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The Globe and Mail

Non-profits to tackle low-cost housing in Vancouver

Yuri Artibise is pictured in his co-op housing unit in Vancouver, British Columbia on May 8, 2013.

Ben Nelms/For The Globe & Mail

Nearly a quarter-century after then-mayor Gordon Campbell tried a controversial experiment to create hundreds of units of low-cost housing in this expensive city, a new mayor and council are about to try again.

But this time, Vision Mayor Gregor Robertson and his council are going to give $22-million worth of city land to a group of non-profits – not a private developer as Mr. Campbell did. And they hope it's just the start to building hundreds, perhaps thousands, more units that will rent for below-market rates.

"The whole goal was to try to find a model that would produce a stock of affordable housing for the future. This is not a one-off," Councillor Geoff Meggs said.

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The Vision council has been criticized many times over the last four years for its other major effort to create housing, which gave incentives to developers if they would include some rental apartments in the building.

Critics said the program was just a giveaway to developers and didn't even produce affordable units, since there was no commitment required that they be rented for below-market rates.

However, in this initiative, staff – following up on the mayor's task force on housing affordability last year – are recommending that four pieces of city land in southeast Vancouver be given as a free 99-year lease to the Community Housing Land Trust Foundation.

The foundation, an offshoot of the B.C. Co-operative Housing Federation, will be used as the vehicle to hold the land while four non-profits develop about 350 units of housing on the four sites.

The plan is that high market rents from units on a site overlooking the Fraser River, as well as the lease money for commercial space to be built on a Kingsway site, will be used to subsidize the rest of the housing.

Some will be rented at the lowest possible rates to people on welfare, with disabilities, or minimal income. Others, intended to be rented to working but low-income households, will get moderate subsidies. On average, the rents will be 74 per cent lower than similar buildings in the neighbourhood.

"This is so innovative and promising," said Thom Armstrong, the executive director of the co-op housing federation, which will operate two of the buildings as co-ops. "We think we can achieve these [affordability] targets without sacrificing quality of life or quality of housing."

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A number of private developers put in offers for the sites, with their suggestions about how they could build both market units and some low-cost rental units. But, in the end, a city staff team led by former deputy city manager David McLellan decided those weren't worth considering in depth.

Instead, Mr. McLellan went to work directly on the unusual offer from the co-op federation, which pulled together a proposal with other non-profits, a housing consultant and financing expertise from Vancity Credit Union.

"This proposal was head and shoulders above the rest," Mr. Meggs said. The land trust is not permitted to do anything with land in its holdings except develop affordable housing, so it means the city's investment is protected.

Mr. Armstrong said it's been impossible for years for housing groups to try to develop any new subsidized housing. But the city offer of multiple sites at no cost laid the foundation for a workable project, he said.

The consortium of non-profits will put in $6-million of money they hold in reserves, which will add the final touch to efforts to keep rents as low as possible. That was key to the city.

"They've said they will keep them at those low rates – that to us was invaluable," said Brenda Prosken, Vancouver's general manager for housing.

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For existing co-op residents, the news about the city agreement was enthusiastically welcomed. "I'm a big fan of the co-op housing model," Yuri Artibise said. "It's been a great way to create a livable city."

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