Linsea O’Shea has lived in a highly affordable three-bedroom rental unit on the east side of Vancouver for almost 20 years.
The single mother raised her three kids at the Alma Blackwell complex near Commercial Drive, at 1656 Adanac St., which is a short commute to her downtown office job, where she works as an executive assistant.
Three single mothers founded Entre Nous Femmes Housing Society, which began with the 46-unit, three-storey social housing complex, built in 1985. Since then it has grown and provided low-end of market and subsidized housing, mostly to single mothers and seniors.
In April 2021, the non-profit owner notified residents that their building would be demolished and redeveloped. The development application hasn’t been submitted yet, so no date for demolition is set.
Ms. O’Shea says the prospect of losing her home is traumatic and an example of how vulnerable low-income renters are in the city.
“It’s been a strain on me emotionally, my anxiety has gone up because my future is unknown and I have to wait for the future, rather than making the future,” Ms. O’Shea says.
B.C. Housing had approved funding to redevelop Alma Blackwell into a six-storey building with 97 units and an elevator. The society owns 10 more properties, with four others in Vancouver. Of the 409 units they operate, about 90 per cent are “rent geared to income,” and many are subsidized, according to ENFHS chief executive officer Lilian Chau. The Alma Blackwell is the first to be redeveloped.
Reasons for the redevelopment include the building’s poor envelope as well as providing a more functional building and increased supply. The new building will add studios and many one-bedroom units to the mix. Three years ago, an independent contractor reported that it had the same issues as so many leaky buildings of the era in which it was built, says Ms. Chau. Redevelopment was the better long-term solution for the property rather than a renovation, she says.
“We are looking at the best way to meet demand for housing … and how we can build something to last for a long period of time, and to serve more folks,” she said.
It helped that city council approved changes in June, 2021, to make it easier for social housing projects in the zoning district to redevelop into six-storey buildings. The Grandview-Woodland area around Commercial Drive has a high concentration of social housing projects. Those projects can now skip the rezoning process and go straight to a development permit application. It can save a nonprofit time and money, says Ms. Chau.
But the change also triggers displacement and breaks up long-time communities that have enabled low-income groups to live in central, livable neighbourhoods, says community activist and historian Jak King,
“This is one of the rarities in Vancouver, a family-oriented affordable development,” he says. “It would be such a shame to lose it, it really would.”
He said he understands the city is trying to increase the amount of social housing, but its definition of “affordable” is out-of-reach to many people. The rents at Alma Blackwell will go up because they will be set as “affordable” against the current market rates.
“I think there is a real misunderstanding about how much people earn in this city,” Mr. King said.
The loss of older rental stock is an emerging theme in Vancouver. There are many other apartments that offer low rents, simply because the tenants have lived in them for many years. They are at risk of redevelopment now that the city has given the green light for heights on side streets up to six storeys, and 18 storeys for buildings with below-market units, as part of the recently approved Broadway Plan. Within the Broadway study area there are 1,291 purpose-built rental buildings, most of them built prior to 1970.
“In many cases, communities are giving density bonuses to encourage this new rental housing to go up, and the developer is only required to have 20 per cent of the new units renting at 80 per cent of market rents,” says former co-director of planning, Ann McAfee, a member of the National Housing Council. “The bottom line is 80 per cent of market rent in a particular area is still more than a modest or low income household can usually afford.”
Ms. O’Shea said the tenants at Alma Blackwell are scared and angry. Half the building has already vacated. The remaining tenants have launched an online petition that asks the province to stop the demolition.
“While everyone agrees with the need for more affordable housing, it cannot come at the cost of evicting those very people that need the housing,” it says.
Ms. O’Shea pays $1,500 a month for her three-bedroom unit. She says that if she returned to the new building, she’d be looking at around $1,650 for a one bedroom. Her rent would subsidize the more affordable rental units in the new building.
The tenants in the new building who do not qualify for subsidized housing will be offered a rate that is 20 per cent off the market rate. B.C. Housing sets the rates, said Ms. Chau. They want to target renters with household incomes somewhere between $70,000 and $120,000, she said.
“We are not allowed to charge less than those rates and the reason is, they need a certain amount of low-end market [rents] to subsidize the 70 per cent that are extremely low rents. … You need to be able to cross subsidize.”
Ms. Chau said they are following the city’s tenant relocation program, and in some cases, are going beyond it. The subsidized tenants receive $1,000 plus moving expenses when they leave, and the people who are paying low market rents are eligible for a lump sum, defined by the city, depending on the length they’ve lived in the building. The non-profit was not required to compensate them that amount, says Ms. Chau.
She acknowledges that relocating tenants can be a stressful process. They’ve hired relocation specialists, and several tenants have been placed in other ENFHS buildings, or other nonprofits, or found housing on their own.
“It’s not surprising that people are anxious because you are asking them to move from a home they’ve lived in for many years,” Ms. Chau said. “We recognize this can be a difficult time for people. And for some others they take this as an opportunity to find a home in a location that they want to be in. But for the majority, once our team is able to meet with people in the building, we do a needs assessment, we try to gather as much information as we can and we offer folks homes. And as people see how their neighbours are doing, they trust the process a bit more.”
In an e-mail statement BC Housing said: “BC Housing requires thorough engagement with tenants during any project requiring relocation and redevelopment of social housing, alongside support with temporary relocation, compensation for moving costs, and offers of right to return after construction is complete.”
The Grandview-Woodland Area Council (GWAC) said the City could have done more to protect low-income residents.
“Alma Blackwell is more than just a coalition of housing units, it is a vital support network – a community,” GWAC president Craig Ollenberger said in a statement. “While council’s goal to facilitate more units for the non-profit sector is laudable, it needs to be done with more care, to avoid putting people in existing social housing under threat.”
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