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
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.