Despite homelessness and poverty being hot topics among British Columbia voters this year, a community group in Kitsilano is doing everything it can to prevent the construction of a social housing project in its piece.

The project would add 129 below-market rental units to the city, including units with supports for people experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness. But the Kitsilano Coalition is adamantly opposed to the project, saying plans for the city-owned site — which stretches between 7th and 8th Avenues at Arbutus Street — would make the family neighborhood unsafe.

The reactions to the proposal were so visceral that the public audience on the issue has taken four days (so far) and attracted over 200 registered speakers. Today, at 3:00 p.m. PDT, the public hearing will resume and City Council must vote on whether to continue with the project or scrap it altogether.

Owen Brady is a volunteer and director of Abundant Housing Vancouver. He followed the public hearing and says the proceedings were particularly contentious. To date, there are over 1,400 letters of opposition and 530 letters of support.

“It’s no surprise that people are concerned about supportive housing,” he says. “People are worried [that] social issues present in the Downtown Eastside are going to be moved to where they live.

The project was hotly debated from the start. Cheryl Grant, volunteer spokesperson for the Kitsilano Coalition, told STOREYS that more than 80% of respondents opposed rezoning during BC Housing’s community consultation. The percentage of opponents remains the same today.

“The proposed rezoning is for a pre-engineered modular tower, which is a new format that does not currently exist in the community. Additionally, the building exceeds the narrow, irregular size of the lot, with very limited setbacks and green spaces,” she says. “Little attention has been paid to dealing with an increased influx of pedestrians and vehicles, with the project adding frequent emergency vehicle and HandyDART runs to an already congested traffic situation.”

Other arguments against the proposal include that it would be too close to St. Augustine School and the Sancta Maria House Society. Other opponents argue that the collective housing model is not conducive to the recovery and reintegration of vulnerable people into the population, and that a dispersed model should be used instead.

“Pursuing this model costs no more than building the large-scale community projects proposed by BC Housing, but requires a change of mindset and political will,” says Grant. “Scattered recovery housing has been adopted by Portugal, which has successfully addressed mental health and addictions issues without including drug use sites.”

Additionally, on July 14, Thomas Gove, a retired British Columbia criminal judge, made his opposition to the project clear in a public statement, criticizing the model, size and location of the proposed development.

He claims that due to the size of the project and the possibility that the single-occupancy units end up housing more people than they should, the building could become a hotspot for crime and drug addiction.

“I’ve worked in the Downtown Eastside for over 25 years, 14 of which have been in community court, and the proposed model for 7th/8th and Arbutus doesn’t work, especially when there’s no linked treatment. to housing,” Gove said in the statement. “When you gather serious people [mental health and addiction] problems in a building, you just import street culture into your building and it doesn’t help the people in the neighborhood.

Brady argues that for Gove, a Kitsilano resident, there is a gross lack of objectivity.

“These are the same talking points that everyone uses,” says Brady. “The wrong model just isn’t true. The wrong location – I mean it’s opposite the Skytrain station. I don’t know what better location there could be.

He adds that comments like Gove’s fuel harmful misconceptions about social housing and the people it is supposed to help.

“The [are] is still worried about an increase in crime, which tends not to be confirmed. And then, the concern for land values, it’s not really a problem. Basically, property values ​​don’t drop any more, according to research, near public housing than elsewhere in the same communities,” he says.

This kind of apprehension in terms of social housing is not one-off. But Brady says the City of Vancouver actually has a good track record of getting social housing projects like this approved, especially compared to other cities in Metro Vancouver, like Surrey and the District. of North Vancouver.

For example, in 2019 the City approved a rezoning proposal for a 10-story mixed-use building at 1636 Clark Drive and 1321-1395 East 1st Avenuewhich would include 90 social housing units, social enterprise space and a withdrawal management center with approximately 20 short-term transitional beds.

In this case, support outweighed opposition and the two camps were considerably less polarized. That said, this project was much smaller than the one currently under discussion. But there is a closer and more recent precedent.

The project Brady is referring to in his tweet is a 14-story apartment building in 1406-1410 King Edward Ave East, which would include 109 social housing units. The location is close to schools and next to a park. The project was proposed in 2021 and the city council voted 8-0 in favor of the project last month.

“The difference is that it’s in a different part of town. It’s in East Vancouver, where there’s less organized neighborhood opposition. It’s in Kitsilano, where there are several different residents’ associations that have increasingly organized against housing over the years,” says Brady. “We need social housing and all types of housing all over the city. And it’s not really great that certain neighborhoods on the West Side are able to organize themselves to opt out of this. It’s not healthy and it’s not fair.

Bridgitte Taylor volunteers with Kitsilano for inclusiveness. She believes the biggest issues at play here are the processes in place for public hearings and rezoning.

“Too often, supportive or social housing rezoning processes are overwhelmed with stigmatizing and damaging comments about the makeup of future tenants or residents,” Taylor told STOREYS. “In the case of the W7th and Arbutus proposal…many of the comments made throughout the hearing were hurtful, drawing on stereotypes and assumptions about homeless people. This only discourages people with lived experience from speaking up and providing public comment. It is therefore marginalized communities, who often have less time, less power and fewer resources, that end up being excluded from these public forums.

Taylor points out that there are better ways to approach social housing issues that don’t involve unbridled public forums, and that it is incumbent on government to change current processes in favor of the greater good.

“Non-profit construction contractors and experts have pointed out that Vancouver’s current zoning frameworks make it difficult to complete projects without these long and emotional processes,” she says. “Most of Vancouver is zoned for single-family homes, while non-profit builders require certain levels of density for affordable housing projects to be financially viable. The current model clearly does not meet the needs of the city in a context of housing crisis. »

She adds that while some steps have been taken to make changes to systemic processes, there have been frustrating setbacks.

“Recently, the City of New Westminster introduced changes to the public hearing process that would allow councilors to raise a ‘point of order’ if speakers start discussing future tenants of social housing proposals – especially if harmful language or oppressive is used,” she said. said. “In addition, last fall, Councilor Boyle introduced a motion to streamline zoning for non-profit and affordable housing developments in certain areas. The motion ultimately fell through, with some citing concerns about the definition and the threshold of “affordability” that would have to be met for operators to be eligible.

Amid all the opposition to the project, there is no denying that the social housing development on Arbutus Street would add affordable, supportive housing to the Vancouver market at a time when the city badly needs it.

“In Vancouver, the number of homeless people exceeds 2,000 and the vacancy rate for rental units under $1,200/month is 0.5%,” said STOREYS Margaret Pfoh, CEO of the Aboriginal Housing Management Association (AHMA). “The decline of this project is disappointing. During this housing crisis, a privileged community like Kitsilano must struggle to understand the importance of making room for those less fortunate. Inclusive communities are vibrant places to live and contribute to a healthy society.