Skip to main content

Kevin Royes puts away a garbage bin after cleaning the area around his camper that he lives in on Glen Drive in Vancouver on Feb. 6, 2018.Rafal Gerszak

Just how bad could Vancouver’s housing situation get for its poor and marginalized citizens? If you want a scare, just look south to the coastal cities of the United States, which so often presage trends here, both good and bad.

In California, thousands of people live in impromptu motor-home camps in high-rent cities such as Los Angeles, San Diego and Palo Alto. Reminiscent of migrant workers in The Grapes of Wrath, they park on roadways until their welcome runs out and then roll along to the next spot.

In the Seattle area, 11 homeless camps are now so well established that aid organizations provide on-site assistance with food, clothing and shelter. The right to live in a vehicle was recently fought and won by a man who argued the city had no right to tow his truck because it was his home.

Even Portland, a city so often held up as a model of sustainability and compassion, has affordability problems rivalling those in Vancouver. People are moving to the city in droves, driving rents up and vacancy rates down, and spurring growth of homeless encampments.

Since 2015, Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland have declared a state of emergency on homelessness or housing. That in itself has not solved all the problems. But it is more than symbolic.

Under the declaration, city officials can override some existing zoning regulations to provide housing options for disenfranchised citizens, making cities more nimble and open to experimentation.

Is it time for Vancouver, which grapples with the same problems, to do the same?

In Portland, where 70 per cent of the city is zoned for single-family housing, the state of emergency has given rise to some creative programs, including tiny home villages. The villages, which resemble Vancouver’s modular housing projects, haven’t all been warmly welcomed by neighbours. But, by virtue of the state of emergency, they continue to put roofs over people’s heads.

One of the most innovative proposals came out of Multnomah County (a jurisdiction that includes Portland), which put out a call for residents willing to help a homeless person or family. Participating homeowners are provided a tiny laneway home on the condition they agree to host a homeless person or family for five years, after which time the tiny home becomes the landowners’ property to use as they please. Although the city’s permitting process has proven challenging, more than 1,000 volunteer homeowners have stepped up, and the first trickle of homes will come on line next month.

Meanwhile, the City of Portland announced it would no longer enforce local zoning codes that prohibit mobile homes or tiny wheeled homes to locate on private residential property.

Here in Vancouver, the city is focusing its efforts on building enough temporary modular housing projects to house 600 homeless residents.

There are plans to cut the permitting times for social housing projects and incentivize developers to incorporate below-market rental housing into rental buildings, but results remain a long way off.

The modular housing projects are going up quickly but have the disadvantage of setting homeless people apart, rather than integrating them into neighbourhoods. Tiny wheeled homes and RV homes on private property, which violate current zoning bylaws, are not currently on the table. When it comes to private property, it’s expensive laneway homes with their correspondingly high rents, or nothing.

And that’s a shame. When you talk to people living in motorhomes, and there are dozens already camped on Vancouver streets, they don’t identify as homeless. Most are proud of their homes, many of which are powered by solar panels and fit in with Vancouver’s green city aspirations. What they don’t like is having to hide and move. Some say they would be happy to pay a modest rent for a safe spot in someone’s leafy backyard.

This, of course, is not a perfect fix. Recreational vehicles should never be considered a permanent replacement for housing. But people on the margins, faced with a dearth of other options, have already innovated by moving into them. It wouldn’t hurt to loosen the rules, so they can leave the industrial parks and live in nice neighbourhoods. And if a state of emergency declaration can help make it happen, let’s consider that too.