The empty social housing units at the Oly Village are costing taxpayers $200K per month
In the first of a two part series, Michael Geller will be exploring the timeline and issues surrounding the development of what is likely Canada's most expensive waterfront social housing. After discovering that Geller was writing this post for CityCaucus, the City of Vancouver moved into damage control. They issued a media statement late on a Friday celebrating the fact that about half of the units have been rented so far. Pop open the champagne!
For some time, I have been troubled by decisions made by various Vancouver City Councils related to the Olympic Village Social Housing. Today, the City has sunk more than $64 million in subsidies into 252 units, and yet more than 100 apartments are still empty, costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars each month. At various times, the Province appeared willing to help finance the housing, but the city chose to proceed without Provincial assistance.
It is my hope that by providing Vancouver taxpayers with a chronology of past decisions, we will demand a more rational and fiscally responsible solution to address the current situation, and reduce future losses. It is also my hope that the City will initiate a comprehensive review of its social housing policies and procedures, since in the absence of sufficient federal and provincial subsidies, the current policies no longer work.
2002. VANOC agreed to contribute $30 million towards the cost of the Olympic Village housing.
2006. The 252 social housing units were estimated to cost $65 million, based on $300 a foot (excluding land), which was considered reasonable at the time. Although there was no funding agreement with the Province for the balance of the funds, the City decided to proceed nonetheless, a highly unusual arrangement.
As the drawings progressed, it quickly became apparent that the costs were going to exceed the $65 million estimate, due to unusual building designs, increased unit sizes, higher environmental standards, and general increases in construction costs. City staff approached BC Housing to discuss capital and operating subsidies and reference to a forthcoming funding request was even recorded in Hansard when the matter was raised in the Legislature. However, a formal funding request was never sent.
2007. City staff estimated that the costs were going to rise to $95 million (excluding land) and Council approved a funding increase In-Camera.
2009. By now it was apparent that the cost (excluding land) was going to rise from $65 million to a projected $110 million. In a February report to Council, City and Provincial officials estimated that $56M to $77M in City subsidies would be required to keep the housing affordable for those for whom it was intended. While VANOC’s $30 million was available, the City would have to find significant additional funds.
In reviewing this report, I discovered that only 126 of the 252 units were actually 'social housing' units to be made available on a rent-geared-to-income basis. That’s right. The remaining 126 units were to be rented to just about anybody at slightly below market, which in housing parlance is known as ‘the lower end of market’. While this broader mix was standard practice for larger new social housing projects, it was something that was not generally known or understood by the public.
Given other greater social housing priorities, and the City’s serious financial exposure on the entire Olympic Village development, I and others advocated that the 252 units be sold as condominiums. This would allow the City to recover its costs and potentially make a profit. I noted that new social housing could be developed as part of future developments on the 23 acres of City-owned land immediately adjacent to the Olympic Village.
To make a sale of the social/rental housing more politically palatable, I suggested it could be offered as 'workforce housing' with priority given to firefighters, police officers, and other City workers who wanted to live closer to where they worked. While some worried that selling these units might negatively affect the sale of the remaining condominium units, for which the City was the lender, I proposed ways to differentiate the two products based on my experience at SFU’s UniverCity. These included offering the units as leasehold, rather than freehold tenure, or with other conditions attached.
Sadly, this idea was condemned by some City councillors who said it would turn the village into a "gated neighborhood" where only the rich could live.
However, in November 2009, a small group of housing experts was invited by City staff to confidentially review a draft Report to Council setting out various options for the Social/Rental Housing. These included maintaining a mix of rent-geared-to-income and market rental housing; converting all the units to market rental housing; or selling the units as condominiums as I and others had suggested.
At this meeting, with only one exception, everyone told the city staff that trying to rent many of these units as ‘market rental’ would be very unwise. The apartments were too big compared to other rental suites on the market, and the standard of finishes was not what the market had come to expect, especially at the relatively high rental rates being proposed.
I subsequently learned from a local reporter and others that the Mayor also favoured the option of selling these units. His number one social housing priority had always been to provide shelter and accommodation for the homeless. This was not the group to be served by the Olympic Village. Selling this housing would allow the City to get back its $110 million and a potential profit of up to $69 million, as estimated by the staff report. This could go a long way in addressing social housing needs.
However, as the Olympics were about to begin in a few months, the matter was put on the back burner until the following spring, when the Social Housing report setting out the options finally went to Council, as a rushed ‘Late Distribution’ item, I might add.
Editor's Note: On Wednesday, CityCaucus will publish Part II of Geller's report whereby he brings us up to speed regarding the very latest developments regarding this project.
- Post by Michael Geller. He is a Vancouver based architect, planner, real estate consultant and property developer with four decades’ experience in the public, private and institutional sectors. Follow @michaelgeller or @CityCaucus on Twitter. Michael also regularly appears every Tuesday on the Bill Good civic affairs panel on @cknw radio in Vancouver.