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Week 1: Temporary Modular Housing

Week 1: Temporary Modular Housing

With the municipal election getting closer in Vancouver (8 weeks from yesterday – mark your calendars for Saturday, October 15, 2022), I’ve been thinking a lot about housing policies, the many promises from candidates and parties, and what actually has made a difference over the 14 years the City has been making a serious effort at building housing.

For context: it would be impossible to cover off an incredibly complex crisis that was built over decades and now spans the globe, plus 14 years of efforts to try and resolve it, in one Instagram post so don’t expect that here. What I can do is give some thoughts over the next 8 weeks and hopefully it helps you cut through the noise a bit about what cities can – and can’t do – to make a difference on housing.

I decided to start with Temporary Modular Housing (TMH). Why? Primarily because for the people who have suffered most from failures all along the housing continuum (2nd photo), TMH provides safe, secure, affordable housing. This latter point is key. Many housing solutions provide one, or even two of those (ie. shelters are affordable but insecure and unsafe, rental condos are safe but often unaffordable and always insecure), but very few provide all three.

The other reason I choose it is that the story of how TMH happened provides so many instructive lessons.

TMH was first proposed as part of the City’s 1st city-wide housing strategy in 2012. However, the public response was tepid. One memorable quote was that it looked like a trailer park made out of shipping containers. Without many housing advocates in the public to fight for it, TMH got left out of the strategy.

Fast forward to 2016. The housing crisis had deepened and public interest in action was correspondingly higher. On a trip to Vienna to represent the City on a green trade mission, I came across some beautiful temporary modular housing (3rd and 4th photos) and when I returned to Vancouver, City staff and the experts involved in the housing strategy update were inspired by the Viennese model and ready to make it happen.

Temporary modular housing intended for students in Vienna.

The then BC Liberal led provincial government however was not so keen and refused to provide any funding. The City’s newly created Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency (VAHA) decided to go it alone. Using City land, the expertise of VAHA’s staff and board of independent housing experts, and a grant of $1.5 million from CMHC through the newly established Affordable Housing Innovation Fund, a demonstration TMH was completed in two months and occupied in February 2017 at 220 Terminal Avenue (1st photo). The City also contributed $500,000 in direct funding and raised $1.1 million from private funders. The City funding would have been impossible when I was first elected. The outgoing City Council left a paltry $5 million for housing in the 2009-2011 capital budget: when I left office we left this Council $540 million for housing from 2019-2022.

Fast forward to a new NDP provincial government in July 2017. The City’s demonstration project convinced them to invest $66 million towards building 600 more units of TMH on city-owned land in Vancouver, as well as 1,400 more TMH units at sites around the province.

The new TMH made a big difference in stemming further growth in homelessness in the City (5th photo). In case you’re wondering why homelessness grew 25% per year between 2002 and 2008, it’s complex but the short story is a combo of provincial cuts to renter protections and no action from the city to fill the gap. Also ICYWW, we moved to an annual count of unhoused people from 2010-2018 which appears to have ended in 2019 and Vancouver is back to less frequent regional counts. As a result, the current number of unhoused people is unknown.

What’s happened on TMH since 2018? The current City Council subsequently called for additional provincial funding to build 600 more TMH units. Since 2019, they’ve received funding for and built 156 additional TMH units.

The last piece of the puzzle: the City removed the need for public hearings for TMH on city-owned sites in late 2016 allowing for a faster roll out when senior government funding came in. It seems obvious but housing for those made vulnerable by senior government policies is a matter of life and death and it shouldn’t be the subject of what amounts to a public trial. A safe, secure and affordable place to call home is a fundamental human right. Putting City time and resources into working with TMH residents, other neighbourhood residents and local businesses to mitigate any actual impacts is a much better use of everyone’s time.

However successful the work to build TMH has been, on its own it is not a housing success story. TMH is, by definition, temporary. The real goal is permanent secure rental housing, whether market or below market, and over the coming weeks I will look at the gamut of challenges Vancouver has had to overcome to get that built.