Vancouver is poised to give the go-ahead to a condo project that will see a private developer build and turn over a percentage of its apartments to the city for low-cost rentals.
The Wall Financial development is the first in what is expected to be a wave of similar ventures, as the city uses its bargaining power to trade zoning changes and increased height for social-housing units.
"It's our drive now to get units, not just land, for housing," said the city's housing director, Abi Bond. The project is going to public hearing Tuesday.
The proposed development, on a gritty stretch of industrial land on East Hastings, includes 352 condos in three towers, with 70 designated to be transferred to the city. Another unusual element: The project will include two floors of industrial space.
A third of the 70 city units, worth almost $10-million, will be rented at welfare-level rates. Another third will be rented at slightly below market rates.
It's not the first time Vancouver has extracted housing units from a developer. The city has a small number of apartment units in various buildings. As well, a decade ago, it negotiated to have Millennium Developments replace a residential hotel on Richards with a new 46-unit project when the company built its L'Hermitage condo, hotel and retail complex on that block.
But the Wall project represents a new-generation effort from the city to find ways to add social-housing stock as money from provincial and federal governments for housing has fallen away.
Council has already worked out an agreement in the coming Arbutus Village development to get 20 per cent, or 100 units, dedicated to rental.
But the benefits are not selling everyone.
The Wall development, on the edge of Strathcona and blocks from the Downtown Eastside, has provoked dramatically different reactions from community and political groups there.
Some say it will just accelerate gentrification and eat into the city's limited supply of industrial land. Others say it will help provide the affordable housing the area desperately needs.
"This is valuable property close to the downtown and what I would rather do is see the city take advantage of it," said Fern Jeffries, a former B.C. assistant deputy housing minister who is working with the Ray-Cam Co-operative Centre. The community centre, across the street from the Wall development, serves a big pool of low-income residents in existing social housing and private homes nearby.
Ms. Jeffries said a lot of those families in the area are working at minimum-wage jobs but can't find secure housing. Others want to be close to a neighbourhood like Strathcona, a long-time landing place for immigrants, where their relatives first arrived or still live. The project will give them some options.
One thing Ray-Cam is lobbying for is to have the 70 units managed by an affiliated local group that knows the community, not an outside housing manager.
However, organizations like the Carnegie Community Action Project and the political party COPE say the project will produce only a small benefit in return for a lot of negative consequences.
"When Wall starts moving into the Downtown Eastside, the land values are going to go crazy," said former COPE councillor Ellen Woodsworth. "I think that Wall and some of the other developers who have done well in this city should be doing more."
Wall Financial president Bruno Wall said the project is an experiment for the company, with the way it combines industrial, social housing and market housing.
Mr. Wall said the company is putting a lot of work into figuring out who would be good tenants for the industrial spaces, which can't be straight retail but can't be operations that create disruptive smell, noise, or traffic.
"A lot of people are looking at it to see how successful it is."