Skip to main content

Karen Finnan, from Kitsilano Coalition, speaking at a rally opposing a proposal for supportive housing to be built in the Kitsilano neighbourhood in Vancouver on June 21.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

A group of residents in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood will try to convince city council this week that housing people with serious mental-health or addiction challenges into one 13-storey tower is not the best solution for the potential occupants – though proponents stress the stability and community that the proposal can enable.

The public hearing for the 129-unit building in a neighbourhood that has not ever seen anything similar will begin Tuesday. There are 171 people on the speakers list, an indication of how hotly contested the proposed building has become.

The Kitsilano site is part of a push by the provincial government’s BC Housing agency to tackle the province’s growing homelessness problem by massive construction of supportive and social housing – including moving such projects out of the already heavily loaded inner-city areas.

The residents’ group, Kitsilano Coalition, has recruited Simon Fraser University researcher Julian Somers to bolster their argument.

“Housing people all together is not what people say they want and it doesn’t result in significant difference in crime or medical emergencies compared to homeless people,” said Dr. Somers, who has compared the outcomes for people living in scattered apartments as opposed to ones grouped together in one building. However, his study also acknowledged that people in group sites might show up more in crime statistics because they’re living in places that the police monitor more regularly.

Meanwhile, those who have spent decades working to reduce homelessness say that for some people who have lost all connection to friends and family, group housing works best – as long as they get the help they need to address their challenges.

“It’s less about the building. The real key is the supports that are in place,” said Tim Richter, chief executive of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, who helped find sites for 20 supportive-housing projects in Calgary from 2008 to 2012. Supports include mental-health therapy, drug-use counselling, activities to reduce social isolation and nurses for basic physical health.

He said most people who need subsidized housing prefer living in regular buildings that have a mix of people and income levels. But there is a small but important group of those who don’t because they feel isolated, even discriminated against, and not in touch with regular supports when they are provided with apartments here and there in private buildings.

The building, if approved, will be operated by the Mental Patients Association, a group that manages a number of smaller supportive-housing projects, including one at 7th and Fir near Kitsilano.

Mr. Richter said Alberta chose to put all its money into scattered sites for a long time. But now the government is funding buildings that are dedicated to supportive housing for those that need that approach.

“There are people who really want a sense of community.”

Whether B.C. and Vancouver have the right balance of those two approaches will be one of the main points that speakers at the public hearing will be debating.

The event is expected to last at least three days and has already generated almost 500 comments for and against the project.

Opponents say they’re worried about increased crime in the neighbourhood and drug use in a building that will be located directly across the street from an elementary school. They also argue they’ll be losing green space, that the shadow from the tower will affect the school playground and that there won’t be enough supports for the building.

The opponents have hired a public-relations firm, distributed printed flyers to homes through the neighbourhood, and mobilized a number of others to join their cause, from people in nearby seniors housing and co-ops to agencies that provide services to women escaping domestic violence.

A second group of Kits residents, called Kitsilano for Inclusivity, has been trying to mobilize support, although with a smaller budget.

“They’re a wealthy bunch that has a lot of connections,” said Serena Eagland, a health care worker who rents in Kitsilano. She believes the new housing project will help stabilize people and is dismayed that some are objecting to the tower because it will throw a shadow onto the school playground for part of the morning.

“We don’t care if there are shadows. People not dying on the streets should be our priority.”

The B.C. Liberal government in the mid-2000s changed the social-housing programs of the 1990s that put money into apartments that were then rented to people with a wide variety of incomes. Instead, faced with rising numbers of homeless people in Vancouver and many other B.C. cities, the government began an aggressive program of buying residential hotels in the Downtown Eastside and building relatively large new buildings in Vancouver that were dedicated to 100-per-cent supportive housing.

Fourteen of those projects were built in the next decade, some of which attracted a lot of attention as they were rapidly filled with some of the most vulnerable residents of the Downtown Eastside, producing a distinct increase in patterns of crime and disorder around them. Many others have generated almost no public notice, including one at 17th and Dunbar on the city’s west side and the MPA building on Fir.

In spite of those efforts, homelessness has continued to increase, so the NDP government and BC Housing have proposed more large buildings, and have rapidly created temporary modular housing in the last several years.

That has meant trying to find sites for new projects in neighbourhoods outside the usual inner-city areas and moving out into places such as Kitsilano, which have not seen anything like the supportive-housing building now being proposed.

BC Housing just last week got approval to build a 109-unit supportive-housing building at King Edward and Knight Street on the east side. It generated some debate, but it was not as contentious as what the Kitsilano site has seen.

The province and city have tried to get back to more projects of mixed-income housing. But that often requires extensive negotiation with a private developer to try to get a few lowest-rent apartments into a project.

Getting more private apartments for people who need supports means building up to 10 times as many apartments as the number of supportive-housing units in it, in order to achieve the kind of mix that groups such as Kitsilano Coalition say is the best.

According to city statistics, there were 1,360 social- or supportive-housing apartments built in the last two years, but there was no breakdown of how many were in scattered sites as opposed to group sites.

Dr. Somers’s research indicates that people placed in either scattered or group sites saw huge improvements in their housing stability, compared to those who got only supports but no guaranteed housing. Those at group sites also self-reported more improvements in secondary issues such as quality of life, substance-use problems, food security and overall health compared to those in scattered sites.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.