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Vancouver developer accused of using ‘poor door’ for low-income residents

A B.C. real estate development has been criticized for allegedly segregating low- and high-income residents.


A proposed residential development in Vancouver's West End would segregate lower-income residents by having separate entrances for social housing and market-value units, critics say.

The 19-storey development planned for 1171 Jervis St., would have 63 market-value condo units and 28 social housing units, according to a planning and development report. The social housing would be in the building's three-story podium base with a Davie Street entrance, while the condo units would be accessed from Jervis Street.

Critics have slammed the configuration, sometimes referred to as a "poor door," as discriminatory. New York is reconsidering a rule that allows separate entrances for such mixed buildings under its Inclusionary Housing Program.

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"If you're advocating for social mix but then creating a very clear division in terms of who gets to go in what door, it creates an obvious barrier," said DJ Larkin, a lawyer with the Pivot Legal Society. "People are basically outed within their own community. How does that help people engage with community? How does that help people fit in?"

Brian Jackson, Vancouver's general manager of planning, said the city has traditionally added social housing units to condo developments as separate buildings, as in the revived Woodward's project. The integration of social housing into condominiums is new.

"The social housing units come to the city as a parcel of land – in this case it's called an 'airspace parcel' – that we own and then seek a non-profit to operate," Mr. Jackson said.

A separate structure – with its own entrance, mechanics and elevators – helps identify the social housing, making it "much easier to describe legally and maintain over the long term," he said.

"We don't have to have [a separate entrance], but in terms of the long-term operations, it's better if you separate them out so we can be as independent as we can from the larger strata corporation."

The social housing will not get "second-class status," Mr. Jackson said.

"The entrance is actually on Davie, the main street. The entrance to the condominium is on the side street," he said. "In this case, the expression 'poor door' doesn't apply because it has equal or in fact higher prominence than the condominium."

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Three to five similar projects are in the discussion phase, Mr. Jackson said.

He added that some could have a common entrances and elevators.

Gordon Price, a former Vancouver councillor and director of The City Program at Simon Fraser University, said factors to consider include whether the social housing component is architecturally defined, what amenities are involved and whether the social housing residents pay for them. (Regarding the latter, Mr. Jackson said no.)

"In some cases, it may just make sense for the convenience of the residents to have a separate entrance," said Mr. Price, who viewed the issue as site-specific.

"Often these issues become part of a larger debate about class, distinction and equity in society: 'Are we dividing ourselves up into rich and poor?' So, the 'poor door' thing hits beautifully as a way of having that debate – but there are these other considerations that go into the discussion."

On-site amenities for the condo units include "exceptionally large balconies," roof terraces and access to a large amenity room and guest suite, according to a design plan from NSDA Architects. Most social housing units will have balconies and access to large, common grade-level indoor/outdoor amenity spaces.

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"Although one building, the complex has been designed to function and appear as two separate but interconnected buildings," the plan states.

Ms. Larkin said a culture shift is needed to reach a true social mix.

"If you actually want, and believe, that mixed housing can work, you actually have to encourage people to mix, to become one community."

The Development Permit Board approved the proposal this week; the next step is to get a building permit.

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