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B.C. Housing is proposing a 12-storey building with 140 studio apartments geared for very low-income singles at a key intersection next to the new Arbutus SkyTrain station.Courtesy of BC Housing

It has been 9 years since any social housing was built in Kitsilano, a Vancouver neighbourhood once known for its counterculture leanings that has since become an increasingly high-end enclave of extensively renovated older homes.

The Arbutus Co-op, a multiunit high-rise, and the Alumnae Manor, a seniors’ housing project, went up in 2002 in the last dribble of subsidized housing built in the area. Except for one project from 1991 and another in 2012, the rest of the subsidized housing in the area is mostly mixed-income, low-rise co-ops or seniors’ housing from the 1960s through to the 80s.

So a recent proposal from B.C. Housing comes as a wake-up call for the Kitsilano community – announced in February, the plan calls for a 12-storey building with 140 studio apartments geared for very low-income singles at a key intersection next to the new Arbutus SkyTrain station – the size and type of building that has not been seen in Vancouver beyond the Downtown Eastside.

The lack of details around the proposal has left current residents trying to figure out what the plan means for their neighbourhood – some are concerned, while others welcome it as a solution to the city’s ongoing problems with homelessness and lack of affordable housing.

Such divisions are likely to continue as the federal government, province and municipalities push to tackle these issues after many years where little was done to address the growing housing crisis in much of the country.

Not only is the pace of social-housing funding increasing from all three levels of government, but the flood of new initiatives has resulted in buildings being proposed in neighbourhoods that have not seen low-cost housing projects in decades.

Progress on city’s pledge to build much-needed social housing in Vancouver remains stalled

Vancouver’s affordable housing announcements remain unfulfilled years later

Many of the new proposals are also specifically for supportive housing, not just affordable units. Supportive housing encompasses projects designed to house those with the lowest incomes, with assistance provided for residents on site – ranging from meal programs and housekeeping to mental-health and addiction services.

In addition to the west-end Kitsilano proposal, the February B.C. Housing announcement included another, similar supportive-housing project in east Vancouver at King Edward Avenue and Knight Street.

In Kitsilano, one neighbourhood group, called Parents for Thoughtful City Planning, says their research unearthed some worst-case scenarios, such as a news account of a social-housing resident in Victoria who had guns and machetes in his room; the raft of police calls at the 147-unit Marguerite Ford building in the Olympic Village when it first opened in 2013; and ongoing complaints from nearby condo residents about garbage, drug paraphernalia and low-level crime.

“We’re opposed to more of the same,” group member Charlene Kettlewell said as she relayed the list. She and other group members, many of them connected to the private St. Augustine elementary Catholic school across the street from the proposed housing project, are concerned about adding more buildings to the area that they say will be too big, filled with too many residents and only increase problems in the neighbourhood.

But Lindsey Murphy, who lives a few blocks away from Ms. Kettlewell in a co-op with her children, says the social-housing buildings she’s familiar with are working well – a hopeful sign, she notes.

“I don’t think the Marguerite Ford is an accurate comparison,” she says. “It was built before [B.C. Housing] used a vulnerability-assessment tool to assess what residents need.”

Ms. Murphy points to a different project, the Kettle on Burrard – which provides housing and support services for adult and youth tenants at risk of homelessness – as a successful example resulting from the careful assessment of what residents might require to be fully supported in their new home.

Ms. Murphy and other supporters have formed their own group, Kitsilano for Inclusivity, and say it’s time for the neighbourhood to do its part in housing the city’s poorest residents.

“I understand the hesitancy and the fear,” she says. “A lot of it has to do with the stigmas – we see this every time one of these buildings is proposed. By and large, a lot of things have been proven not to be true.”

Ms. Murphy, who is president of her housing co-op and a member of the Canadian Housing Renewal Association’s tenant leadership group, has a lot of familiarity with the issues. Many other local residents don’t – something that housing operators acknowledge.

“I think it’s challenging in Vancouver right now because supportive-housing buildings are going into neighbourhoods where they haven’t been before,” says Tanya Fader, who oversees the management of hundreds of apartments for the non-profit PHS Community Services Society in 20 buildings throughout the region.

Newer developments result in entire neighbourhoods of people trying to understand how social-housing residents are selected, what kinds of supports they receive, how housing operators will connect with the community and many other related questions.

They don’t get always get the answers they’re seeking out, however.

Residents who live near the planned Arbutus project who are concerned about its size say it’s been frustrating that B.C. Housing has compared the project in community meetings with a three-storey building – an example that they say does not seem like what is actually being proposed. As well, early efforts at public engagement didn’t include the St. Augustine school across the street because TransLink mistakenly sent an email regarding the outreach to a school with the same name in Newfoundland.

Residents who have concerns about the project say they don’t know at this point how new residents will be chosen for the building, or any details about the vulnerability assessment tool (VAT) that has been used by B.C. Housing and non-profit housing providers since 2014.

The assessment, which B.C. imported from Seattle, aims to provide a picture for housing providers about what kind of support future residents might need, from basic survival skills to mental-health counselling. That allows building managers to decide how many and what type of staff will be needed, and to help ensure of a mix of residents.

“We do want to achieve a balance. That’s the key to success,” said Damian Murphy, the manager of Kettle on Burrard, one of the housing projects managed by the Kettle Society, which provides community services and advocacy to empower those living with mental illness, addiction, poverty and homelessness (the organization is not being considered as an operator for the Arbutus project).

The Kettle building is one of 14 supportive-housing projects constructed during a big push from the previous B.C. Liberal government, which came along with a memorandum of agreement that included two formulas about who should get one of the 1,400 apartments that were created.

One formula outlined that 50 per cent of people offered such housing should be those truly living on the street, 30 per cent should be those who were precariously housed (sleeping on a sofa at a friend’s, for example) and 20 per cent should be people at risk of losing their housing through situations such as renovictions or rent increases.

The second formula also spelled out that 50 per cent of the future residents in a social-housing building should be low-needs, 40 per cent medium-needs and only 10 per cent high-needs.

“Definitely the size of the building does play a role, but it depends on how it is managed,” Mr. Murphy said. “Some operators get bids because their budget is low – they only have two staff altogether. That’s not enough.”

At the Kettle on Burrard, there are 11 permanent staff and nine relief workers, plus a maintenance team. Because it’s a 24/7 operation, that means there are typically two people on shift at a time, with visiting specialists coming in for specific activities and services at various points.

Ms. Fader said PHS uses the same approach and has similar staffing levels.

“I review every referral that comes through and discuss with the managers, ‘Where is this person going to be the most set up for success?’ We’re always trying to figure out the balance.”

Too many high-needs residents can overwhelm staff. People who are prone to starting fires or to hoarding need to be in concrete buildings, Ms. Fader explained. Some people need to be near the mental-health team they’re already connected to.

But nervous resident groups sometimes default to the bits of data occasionally provided by police about the number of police calls to the most high-profile buildings.

Vancouver police records requested by The Globe and Mail show that the range of calls to the city’s 14 supportive-housing buildings ranged in 2020 from a low of four calls at the Broadway Youth Resources tower at Fraser and Broadway Streets, to 789 calls at the Alexander Street community housing tower at 111 Princess St., managed by PHS. The Kettle on Burrard had 90 calls, the McLaren Housing Society building on Howe Street had 95, while The Budzy, also on Princess Street, had 305.

Among the city’s temporary modular housing projects, which typically have around 40 units, the police calls in 2020 ranged from 333 to the project near the Olympic Village station to eight at a cluster on Heather Street in the Marpole area.

But as housing advocates point out, such statistics are not an accurate measure, since the call volume can stem from anything such as irate neighbours phoning in, a resident who is obsessively calling 911 or issues on the street nearby.

Meanwhile, there is no available data on non-profit agencies’ track record in managing such housing projects. Nor is there precise information on how calls to police might be a reflection of an agency’s willingness – or not – to take on difficult residents who may have been kicked out of other places. Some PHS buildings will have more challenging residents, Ms. Fader said, because the organization does not evict people who are likely to end up on the street.

Residents who live near existing supportive or transitional housing say they find it difficult to assess what issues might be connected to already existing problems in their neighbourhoods, and what might be related to the realities of those with high needs living in social housing.

Non-profit housing managers emphasize that neighbourhood concerns often go down when residents are able to connect with the group that will be running the building. So far, B.C. Housing has not announced which non-profit organizations will manage the two new proposed supportive-housing towers. When that information is made public and the project progresses, residents will have an opportunity to engage with those organizations, Ms. Fader explained.

“When we were opening places in False Creek, there were a lot of concerned seniors,” Ms. Fader recalled. “Once we told them how involved our staff were, you could see the weight roll off their shoulders.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the last social housing was built 19 years ago. It was nine years ago. Also, it was TransLink that sent an email to the wrong neighbourhood school, not the city.

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