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A recently approved tower in Vancouver’s West End that will have separate entrances for market strata and social housing residents has renewed charges of economic segregation in mixed-income housing.

However, supporters defend the configuration, noting that a shared entrance and lobby would boost costs for a non-profit housing operator whose priority is affordability.

The 30-storey West End development, whose rezoning proposal was approved July 31, will comprise 82 market strata units and 39 social housing units. The two types of housing will have separate entrances and their own lobbies, but a plan for separate children’s play areas was revised following concerns raised during public consultation. Instead, the two play areas will be combined “to create an improved and larger contiguous amenity that may be accessed by all residents.”

An earlier report to council noted concern that separate play areas “would result in social isolation and stigmatization of the residents in the social housing units.”

Carrie Bercic, a Vancouver School Board trustee who spoke at a public hearing on the proposal on behalf of herself and her party, OneCity Vancouver, said the separate entrances and playgrounds reminded her of segregated water fountains in the U.S. during the pre-civil rights era.

“The first thought that came into my mind immediately was, ‘This is the absolute microcosm for our city right now: a separation of have and have-not, us and them, areas for only a select few – those with the money to pay,” Ms. Bercic told council.

“As a parent myself, the second thought I had was how would I possibly explain this to a small child? ‘That playground isn’t for you. That playground is for the friends you go to school with, the friends that live in your neighbourhood, the friends that go to the same library, community centre and grocery store as we do. But it’s not for you.’”

Such configurations are part of a relatively new approach Vancouver has taken to deliver social housing. Traditionally, the city has added social housing to condo developments as separate buildings, such as with the resurrected Woodward’s Building. Inclusionary housing is an effort to better integrate affordability into communities.

“It’s raised some interesting questions for us, and we’re still trying to get that right balance between these very practical decisions. But clearly, you know, [we have] a desire to see people interact [in] mixed communities,” said Abi Bond, Director of Affordable Housing at the City of Vancouver.

“We take very seriously the design standards of these buildings, and we’re not aiming to increase the stigma lower-income families might feel.”

As social housing components are leased to non-profit housing operators, affordability is key, Ms. Bond said. A shared entrance and lobby with marble finishes and concierge service, for example, would mean additional costs for the non-profit.

“For social housing, we also want them to look great, we want those entrances to be smart and welcoming places, but we’re making decisions about finishes that maybe have a longer life and are not as costly to replace or maintain,” Ms. Bond said. “Separation does not mean second class.”

Feedback so far has highlighted some other preferences, she said. For example, the city has heard that many social housing tenants prefer amenity spaces – such as shared laundry – to be located immediately adjacent to a play area so parents can do laundry while watching their children, Ms. Bond said. This is something not commonly found in strata buildings. As well, amenity rooms are used much more in social housing buildings, and so specifications are often better than in strata buildings, she added.

Ms. Bond said the city is keen on hearing from the non-profit housing operators and tenants themselves to inform its approach. “We need to have more discussions with people about this and tweak or amend our approach as necessary.”