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Solving homelessness, beyond spin 2: David C’s response

January 7th, 2009 · 5 Comments

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: or call my office at 604-775-1033 and we’ll mail you a hard copy.

Thanks again for facilitating this debate.

David Chudnovsky

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