Karen Ward lives in a Vancouver housing development that is supposed to be the symbol for how people from very different income levels and backgrounds can live together.
She’s occupied a small suite for the past eight years in the Woodward’s project, a former department store that was redeveloped according to a city requirement to combine market condos, some subsidized housing for families, some subsidized housing for low-income singles such as her, a piece of a university, a grocery store, a drugstore, a coffee shop and some offices.
The atrium that sits in the centre is meant to be a place where everyone can mingle. But it hasn’t felt very appealing to Ms. Ward.
“We had conflicts with the students and with others, making us feel unwelcome. If you were conspicuously poor, you’d be glared at by the private security,” said Ms. Ward, a 45-year-old who has gotten involved in the neighbourhood’s drug-policy activism. “I think Woodward’s is a failure as a social experiment because the distance between us is so stark.”
That uncomfortable blend of different kinds of households is a challenge that has arisen for many cities in the past couple of decades, as federal government support for subsidized housing as shrunk or disappeared.
City politicians, trying desperately to find a way to continue producing housing cheap enough for its poorer residents to live in, have turned to private developers as a solution, offering them incentives to get them to incorporate subsidized housing into their projects – or sometimes just demanding it as a condition for getting approval to build anything.
But that means a challenge for those trying to integrate people and types of housing that haven’t gone together before: expensive penthouses with social housing, at one extreme, but even less starkly different forms such as apartments rented at market rates with for-sale condos.
It makes for a very different dynamic from the days when federal and provincial governments funded social housing, where social integration happened because projects were designed to have one-third rented at the lowest, welfare-level rates, another one-third at below-market, but somewhat higher rates for people working lower-wage jobs, and one-third rented at close to market rates for those with higher incomes.
People at the higher income level could choose to live there to get slightly better rental rates and accepted the social mix as part of the deal.
But when government isn’t paying the bill for the whole project, requiring that kind of integration becomes much more difficult.
Housing advocates have slammed developers and planners in several North American cities in recent years for those kinds of projects, saying that their “poor doors” – a term that first started being used in New York to refer to segregated lobbies – and even segregated playgrounds are reinforcing existing problems of social inequality.
One proposed development that came to Vancouver City Council earlier this year was criticized for its separated children’s play areas and the designers were ordered to integrate them. But the councillors didn’t get them to integrate the entrances, lobbies or the two buildings, knowing it would likely kill the project.
That incident has sparked a renewed discussion about whether and how it’s possible to create social integration in these kinds of developments.
One local architect, with supportive landowners backing him, is pitching a new design that integrates for-sale condos and rental apartments on one site – not as extreme as million-dollar penthouses combined with social housing, such as on the Woodward’s site – but still a kind of blending that many developers don’t want to take on.
As proposed, Robert Billard’s design for two buildings on an oddly shaped site on Southwest Marine Drive in south Vancouver, is 86 units, with one-third designated as rental. (The city is not requiring the rental. The developers have decided to do it on their own and don’t get any incentives for it.) The amenities, the elevators and the lobbies will all be shared by all residents.
“It’s going the full opposite direction of the ‘poor door,’” Mr. Billard said.
He said his team is having to rethink some of the design and materials to take into account the fact that some apartments mixed in with the condos will be rentals.
“One of the things we’re working on a lot is making everything very resistant to damage, very low maintenance.”
And, he said, extra attention is being paid to security issues in the building.
At the same time, since the apartments will be mixed together, the builders can’t do what happens in projects where the rentals are separated from the condos by floor or by building, which is to use cheaper materials for the apartments.
“Typically, we tend to be a little bit less extravagant for rental projects, but in this, we don’t have that ability,” he said.
But Mr. Billard’s kind of effort seems to be the exception.
And his approach doesn’t appear to appeal at all to more challenging projects that mix a wider range of residents, from high-end condos to subsidized housing that has some units available to people at social-assistance rates.
Although none will say it publicly, some developers will acknowledge privately that they don’t think buildings should be mixed because renters don’t take care of their property as well as owners.
In addition, both developers and the non-profit housing groups who often manage rentals in mixed projects say it is technically difficult to integrate a private development with one built to the standards of the province’s housing agency.
BC Housing has specific policies about the size of amenity rooms and where they’re located, as well as the cost of building materials, which often don’t match those of private developers.
“It comes baked-in that this economic segregation almost has to happen,” said Stephanie Allen, a planner who works with the region’s only non-profit housing developer, Catalyst Community Developments Society.
She pointed out that non-profit groups usually can’t put in the kind of money for maintenance or amenity areas that a strata council of condo owners can.
And, in general, the bigger the income gap between the two types of residents, the more difficult it is to try to build in integration, she said. Even if you do integrate the areas, residents often feel uncomfortable with one another, and the lower-income residents, in particular, feel stigmatized, as Ms. Ward has experienced.
“It might not be the best thing for them to be in the same housing container,” Ms. Allen said. “It’s presumptuous to think you can force people to get along.”
But another experienced social-housing builder and operator says it is possible to integrate, if people are willing to put in some extra effort.
“At the end of the day, it’s about wanting to make it work,” said Janice Abbott, the chief executive of Atira Women’s Resource Society. She herself lives in a building that contains both condo owners and people who rent 36 subsidized units in a co-op that is part of the project.
She has two buildings recently completed in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside that combine market rentals with subsidized rentals, where everything is shared, from the doorway to the kitchen and the rooftop deck.
As well, her society manages 15 units in a large building in Richmond, B.C., the Cadence, built by Cressey Development Group, where the remainder of the units are owned condos. The city insisted that building amenities had to be shared among all the residents.
“It has separate entrances but a big common deck we all use,” Ms. Abbott said.
She acknowledged there is occasional friction in some buildings.
“At Olivia Skye [in the Downtown Eastside], some tenants think they’re being treated differently because they’re poor.” At the Richmond building, there has been some discomfort among the two groups of residents about sharing the deck and other amenities.
“The relationships, they’re not without their challenges,” she said.
That fact has some people not at all convinced that cities should be trying so hard to integrate people from very different income groups.
Ms. Ward says she would prefer to see subsidized housing mixed with lower-end market rentals instead.
“Then you see people who are not that different from you. And you learn that there’s lots of different ways of being poor. Where we are [at Woodward’s], we’re so isolated.”
And, as with Catalyst Community Developments Society’s Ms. Allen, she’s not sure at all that just sticking people in the same building solves anything.
“The ‘poor door’ is a symbol of a problem that bothers us. But putting people through the same door doesn’t solve anything.”