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Solving homelessness — beyond spin

January 6th, 2009 · 17 Comments

Just before Christmas, MLA David Chudnovsky sent a little missile in my direction, saying that I had been suckered by government propaganda (yet again, I think was the implication) when I put up a blog item about the provincial government delaying the bid process on some of its 12 social housing projects to try to get better prices on construction costs.

I thought it was important to respond to this for a few reasons. A minor one is to help people understand how little bits of news like this actually get gathered. A much more important one is to weigh in on the debate about homelessness and the province’s actions or lack of same, especially when David makes criticisms like this. And I have to say, these kinds of messages trouble me — not because they’re personal and so clearly buy in unthinkingly to the comfortable theory that all reporters are just moronic dupes of the capitalist machine (I’ve kind of gotten used to that, more or less, in my 25 years), but because they contribute so little to focusing attention on the real issues around homelessness.

David is not the only person who thinks along these lines. There are others fighting the good fight to eradicate homelessness who also get so stuck in attack mode that they can’t seem to figure out how to change gears, no matter what happens. (I even heard one of them say regretfully that if the city moved all the homeless people into emergency shelters, it would remove the political pressure on the province to build long-term housing.)

Homelessness is a big issue this year in particular. The Vision Vancouver team has moved aggressively to try to get homeless people into shelters for the winter. But where are those people going to go? What’s the next step? They’re a very challenged group — that’s why many of them are out on the streets. They won’t be able to go into many of the refurbished Downtown Eastside hotels the province has bought, because many of those are being designated alcohol- and drug-free. (Which will means the current inhabitants of those hotels who have those problems will also be looking for a place to live.) And the new social housing buildings won’t start opening for at least a year and a half.

So it’s important to have an energetic debate about solutions. It’s also important to have an honest one that doesn’t just involve flinging around cliches.

But first, read what David had to say. Then, I’ll put my comments below.

david chudnovsky // Dec 6, 2008 at 5:39 pm

Frances,

Unfortunately, your piece on the 12 Vancouver housing sites reads too much like BC Liberal propaganda.

Why do you persist in calling them “fast-tracked” projects? They were announced a year and a half ago amid much fanfare. Minister Rich Coleman said at the time they would be finished for the Olympics. The press dutifully reported that bit of fantasy.

Shortly thereafter rumors surfaced that only five of the projects would be done by 2010. Then Coleman began to talk about two of the projects that were going to be fast-tracked and finished by 2010 and, finally, last spring he promised two would have “ground broken” by September 2008. So far, nothing.

Now BC Housing tells us we’re going to save money because of the economic crisis — as a result of not having built what was promised when it was promised. And the press dutifully and approvingly reports it once more.

What’s happened in the intervening years? Homelessness has increased dramatically and affordable housing continues to disappear.

Today 200 units of social housing stand empty at Little Mountain as a result of Coleman’s botched plan to sell off 15 acres of public land to a developer who now appears incapable of financing the project. Instead of taking care of the housing needs of the province Coleman decided to be a real estate speculator with land that belongs to all of us — and now he’s caught.

The spokesperson you quote from BC Housing says all of this is good for us taxpayers. Wrong. What’s good for taxpayers is to house the homeless and provide for them the supports they need to be successful. Every study shows that’s cheaper than continuing to do what we’re doing.

The homelessness crisis is real. Most British Columbians want to see it resolved. That means each of us has a responsibility to look critically at the governments plans, propaganda and spin.

And now, here’s what I have to say.

First off, there’s little doubt that the homelessness crisis in B.C. was aggravated by two B.C. Liberal policies that came into effect shortly after they were first elected in 2001. The first was their decision to halt all social housing projects that weren’t actually under construction, a move that saw hundreds of units cancelled and a freeze on any form of social housing for several years. The second was the move to make welfare much more difficult to get and keep. As the homeless counts have shown, that has resulted in far more people on the streets who now say they have no income at all.

It looked for a long time as though nothing critics said was going to have much impact on Liberal policies when it came to that. For years, the government would only put social-housing money into housing for seniors (in essence, to get them out of costly care facilities) and rent-supplement programs, which, no matter how much advertising was done, never got the full quota of people they were supposed to be helping.

When I broke the story back in March of 2007 that the province was going to have to spend $1 billion and create 3,000 housing units in less than three years in order to meet its Olympic promises, there was no sign that B.C. was going to do anything.

The next month, Housing Minister Rich Coleman announced he had bought 10 Downtown Eastside hotels to preserve them as low-cost housing. In November, he and Mayor Sam Sullivan announced the plan to build 12 “fast-tracked” social housing sites.

Since then, the strangest part of this about-face by the provincial government has been how unwilling critics are to accept that these moves might actually be good things. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me or said publicly that the province is not “really” going to build the 12 sites. (Because somehow it would be really good PR for them to invest $40 million in getting the sites ready and then bailing at the last minute?) Or that somehow buying up the hotels was a bad thing — even though it’s the kind of move that housing advocates and even city staff have been lobbying for for years.

David’s criticisms follow similar lines, with additional details for garnish. But I’d like to go through those additional details and address some of the points.

1. Why do I call them fast-tracked projects? They are. If you knew how long it takes a normal project to get to the city, which I do from attending more than a few urban design and development permit hearings, you’d realize these are getting the bobsled-track treatment. It’s still glacial, but it’s faster than usual. Most developers I know say it takes about two years of city process before they can even begin to think about putting a teaspoon in the dirt to start construction.

2. David said Rich Coleman claimed they would be ready in time for the Olympics. Well, I’ve followed this issue more than any other reporter in this province and I don’t recall him ever saying that. In fact, I believe he was pretty clear in saying to everyone who asked him that they would not be ready in time, which anyone who knew anything about construction realized already. As I said, everybody knows: two years of planning, two years of construction. I remember thinking at the time of the announcement, Well, I guess they’ll have to settle for telling the international media that new social housing is on the way. Because it won’t be finished.

3. Today 200 units of social housing stand empty at Little Mountain as a result of Coleman’s botched plan to sell off 15 acres of public land to a developer who now appears incapable of financing the project. Instead of taking care of the housing needs of the province Coleman decided to be a real estate speculator with land that belongs to all of us — and now he’s caught.

Gee, David, it’s too bad that you didn’t tell all of us that there was going to be a housing-market freeze that would affect this deal. Then the minister would have known not to do it. And you would have helped every other land developer in the province. Yes, the province got caught, just like everybody else did. And too bad the province didn’t pick a different developer. Except, oops, every developer in the province has halted projects — including Concord, the Walls, Aquilini, and pretty much every company that put in a bid on Little Mountain.

Again, it’s odd the way people keep dumping on this deal. Toronto, under Mayor David Miller, is in the process of tearing down its mammoth 1950s social-housing project, Regent Park, and replacing it with mixed-use housing. European cities are also replacing their low-density post-war projects with new developments. They get praised. Here, it’s seen as some evil plot. Okay, I can be as nostalgic about post-war buildings as anyone. So lobby to save one of them as an artifact. But I can’t understand why it’s such a terrible thing to rebuild asbestos-laden, 1950s-era projects and, in the process, create a denser and livelier community there. Yes, fight to get more social housing into the development. Fight to make sure it’s a project fits into the city, not just a project designed to be a cash cow for the province. But why dump on the government to try to get more use of out a piece of prime land?

4. Now BC Housing tells us we’re going to save money because of the economic crisis — as a result of not having built what was promised when it was promised. And the press dutifully and approvingly reports it once more.

It wasn’t BC Housing sending out some nefarious press release, you know. I happened to run into Craig Crawford (BCH’s head of development) at a party and said I’d heard that they were delaying the tenders to get costs down. Was that true? He said yes (somewhat reluctantly, since speaking to the media is not part of his job description). Not exactly your highly evolved spin machine. I’m the one who added the bit about saving taxpayers money — it made the info more interesting than “BC Housing waiting for construction costs to come down before tendering.”

Okay, now that’s the end of MY rant. I await all your comments, pro and con. I always learn something!

My final observation, though, on all of this would be: If David, and all of you, want to go after the provincial government because you just can’t bear not to (I know your polls are telling you it’s a winning issue and, with an election campaign coming up, why admit your opponent has ever done anything right), why not pick some real targets, like:

1. The rent supplement program has never attracted as many people as it has money for. That seems to indicate it’s not working, especially when you hear that people are still lining up for social housing. What’s the problem?

2. What about family housing? What is the province’s defence for why it doesn’t build that any more?

3. What is the plan for new social-housing projects beyond the 12 that are on the way in Vancouver? Or is there a long-term plan at all?

4. What is the long-term housing plan for people now being encouraged to go to emergency shelters? And, especially, what is the plan for those who can’t or won’t move into alcohol- and drug-free housing?

Just a few ideas. I’m sure you can think of more.

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  • LP

    Francis, no fluff intended, you deserve some kudos for a great post.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment and believe the NDP would be better served by offering solutions rather than attacking.

    Now most can think I’m naive for thinking that though. Of course polling tells a different story, attack, kill, Liberals bad, NDP good.

    Heaven forbid that anyone would work together to help some people that have trouble helping themselves.

  • JS

    Frances,

    Fantastic post. I’m very thankful for your blog, and the thought provoking comments left by fellow readers..

    I’d like to second the thought by LP that less of the rigid ideology would be a good thing. After all, I would think it would be in the interests of everyone to come up with a workable solution to the housing crisis. Having a homeless problem is definitely not a good thing for business interests (aka capitalist running dogs) either!

    Government from all sides of the political spectrum need to work with each other get it done. All the fiery rhetoric is worthless.

  • i think the problem with the rent supplement, at least a key one, is to be seen in their transit ads: they want a certain class of people to apply.

    we see it more clearly in their eligibility criteria:
    http://www.bchousing.org/programs/RAP/info_applicants/eligible

    not for the desperate, childless or children who aren’t dependents, those with sketchy employment income or spotty tax returns.

  • Rolf Auer

    Good post, Frances. I especially like the part where you say that generally journalists aren’t government propaganda dupes.

    A couple of points: (1) social housing advocates don’t regret (as far as I know) that shelters are being found for the homeless. It’s a given that these need to happen. What they are afraid of is that the governments will then therefore turn around and say that they no longer need to build social housing for the homeless (since they have adequate shelter spaces). (2) No one could have anticipated the Little Mountain meltdown (witness the (supposedly) fiscally prudent provincial government’s involvement in the first place). But what was said at the time when it first began to be dismantled was “Is this really necessary?” and “Where are the housing units for the displaced people suppposed to come from?” and “What about the community that was built over the years at LM?” These questions were uppermost in advocates minds.

    Good post, though.

  • Gordon Campbell was half a decade late in figuring out that B.C. citizens (and taxpayers) need a larger stock of supportive housing.

    But once Campbell got the message, and after he put Rich Coleman on the job, this government has continued to add deep core need housing at an impressive rate. Kudos are in order.

    That said, housing is only half of what the province needs to bring to the table in order to end the agony and expense of homelessness. Treatment for addictions and other mental illnesses is the other half.

    Sadly, neither Campbell nor the activists who hold his feet to the fire seem to have focused on this side of the equation.

    When Gordon Campbell puts a can-do minister in charge of health, and when that minister creates thousands of treatment spaces with the same velocity that Coleman has created housing, then and only then will the end of homelessness be within our reach.

    (And, yes, when both the housing and the treatment is real, this particular “moronic dupe” will stand up and cheer loudly.)

  • fbula

    Thanks for the post, Monte. It is amazing to me how little information we really have on the treatment side of the equation.

    Rolf — I can’t tell if you’re being snide or not with your comment about journalists not being dupes of the government.

    Re Little Mountain. I’m not sure what you mean by units for the displaced people. Everyone there was offered a place in another social-housing complex and they’ve been guaranteed first dibs on whatever is built in the future. Obviously, one of the saddest things is the break-up of the sense of community, but do you have a suggestion for how you can re-develop a site and somehow find a place where 200 families can all move to together in the same neighbourhood? Even the phased development that advocates suggested wouldn’t have allowed that. And, as for was it really necessary, well, I guess you can argue that nothing is ever really necessary unless it’s an emergency. But is it really that outrageous that the owner of a prime piece of land that has only extremely low-density housing on it would think of re-developing it, especially when some of the profits can be put back into more social housing? That’s what non-profit organizations all around the province (and the country, I should add) are doing with their old social-housing projects that were built in the ’50s and ’60s.

  • Rick

    I used to work for an MLA and really got tired of government = evil bafoon equation. I don’t think the current opposition is any different from oppostions of the past or in other provinces and I’d see the need to constantly attack as the most severe flaw of our political system.

    The RAP deserves its bad rep. It doesn’t move anyone from being homeless or marginally housed to adequate shelter because the eligibility requirements are ridiculous.

  • Rolf Auer

    Hi Frances, no, I wasn’t being snide about the “comfortable theory that all reporters are just moronic dupes of the capitalist machine .” The keyword to me was “comfortable” in that it is just too easy to believe that this is the case. Most journalists probably see through government propaganda (but I don’t know about editors).

    Good points about Little Mountain.

    Regards, Rolf

  • Bob Ransford

    Frances,

    The issues around lack of detox and treatment programs need to be explored in detail.

    There has been SO MUCH attention about harm reduction and not nearly enough talk about two of the other three pillars essential to effectively dealing with the community crisis of substance abuse.

    I recently worked hard to help a friend find substance abuse treatment options for his son in his late teens– a sad addiction story. Residential treatment options, especially for young males, are nearly non-existent in BC — long-term programming is REALLY hard to find.

    Most programs require the addict to have completed at least a few days of detox. Try finding a detox bed for a young male in BC– wait weeks. When the “moment of clarity” arrives for an addict– deciding to seek help- there is no time to wait.

    My friend’s only option was to write a big cheque and buy a plane ticket for his son to send him to a residential treatment program in Quebec– where a number of addicts referred by Vancouver Coastal Health are enrolled. Getting approval (and costs covered) from Vancouver Coastal to send someone there is yet another LONG story!

  • I cannot refrain from adding a few comments…

    Firstly, with respect to the “12 city owned sites”, these projects were fast-tracked within the city system. While I was not directly involved with any of the projects, it is my understanding that many have stalled since the estimated construction costs were significantly higher than anticipated especially when compared with other non-market and even market residential projects.

    This is due to a number of factors: the bidding climate during which the projects were designed and costed, and very high ‘environmental standards’ that were imposed by the Province.

    While I know that I will be criticized for saying this, I suspect that the higher costs are also attributable to the procurement process. More specifically, unlike many social housing projects that were developed with a high degree of developer and contractor involvement, this was not the case with these projects.

    As a result, the projects as designed DO NOT REPRESENT VALUE FOR MONEY. While the costs are likely to come down if rebid in the spring, I am told there is a need for a more comprehensive review of the appropriateness of the higher environmental standards, and other design and construction details.

    I am also told that in some instances, it would make sense to review the development program in order to gain greater efficiencies. Given the desire to move quickly, the designs do not always represent the most effective use of the sites. This might mean rezoning some sites to maximize benefits.

    Of course, the downside of all of this may be further delays in the start of construction for some projects. However, by getting more experienced residential contractors involved now, there is a greater likelihood that the projects will proceed, at prices that are more appropriate than the current estimates.

    Now, as for Little Mountain, I was involved with developing Federal/Provincial policies to regenerate older public housing projects across Canada in the 1970’s and early ’80’s. I was also involved with one of the unsuccessful LM developer proposals in early 2008.

    While I can criticize a number of aspects of the Little Mountain Proposal Call, the general approach was reasonable. All of the older social housing units (in need of many repairs) were to be replaced with more suitable, energy efficient units, and the more intensive redevelopment was appropriate for such a strategically located site. It would also have generated significant revenues for the province and city.

    I personally questioned the need to vacate all of the units before redevelopment began, but this was considered prudent for a couple of reasons: it allowed for a more comprehensive road, servicing and park space design for the entire site; it also was seen as preventing the possibility of some ‘hold-outs’ who could hold up the project. This has happened elsewhere in similar situations. A vacated property was seen as more valuable.

    The winning bid offered a very significant amount of money.This was due in part to a greater density than I personally thought was appropriate, but others thought it was doable.
    Furthermore, the offer was submitted almost a year ago, when the market was very different.

    Given my involvement in the process, and as a taxpayer, I want to see the province and city hold the winning developer’s feet to the fire. I’m told he has already made a $20 million deposit, and I don’t want the deal to be jeopardized by filling up the vacant units, or taking other actions that might allow him to walk and get his deposit back.

    I realize that this perspective will be very different from that of many of your readers who can’t understand why people are sleeping on the street or in hostels, when there are units sitting empty at Little Mountain; but I hope this explanation will contribute to the discussion.

    Finally, as to what we should be doing until the 12 city sites are built out, and Little Mountain is redeveloped…

    There are a number of vacant city owned and privately owned sites that could be developed on an ‘interim basis’ with factory produced relocatable housing that would provide cost effective safe, decent and comfortable shelter …as Gregory Henriquez calls ‘a stop-gap measure’.

    As Monte Paulson correctly notes, there will be a need for related management and support services. But there are non-profits and other agencies around who could provide these services, even to people living in ‘portable housing’.

    Just as the city created shelter beds very quickly, we could have hundreds of affordable self-contained suites up and running by this summer, if there was a desire and community will.

    A number of us have been working with two of Canada’s largest modular builders, who have capacity to create the housing in a relatively short time frame.

    This is not a perfect solution. But it is a viable cost effective solution, until appropriate longer term solutions are in place.

    Thank you Frances for initiating this discussion. I hope my thoughts will contribute to further actions by those in a position to act, rather than just more talk.

  • fbula

    Thanks, Michael, for that very informative post. I did not know that Simon had put down $20 million and you certainly illuminate some of the reasons why the province might be cautious about allowing people to stay on.

    I think one of the reasons this project is continuing to generate controversy is that neither the province nor Simon (Lim, the developer) has done much about initiating discussions with the city/public about planning. Even if this project doesn’t go ahead for a couple of years because of the current market conditions, it seems like it would be a good time to have a healthy and thorough public discussion about all of the aspects of this future development.

  • Wagamuffin

    Very interesting posts and perspectives on Little Mountain.

    Maybe, as suggested, public consultation, started now, could push the issue along a little faster.

    As for other supportive pillars including comprehensive treatment programs: yes please!

    Another pillar: I just wish we could summon up the kind of group energy and anger to deal with the gangs who sell the drugs, as we seem to have been able to do for snow.

  • “I just wish we could summon up the kind of group energy and anger to deal with the gangs who sell the drugs”

    Unfortunately, while this may be a necessary part of the solution, it has always proven to be impossible to stamp out drug trafficking and dealing while there is demand. I’ll let others rant about the US War on Drugs, but suffice it to say that arresting drug dealers only allows other drug dealers to take their place. Or, I could just be watching too much Sopranos.

  • Great posts and comments, by the way. I don’t envy the politicians trying to make their way through this homelessness mess. And it seems that we may have been well-served had Michael won a place on council.

    Also, your time stamp is ahead by 4 hours as I read it.

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  • David Chudnovsky

    Hi Frances,

    Thanks for your response to my pre-Christmas post on homelessness. It’s important there be a real debate about these issues, and it seems to have started. So let me respond to some of what you have written.

    1. You write, “ … Housing Minister Rich Coleman announced he had bought 10 Downtown Eastside hotels to preserve them as low-cost housing. In November, he and Mayor Sam Sullivan announced the plan to build 12 “fast-tracked” social housing sites.
    Since then, the strangest part of this about-face by the provincial government has been how unwilling critics are to accept that these moves might actually be good things.”

    I have given dozens – maybe hundreds — of speeches and interviews including comments on this move by Coleman. Each time I have said it was a good idea to buy the hotels. Every time. You can check the record. I have, however, added that Coleman’s claim that purchasing the hotels reduces homelessness is untrue. That’s because people already lived in those hotels when they were purchased. So while buying them removed them from the speculative market and prevented them from disappearing as low rent housing, it did not have any impact on the number of people who have nowhere to live.

    2. You explain that in your experience the 12 Vancouver sites can be called “fast-track” projects because compared to other projects they are moving through the city hall bureaucracy quickly. At a time when thousands have nowhere to live, surely “fast” needs to have some meaning in the real world beyond its “inside baseball” meaning at city hall. If, as the city and Coleman projected, six of these sites had a hope of being completed by the Olympics then “fast-track” would be an appropriate description, and we could all celebrate – including me.
    When Coleman announced the “fast-track” in November 2007 I said, “I laughed when I read the timeline. Neither do I believe they will actually break ground in the fall of 2008, nor do I believe that if they do begin construction in late 2008 they will finish any of these 100-unit buildings by mid-2010.” (Tyee November 17, 2007) Unfortunately, it turned out I was right.
    You are correct that there is nowhere on the record where Minister Coleman says all 12 projects will be finished by the Olympics. But he did project six. I guess we could convene a philosophy seminar to discuss whether 0 for 6 is a better result than 0 for 12. The important thing though is that these projects are nowhere – no capital funding, no construction contracts, no shovels in the ground. That was my point and I stand by it.

    3. With respect to the Little Mountain project which has stalled and where 200 units of habitable housing sit empty you say, “Gee, David, it’s too bad that you didn’t tell all of us that there was going to be a housing-market freeze that would affect this deal. Then the minister would have known not to do it.”
    Actually, I did tell the Minister not to do this deal – a year and a half ago. Not because I knew what was going to happen to the markets, but because I believe that the model Coleman is pursuing here doesn’t make sense, for several reasons. First, it’s a bad idea to sell a public asset like 15 acres of prime real estate that belong to the people of BC. If the government wanted to derive an income from the asset they could have hired a developer to build the project and made some kind of leasing arrangement. It makes no more sense, in my view, to sell this land than it does to sell off part of a provincial park, or BC Rail or BC Hydro.
    Second, the deal is predicated on building somewhere between 1,200 and 2,000 private market condominiums. In this location the proposed developer was certainly expecting these condos to sell in the million dollar range. Now, of course, every developer has to think again about such a projection. But my concern is not with the developer’s assessment at the time. It’s with Coleman’s, because Vancouver didn’t then and doesn’t now need 2,000 more million dollar condos. We need social housing for homeless people and those at risk of homelessness, and affordable housing for working class and middle class people. The redevelopment of Little Mountain could be a model of a truly diverse and mixed community with social housing, affordable rental, co-ops and even some market housing preferably on long term leases, but that wasn’t Coleman’s plan.
    Third, Coleman from the beginning presented this development as what he called a ‘model’. He explained that the sale of the land would provide capital funding for the replacement of Little Mountain’s 224 units of social housing and money to pursue other social housing projects. But the provision of social housing to homeless people should not depend on the government’s ability or inability to sell existing assets. It shouldn’t depend on whether there happens to be a hot real estate market at any given moment. Federal and provincial social housing projects in the past were based on the needs of our communities and were funded in the traditional way that government infrastructure and capital projects are funded.
    That’s the context in which I wrote to you, “Instead of taking care of the housing needs of the province Coleman decided to be a real estate speculator with land that belongs to all of us — and now he’s caught.” It’s not that Coleman was a worse speculator than anyone else, it’s that he shouldn’t have been speculating in the first place. That’s not the way to finance homes for the homeless.
    4. You write, “Yes, fight to get more social housing into the development. Fight to make sure it’s a project fits into the city, not just a project designed to be a cash cow for the province. But why dump on the government to try to get more use of out a piece of prime land?”
    Who, exactly, are you arguing with here? Not me. Not the advocates who have been working to protect the families and community at Little Mountain. Once again, I have spoken about Little Mountain in numerous interviews and speeches. On every occasion I’ve said that redevelopment is a good idea, higher density is a good idea, double or triple the current number of social housing units is a good idea, and a mixed community is a good idea. Every time. Check the record. And that’s the position that the various community members and advocacy groups have taken as well.
    Coleman and BC Housing want people to believe that if somebody opposes their plan to redevelop Little Mountain they are therefore against any redevelopment of Little Mountain. It’s not true.
    5. You mention the so-called ‘asbestos-laden’ units at Little Mountain as a justification, I guess, for leaving 200 units empty month after month. This is one of BC Housing’s most creative uses of spin. First of all, almost every dwelling built before the 1950s has some asbestos in it. Should all of those thousands of homes be emptied? Second, the biggest danger with that asbestos is when it’s disturbed, which is exactly what BC housing proposes to do. Finally, BC Housing’s concern about the asbestos all of a sudden is a bit much. Where were they with their concern for the last 50 years during which time thousands of families have lived at Little Mountain?
    6. Whatever anyone thinks about the history of the Little Mountain story, the fact is that the deal is stalled. 200 units are empty. The Memorandum of Understanding between the province and the city says that no construction will begin on the site until the spring of 2010 at the earliest. But the project is now over a year behind schedule, so we can’t expect construction to start before late 2011 at least. Thousands of people have nowhere to live. Does it make sense to leave these units empty, or worse still to bulldoze the site? Wouldn’t it be better to do the minor renovations they need and open these homes up for people to use until there is a project in place and construction is about to begin?
    7. You write, “If David, and all of you, want to go after the provincial government because you just can’t bear not to (I know your polls are telling you it’s a winning issue and, with an election campaign coming up, why admit your opponent has ever done anything right), why not pick some real targets …” Frances, we’ve known each other for a long time – about 20 years I think. Have you ever known me to base my views and public statements on what the polls happen to say?
    8. As for the lack of a long term plan from this government, which you correctly identify as one of the ‘real targets’ I would refer you and your readers to my report ‘Finding Our Way Home’ which was released on June 20, 2008. It is based on a tour I did last winter and spring to 22 communities across BC and my discussions with hundreds of homeless people, more than 130 community groups, agencies and service providers, and many local government officials. It includes analysis of the homelessness crisis in BC and 12 practical, achievable and fully costed recommendations to deal with the crisis. You can find the report here: http://www.davidchudnovsky.bc.ca/reports/homelessnessreport-low.pdf or call my office at 604-775-1033 and we’ll mail you a hard copy.

    Thanks again for facilitating this debate.

    David Chudnovsky

    Just before Christmas, MLA David Chudnovsky sent a little missile in my direction, saying that I had been suckered by government propaganda (yet again, I think was the implication) when I put up a blog item about the provincial government delaying the bid process on some of its 12 social housing projects to try to get better prices on construction costs.
    I thought it was important to respond to this for a few reasons. A minor one is to help people understand how little bits of news like this actually get gathered. A much more important one is to weigh in on the debate about homelessness and the province’s actions or lack of same, especially when David makes criticisms like this. And I have to say, these kinds of messages trouble me — not because they’re personal and so clearly buy in unthinkingly to the comfortable theory that all reporters are just moronic dupes of the capitalist machine (I’ve kind of gotten used to that, more or less, in my 25 years), but because they contribute so little to focusing attention on the real issues around homelessness.
    David is not the only person who thinks along these lines. There are others fighting the good fight to eradicate homelessness who also get so stuck in attack mode that they can’t seem to figure out how to change gears, no matter what happens. (I even heard one of them say regretfully that if the city moved all the homeless people into emergency shelters, it would remove the political pressure on the province to build long-term housing.)
    Homelessness is a big issue this year in particular. The Vision Vancouver team has moved aggressively to try to get homeless people into shelters for the winter. But where are those people going to go? What’s the next step? They’re a very challenged group — that’s why many of them are out on the streets. They won’t be able to go into many of the refurbished Downtown Eastside hotels the province has bought, because many of those are being designated alcohol- and drug-free. (Which will means the current inhabitants of those hotels who have those problems will also be looking for a place to live.) And the new social housing buildings won’t start opening for at least a year and a half.
    So it’s important to have an energetic debate about solutions. It’s also important to have an honest one that doesn’t just involve flinging around cliches.
    But first, read what David had to say. Then, I’ll put my comments below.
    david chudnovsky // Dec 6, 2008 at 5:39 pm
    Frances,
    Unfortunately, your piece on the 12 Vancouver housing sites reads too much like BC Liberal propaganda.
    Why do you persist in calling them “fast-tracked” projects? They were announced a year and a half ago amid much fanfare. Minister Rich Coleman said at the time they would be finished for the Olympics. The press dutifully reported that bit of fantasy.
    Shortly thereafter rumors surfaced that only five of the projects would be done by 2010. Then Coleman began to talk about two of the projects that were going to be fast-tracked and finished by 2010 and, finally, last spring he promised two would have “ground broken” by September 2008. So far, nothing.
    Now BC Housing tells us we’re going to save money because of the economic crisis — as a result of not having built what was promised when it was promised. And the press dutifully and approvingly reports it once more.
    What’s happened in the intervening years? Homelessness has increased dramatically and affordable housing continues to disappear.
    Today 200 units of social housing stand empty at Little Mountain as a result of Coleman’s botched plan to sell off 15 acres of public land to a developer who now appears incapable of financing the project. Instead of taking care of the housing needs of the province Coleman decided to be a real estate speculator with land that belongs to all of us — and now he’s caught.
    The spokesperson you quote from BC Housing says all of this is good for us taxpayers. Wrong. What’s good for taxpayers is to house the homeless and provide for them the supports they need to be successful. Every study shows that’s cheaper than continuing to do what we’re doing.
    The homelessness crisis is real. Most British Columbians want to see it resolved. That means each of us has a responsibility to look critically at the governments plans, propaganda and spin.
    And now, here’s what I have to say.
    First off, there’s little doubt that the homelessness crisis in B.C. was aggravated by two B.C. Liberal policies that came into effect shortly after they were first elected in 2001. The first was their decision to halt all social housing projects that weren’t actually under construction, a move that saw hundreds of units cancelled and a freeze on any form of social housing for several years. The second was the move to make welfare much more difficult to get and keep. As the homeless counts have shown, that has resulted in far more people on the streets who now say they have no income at all.
    It looked for a long time as though nothing critics said was going to have much impact on Liberal policies when it came to that. For years, the government would only put social-housing money into housing for seniors (in essence, to get them out of costly care facilities) and rent-supplement programs, which, no matter how much advertising was done, never got the full quota of people they were supposed to be helping.
    When I broke the story back in March of 2007 that the province was going to have to spend $1 billion and create 3,000 housing units in less than three years in order to meet its Olympic promises, there was no sign that B.C. was going to do anything.
    The next month, Housing Minister Rich Coleman announced he had bought 10 Downtown Eastside hotels to preserve them as low-cost housing. In November, he and Mayor Sam Sullivan announced the plan to build 12 “fast-tracked” social housing sites.
    Since then, the strangest part of this about-face by the provincial government has been how unwilling critics are to accept that these moves might actually be good things. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me or said publicly that the province is not “really” going to build the 12 sites. (Because somehow it would be really good PR for them to invest $40 million in getting the sites ready and then bailing at the last minute?) Or that somehow buying up the hotels was a bad thing — even though it’s the kind of move that housing advocates and even city staff have been lobbying for for years.
    David’s criticisms follow similar lines, with additional details for garnish. But I’d like to go through those additional details and address some of the points.
    1. Why do I call them fast-tracked projects? They are. If you knew how long it takes a normal project to get to the city, which I do from attending more than a few urban design and development permit hearings, you’d realize these are getting the bobsled-track treatment. It’s still glacial, but it’s faster than usual. Most developers I know say it takes about two years of city process before they can even begin to think about putting a teaspoon in the dirt to start construction.
    2. David said Rich Coleman claimed they would be ready in time for the Olympics. Well, I’ve followed this issue more than any other reporter in this province and I don’t recall him ever saying that. In fact, I believe he was pretty clear in saying to everyone who asked him that they would not be ready in time, which anyone who knew anything about construction realized already. As I said, everybody knows: two years of planning, two years of construction. I remember thinking at the time of the announcement, Well, I guess they’ll have to settle for telling the international media that new social housing is on the way. Because it won’t be finished.
    3. Today 200 units of social housing stand empty at Little Mountain as a result of Coleman’s botched plan to sell off 15 acres of public land to a developer who now appears incapable of financing the project. Instead of taking care of the housing needs of the province Coleman decided to be a real estate speculator with land that belongs to all of us — and now he’s caught.
    Gee, David, it’s too bad that you didn’t tell all of us that there was going to be a housing-market freeze that would affect this deal. Then the minister would have known not to do it. And you would have helped every other land developer in the province. Yes, the province got caught, just like everybody else did. And too bad the province didn’t pick a different developer. Except, oops, every developer in the province has halted projects — including Concord, the Walls, Aquilini, and pretty much every company that put in a bid on Little Mountain.
    Again, it’s odd the way people keep dumping on this deal. Toronto, under Mayor David Miller, is in the process of tearing down its mammoth 1950s social-housing project, Regent Park, and replacing it with mixed-use housing. European cities are also replacing their low-density post-war projects with new developments. They get praised. Here, it’s seen as some evil plot. Okay, I can be as nostalgic about post-war buildings as anyone. So lobby to save one of them as an artifact. But I can’t understand why it’s such a terrible thing to rebuild asbestos-laden, 1950s-era projects and, in the process, create a denser and livelier community there. Yes, fight to get more social housing into the development. Fight to make sure it’s a project fits into the city, not just a project designed to be a cash cow for the province. But why dump on the government to try to get more use of out a piece of prime land?
    4. Now BC Housing tells us we’re going to save money because of the economic crisis — as a result of not having built what was promised when it was promised. And the press dutifully and approvingly reports it once more.
    It wasn’t BC Housing sending out some nefarious press release, you know. I happened to run into Craig Crawford (BCH’s head of development) at a party and said I’d heard that they were delaying the tenders to get costs down. Was that true? He said yes (somewhat reluctantly, since speaking to the media is not part of his job description). Not exactly your highly evolved spin machine. I’m the one who added the bit about saving taxpayers money — it made the info more interesting than “BC Housing waiting for construction costs to come down before tendering.”
    Okay, now that’s the end of MY rant. I await all your comments, pro and con. I always learn something!
    My final observation, though, on all of this would be: If David, and all of you, want to go after the provincial government because you just can’t bear not to (I know your polls are telling you it’s a winning issue and, with an election campaign coming up, why admit your opponent has ever done anything right), why not pick some real targets, like:
    1. The rent supplement program has never attracted as many people as it has money for. That seems to indicate it’s not working, especially when you hear that people are still lining up for social housing. What’s the problem?
    2. What about family housing? What is the province’s defence for why it doesn’t build that any more?
    3. What is the plan for new social-housing projects beyond the 12 that are on the way in Vancouver? Or is there a long-term plan at all?
    4. What is the long-term housing plan for people now being encouraged to go to emergency shelters? And, especially, what is the plan for those who can’t or won’t move into alcohol- and drug-free housing?
    Just a few ideas. I’m sure you can think of more.

  • A. G. Tsakumis

    Monte Paulsen should be congratualted for adding the KEY ingredient to the solution…treatment.

    I am loathe to agree with David’s almost backpedalling. Truth be told, the province did fast-track these units through the city.

    Kudos again to Monte who is now almost the sole reason a read The Tyee (which has veered, unfortunately, to the hard left–for the most part).