By Kerry Gold
They live in the model community, a success story of livability. But residents of Marina Housing Co-operative in Vancouver’s False Creek South neighbourhood are feeling anything but secure in their housing situation, even though they live on city-owned land.
The 130 or so residents of the co-op will see their 40-year lease expire in January, 2022, and since negotiations with the city stalled last year, they are growing increasingly frustrated that several years of countless meetings have gone nowhere.
They know that their neighbourhood has become prime real estate along the city’s waterfront. They know that a lease renewal will mean higher charges, and they are open to taking on more density.
But they want to be part of the process of replanning their community so that residents are not living in fear of displacement. They want their model community – praised and studied by planners and geographers around the world – to survive.
Bob Lewis has lived in the Marina co-op since 2012 and he says about 40 per cent of the building’s residents are seniors. One long-term resident, he says, is a 90-year-old man who still does work as a landscaper. After extensive talks, last summer the city finally offered a renewal deal that residents saw as too pricey. It would have meant incremental monthly increases, up to $500 within five years, which is substantial for a pensioner, Mr. Lewis says. Some members say they went to lenders and asked if they’d get financing based on the renewal agreement and they were told it would be too risky. They say outside consultants told them that they’d be bankrupt within five years if they entered into the deal. Talks are now at a standstill.
In a statement, the city said it is working towards a resolution of the issue. It said it is also committed to keeping residents in their community and the previous council approved a plan to develop affordable options for all residents on city-owned leased land to allow them to stay in their neighbourhoods, “in the event of resident displacement triggered by development, redevelopment, or end of lease terms.”
The long-term community plan for False Creek South, however, is on hold while lease discussions continue, the city said.
“Vancouver is in an affordable housing crisis and using public land for the protection of existing secure affordable housing, as well as the creation of new secure affordable housing, are vital parts of the solution,” the city statement said. “False Creek South plays a crucial role in this as part of the limited stock of public land available for providing affordable housing exists in this area.”
But Mr. Lewis says there is a big gap between what the residents can afford and what the city wants.
“I have some empathy for the city’s position because the land costs have escalated exponentially in the last 10 years, and so has the cost of running the city, so I do understand the need to balance everything,” Mr. Lewis says.
However, “they’re basically saying, ‘Sure, you can stay here, as long as you can afford this.’ It doesn’t feel very secure. So it’s certainly been anxiety creating for a lot of the people here, I can tell you that.”
Because they are living without certainty, residents have started to move out and the disintegration of his community has begun, he says.
“It’s reaching a point where, in our case, we have people who are leaving the co-op or applying to other areas, to try to get into something else that has a longer extension so they could keep their family unit intact, to get their kids through school.
“And you have seniors looking for other places, so two years down the road they aren’t sitting on the curb wondering where they are going to be living next.”
The Marina Co-Op isn’t alone. The clock is ticking on other co-op housing complexes in Vancouver’s most livable neighbourhood. Another co-op comes due in 2023, and many others will be looking at expired leases between 2036 and 2037. Strata condos, also on city-owned land, are negotiating with the city one-on-one and the city says those negotiations are private.
False Creek South (FCS) is a special, internationally recognized neighbourhood where 80 per cent of the land is city owned. About 1,800 housing units are on the leasehold land, with leases varying from 40 to 60 years. It was born out of the socially conscious period in the mid 1970s when the three levels of government decided to revitalize the industrial heart of the city and build affordable housing. They created a middle density, family housing site comprised of one-third non-market rental, one third co-op and one third leasehold strata title units. It sits between Burrard and Cambie bridges, north of Fairview Slopes, huddled along the waterfront in three- or four-storey complexes with play areas and their own elementary school. The streets are really pedestrian alleyways and the gardens around the enclaves are abundant and lush.
The community is unique because of its diversity as well as its affordability. In the midst of a housing market that quickly derailed as prices rose above the grasp of many local income-earning residents, the people living in False Creek South remained immune to displacement and “renovictions” precisely because they were removed from the market.
FCS was built in an era far different than the market-driven one of today, says University of B.C. geography professor emeritus David Ley, who gave a talk in April called Can False Creek South Remain a Model Community in a Changing World? The mood was for social housing, with government subsidies for co-ops and rentals, to be built in a way that would inspire community and pride of belonging. The housing was dense and attached, but it wasn’t high-rise. Cars were to be tucked away off the streets, which instead would be used for pedestrians and bikes. It was considered a risky proposition: the developers didn’t touch it.
“The City’s objective was to break even,” Prof. Ley said. “Its ambitious and multidimensional livable city objectives precluded profit maximization.
“It represents the innovative and progressive spirit of the 1970s, the decade that represented the high point of the Canadian welfare state.”
Dr. Kate Shaw, geography professor at the University of Melbourne, has included False Creek South as a case study in her book, The Squander and Salvage of Urban Waterfronts, due out next year.
The mix of diverse housing was groundbreaking at the time, she says in an e-mail.
“The fact that FCS is mainly city-owned land is crucial now. Contemporary initiatives along these lines can barely be contemplated without a public land component, as private property has become so hellishly expensive. To allow any privatization of this land would be a great waste. Publicly owned well-located land will never again be available – it must not be squandered.”
But those young families that moved in 40 years ago are now gone and many of the units are occupied by seniors who would benefit from downsizing to units without all the stairs. Dr. Shaw says added density is workable. However, it should ensure no displacement of residents and more co-op housing should be built, with new lease terms, she says.
“The beauty of FCS is not only its socio-economic mix, but its distinction from the high-rise glass safety deposit boxes of downtown.”
Architect Graham McGarva moved into his newly built FCS co-op unit in 1979, with his wife. They paid a $3,000 down payment knowing that they wouldn’t build equity in return; however, they’d have security of tenure. And Mr. McGarva was from England, so he was accustomed to leasehold properties and state-owned council flats. The idea of ownership didn’t matter to him. They raised a family in an idyllic environment, walking their kids to school and surrounded by families secure in the knowledge they had safe, secure housing and a thriving community.
In Mr. McGarva’s building, the federal government subsidies that helped low-income residents ran out, so the wealthier residents now subsidize the repairs on the building. They’ve paid off their lease and borrowed millions to replace the roof and rain-screen the building, which, he says, has been faithfully maintained. Their housing charges have gone up substantially over the years, but they are fully self-managed, with a contingency fund and the ones who are subsidized remain anonymous.
Mr. McGarva sits in a tiny community coffee shop called Convivial Café, which is at the heart of False Creek South, on the seawall. The owner, Beth Dempster, greets customers by name. The café has a system that allows anyone who can’t afford it – or who’s having a bad day – a coffee or a meal prepaid for by another resident. A convenience store in the neighbourhood allows seniors to run a tab.
Mr. McGarva ran a successful firm and was involved in the development of False Creek North, which is filled with high-rises, the physical antithesis of FCS. However, he got out of the business in 2016 when he saw housing become overly commodified.
“It was all about money, money, money on market housing,” he says. “The problem with the city of Vancouver is that it’s fallen under that real estate mantra of density, as though land value is real. It became about portfolios of all kinds of investment operations investing in Vancouver, looking for a 50-per-cent profit in a couple of years. The guys who just want to churn out the money. But that’s not the real value.
“All of those theories are just constructs. They are not real – they are accounting practices.”
Mr. McGarva says the co-ops are providing affordable housing because they are subsidizing low-income residents within their buildings. He is part of a group called RePlan (although he is not speaking for them), which grew out of the False Creek South Neighbourhood Association in 2010, with the purpose of moving the community through the lease-end phase.
Nobody interviewed is opposed to change. They know that development will be necessary, particularly around West 6th Avenue, which has undeveloped land. They’ve identified several areas where infill can be added so that elderly residents can stay in the community, and others can move in. They’ve even offered to help in the creation of that infill. FCS is filled with many active and retired professionals well versed in planning and development.
However, judging from nearby Southeast False Creek, and all the new development that surrounds them, the current definition of “more density” is very likely several mid-rise developments and redevelopment of the existing buildings. How that unfolds is the question.
Mr. McGarva thinks about Little Mountain, where 700 low-income residents were displaced so that the province could use the money from the sale to house them elsewhere. The developer is planning to use the acreage to build mostly market housing.
“I told the mayor and a couple of councillors several years ago that the False Creek South problem was easy to solve: the city could buy a big block of land in Detroit, then move all the poor people there and sell False Creek to multimillionaires.
“The city would have provided affordable housing and made a lot of money, which is kind of that same model.
“Everything is based on the value of bare land. We say, ‘wait a minute, don’t you value affordability? Don’t you value the homes that we have?’”