” programs seen to date in Canada. In “housing first” programs, chronically homeless people get homes without having to meet other other requirements, such as not using drugs or alcohol.

The program comes as communities around the province grapple with rising numbers of people who are homeless, including families and seniors. A 2017 regional homeless count for Metro Vancouver found homelessness increased by 30 per cent since 2014, to 3,605 people, with half of respondents saying they had been homeless for more than a year.

But the push to address that through modular housing has not all been smooth sailing.

In Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, RCMP recently formed a task force to respond to a spike in calls for service in the vicinity of two provincially run housing projects. Last year, dozens of Richmond residents rallied against a proposed modular housing project in the city. (It opened in April.)

In Maple Ridge – a city of about 83,000 an hour’s drive east of Vancouver – the provincial New Democratic government plans to build a modular housing project despite opposition from the city’s mayor and most of its council. That move comes with political risk: Maple Ridge has two ridings held by NDP MLAs, both of whom have expressed support for the housing project and could wind up in the crosshairs of voters who oppose it.

B.C. announced its temporary modular housing program in September, 2017, saying it would spend $291-million to build 2,000 modular housing units around the province.

As of April, 2019, about 1,300 were complete, with another 800 under way. Modular projects have gone up in 22 communities around the province.

With that initial funding spoken for, the province last year announced another program, the Supportive Housing Fund, which included money for more modular units. About 400 are under way through that program.

Tenants pay the provincial assistance rate of $375 a month. Non-profit groups operate the buildings under contract to the province.

“It’s being recognized across the country as being a big and ambitious program – there really isn’t another provincial government making the same type of investments into affordable housing generally, but certainly into supportive housing for homeless individuals,” says Jill Atkey, chief executive of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association.

Lingering issues

Homelessness has been a prominent issue in Maple Ridge since at least 2017, when people set up tents near the city’s downtown to protest the closing of a local shelter.

In March, after several fires at the site, known as Anita Place, the city obtained an evacuation order from the provincial fire commissioner. After a clean-up, the city allowed a small number of campers to return under strict conditions, including that they register with the city.

Housing Minister Selina Robinson ordered the city to come up with a plan to find homes for people who’d been displaced. The city filed a plan, but Ms. Robinson said it was unacceptable, in part because it called for putting more temporary housing at a site the province said was already at capacity.

Saying it had to get people off the street, the province forged ahead with plans to build a 51-unit modular housing project on provincial land.

It’s not the first time the province has put its foot down.

In Nanaimo, the province last year opened temporary housing on two sites after the city obtained a court injunction to close a tent city on the waterfront.

Those Nanaimo projects have been plagued by problems, including public complaints about crime and disorder near the sites.

In a quarterly update to Nanaimo council on April 8, RCMP Superintendent Cameron Miller reported “a very large increase” in calls for police service in the vicinity of the two facilities, with the number of calls over a four-month period near one site climbing by 250 per cent from the same period the previous year.

Nanaimo RCMP have since set up a six-person task force to address the concerns. (B.C. Housing, the Crown corporation that oversees the modular program, says a case study on five such buildings found service calls to police typically began to decrease after the six-month mark.

Differing outlooks

In Maple Ridge, critics such as Tina MacLeod are not convinced that modular housing projects won’t result in increased crime and disorder.

Ms. MacLeod works at a seniors’ residence close to Royal Crescent, where a 53-unit modular housing project opened in October.

Months before that, Ms. MacLeod and two other people were arrested during a protest at the site. No charges were laid in that incident.

The housing project has made the neighbourhood feel less safe, she says, citing loud arguments and open drug use by tenants who live in the building.

She’d like to see more programs that offer abstinence and recovery.

“They say you’re getting them off the streets – but if you’re just getting them off the streets and hiding them, that’s not doing anybody any good,” Ms. MacLeod says.

Mayors of communities that have temporary modular housing projects dispute the notion that the modular housing is merely warehousing people and say supports – paid for by the province – are key.

“What was really important was getting the funding for support services – that’s a critical piece of the puzzle,” says Taylor Bachrach, the mayor of Smithers, a city of about 5,300 people in northwestern B.C.

Mr. Bachrach, who this month won the federal NDP nomination for Skeena-Bulkley Valley, says Smithers started looking into social housing nearly a decade ago and bought a piece of downtown property for that purpose.

When the province said there was money available for modular housing projects, Smithers got in line. A 24-unit housing modular apartment building opened in February.

“I would say there has been overwhelming support for the project and for the concept of supportive housing,” Mr. Bachrach says.

“Residents of Smithers are very aware of the importance of housing and some of the challenges that homelessness place on emergency services and other services.”

Even Burnaby has signed on.

Gaining steam

Under former mayor Derek Corrigan, Burnaby, a city of about 233,000 next to Vancouver, for years balked at providing homeless shelters or social housing, saying the federal and provincial governments – not cities – were responsible for housing.

Currently, Burnaby is in line for one 52-unit project to open this spring (it was approved while Mr. Corrigan was still in office) and plans to request more, says Mayor Mike Hurley, who defeated Mr. Corrigan last year.

“We are looking at sites as we speak to see if we can find sites for more of that type of housing,” Mr. Hurley says.

Burnaby has come under fire for allowing hundreds of older rental apartments to be demolished and replaced with more expensive condominiums. In January, the city launched a housing task force. Its interim report, released May 8, included 10 “quick starts” for rental housing; the first was to create a modular housing strategy.

Vancouver is home to about 600 modular housing units.

According to the 2017 homeless count for Metro Vancouver, a regional tally carried out every three years, there were 69 homeless people in Burnaby, 2,138 in Vancouver and 124 in Ridge Meadows (which takes in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows).

The City of Vancouver does an annual count; results from its March survey are to be released on Wednesday.

In Maple Ridge, Mayor Mike Morden would like to see the site now slated for supportive housing for homeless people used for seniors’ housing instead.

Mr. Braun, of Abbotsford, says Maple Ridge’s fight is déjà vu for him.

“The clips that I see in Maple Ridge remind me of a movie I saw here 10 years ago … the community will have to come to a point where it realizes something different will have to be done.”

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