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Growing pains at social housing complex near Vancouver’s Olympic Village

RainCity Housing director Sean Spear says the complaints about the Marguerite Ford complex are common ones whenever a new social-housing project opens.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

From the outside, the Marguerite Ford Apartments at 215 West 2nd Ave. looks much like the other new residential complexes that have sprung up on and near the former Olympic Village site on False Creek.

Inside, the building is to some degree an urban experiment: the largest of 14 housing projects being built on city-owned sites through a partnership between the province and the city, and part of a strategy that aims to spread social and supportive housing projects beyond the Downtown Eastside.

As with most experiments, there have been bumps as it gets under way. Some neighbourhood residents have raised concerns about the building's tenants loitering in an alley the complex shares with a high-end townhouse-condominium project. There have been repeated calls to police about noise, open drug use and allegedly threatening behaviour by some tenants toward neighbouring residents.

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According to the Vancouver Police Department, there have been 99 calls to that address since May 1. The department does not provide a breakdown of those calls, many of which likely involved medical concerns.

One woman who lives nearby, says she has seen discarded needles in the alley where she walks her dog. "I love the area itself, but it is sad to see some of the stuff that is happening," she said.

Such concerns are common when a new public-housing project opens, says Sean Spear, associate director of RainCity Housing, the non-profit group that provides support services for tenants.

"With any big purpose-built projects there are always some challenges," Mr. Spear said on Tuesday, adding that the Marguerite Ford building – at 147 units – is a complex operation to manage. "We are trying to respond to complaints in a really active way."

In response to concerns from neighbourhood residents, property managers have installed additional security cameras. RainCity also requires visitors to be signed in and out of the building.

"With any of these buildings, there are definitely a number of cameras – and as the project got opened, they have added cameras to make sure they are getting the right stuff," Mr. Spear said.

The Marguerite Ford complex opened in May. Its roots date back to 2007, when the city and province agreed to build 12 social housing projects on city-owned sites. Two more sites were subsequently added, bringing the total to 14.

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Since the deal was announced, there has been tension over who should get first crack at units in the new projects.

The city has pushed for the buildings to admit a greater number of "street homeless," who are vying for spots with other tenants who may include people who have been living in run-down single-room-occupancy hotels or other substandard housing.

Last year, the city and the province agreed on the following tenant mix: 50 per cent street homeless, 30 per cent "at risk of homelessness" and 20 per cent from other sources. Agencies that had signed on to run the buildings learned of the ratio – which in some cases differed from the mix for which they had planned – in September

There has been some turnover in the early months, but that is to be expected when moving that number of people into a new building, Mr. Spear said, adding that typically settles within a year.

"It's been a historic investment in housing and a great opportunity for us to get folks in greater numbers than a 27-unit building," he said.

Vic Gentile, manager at Korva World Class Collision, just west of the Marguerite Ford building on West 2nd, had no complaints about the complex or its tenants.

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"It's been really tame around here," Mr. Gentile said. "It's impeccably clean, there's no cans or bottles anywhere around."

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