Vancouver looks to budget for housing money, including for modular

«Many people who get into modular homes feel they have won the lottery.»

A temporary modular housing development at 595 W 2nd Ave. Francis Georgian / PNG

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart did not hesitate when asked what he wants in next week’s provincial budget.

“Housing, housing, housing.”

The throne speech this week set out the broad strokes of the B.C. NDP government’s plans for 2019, which largely focused on improving affordability.

“We’ve heard some good rumblings in the throne speech,” Stewart said Wednesday at Vancouver city hall. “But the budget will really tell us what kind of money they’re planning to put into these measures, and then I’ll be right over in Victoria trying to get as much of it as I can.”

Stewart was encouraged, he said, to hear mentions in Tuesday’s throne speech about the province providing more support for renters and improving the development process to speed up approval of much-needed rental housing.

One other area he wants to see support, Stewart said, is modular housing.

“I would say: ‘Help us. We’ll take whatever you can give us in terms of modular housing,’” Stewart said. “And I’ve made that clear to ministers.”

The temporary modular housing program was launched by the NDP government in September 2017, with $66 million in funding to build 600 homes in Vancouver for people at risk of homelessness, with the city providing the land. Modular homes are relatively quick and inexpensive to build.

As of this week, the city has 554 completed modular home units with tenants, and another 52 are under construction and set to be open in the coming weeks. The final capital funding toward the 600 units is higher than originally announced, the province said, and will be about $80 million.

But Vancouver politicians and staff believe there’s demand for a lot more.

In December, Vancouver’s council unanimously passed a motion calling for Stewart to “write a letter on behalf of council to the minister responsible for B.C. Housing to request funding for at least an additional 600 units of housing including modular in 2019,” and to direct city staff to get to work locating possible future sites for those additional 600 units.

The motion was introduced by first-term COPE Coun. Jean Swanson, who said this week she expects staff to report back any day with information on those possible locations.

Money for modular housing is one of the items Swanson most wants to see in next week’s budget, she said, along with what she calls a “totally overdue” raise in welfare rates.

The text of Swanson’s motion notes: “Many people who get into modular homes feel they have won the lottery.”

There’s plenty of demand for modular housing in Vancouver, Swanson said, pointing to Oppenheimer Park in the Downtown East Side, where dozens of people are living in snow-covered tents this week, despite the unseasonably cold weather.

“What we need is probably at least 2,500 units,” Swanson said. “Then we could pretty much get rid of most of the visible homelessness.”

Abi Bond, Vancouver’s managing director of homelessness services and affordable housing programs, said that modular homes provide more support and stability than the city’s hundreds of shelter beds, most of which are already full.

“A shelter is not a home,” Bond said. “Although it’s a life-saving space for many people, it’s not giving you the kind of essential aspects that a home gives you. … They don’t have kitchens and bathrooms, things that are important for human dignity.”

“Shelters are an important, interim life-saving measure, as are warming centres, but they aren’t the ultimate answer to homelessness, which is a home.”

“The city thinks we urgently need more supportive housing,” Bond said. “Whether that comes in a temporary modular housing form, or whether it comes as a more permanent option, we’re open to working with the province and other levels of government on that, but we know we need more.”

Homelessness represents a “real cost to society” in terms of policing and health care, Bond said. “It’s more expensive for us ultimately to leave people outside, than it is to make the upfront investment to provide shelter or housing and get better outcomes.”

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