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'Not having housing is life-threatening': Activist takes the stage at Vancouver forum on future of housing

Nick Eagland

Several dozen people took part in a City of Vancouver roundtable discussion on housing on June 17, 2017 at the Hillcrest Community Centre. The event allowed citizens to comment on housing affordability and to discuss possible solutions. Pictured is long-time advocate for the homeless Jean Swanson addressing the forum. (Jason Payne/Postmedia Network)

Several dozen people took part in a City of Vancouver roundtable discussion on housing on June 17, 2017 at the Hillcrest Community Centre. The event allowed citizens to comment on housing affordability and to discuss possible solutions. Pictured is long-time advocate for the homeless Jean Swanson addressing the forum. (Jason Payne/Postmedia Network)

The focus of a forum Saturday on the future of housing in Vancouver abruptly shifted to those with no homes at all, when an advocate for the homeless took over from city staff.

The City of Vancouver's "Big Conversation" brought dozens of concerned citizens to the Hillcrest Community Centre, where Mayor Gregor Robertson called for a grand-scale housing reset to promote affordability, density and an increase in available housing types.

Following a week in which city council rejected a controversial Chinatown highrise rezoning application, residents were relocated from the dilapidated Balmoral Hotel rooming house, and homeless people at a Main Street tent city were again challenged with an injunction, Robertson told the crowd he would welcome ideas and criticism to help improve the city's dire housing situation.

Immediately after Robertson concluded his opening address, longtime anti-poverty activist Jean Swanson seized the microphone to speak for the city's homeless and those at risk of homelessness.

City staff allowed Swanson time to address the audience while at the same time shuffling reporters out of the room (media were not invited to the public dialogue portion of the forum.)

Swanson said afterward that she delivered the "heart-pounding interruption" to ensure the city made housing the homeless and residents of single-occupancy hotels, many of them in dilapidated condition, a priority.

"For those people, not having housing is life-threatening and there are things that the city could do," Swanson said. "It's not a life-threatening issue if you're a homeowner or if you're a middle-class person."

Swanson suggested the city back away from displacing tent-city residents, expand modular housing and enforce standards of maintenance bylaws to repair rundown SROs and then bill negligent owners.

She was applauded by attendees, who went on to discuss such issues as housing the homeless, improving rental stock and ensuring affordable housing for families.

According to a handout provided to attendees, average monthly rents for apartments rose 40 per cent between 2007-2016. In the city's Eastside, monthly costs for condo ownership rose 60 per cent and for townhouses rose 70 per cent.

During his address, Robertson blamed Vancouver's housing crisis on rampant real-estate speculation and investment as well as an economic boom "like we've never seen before." He raised the issue of developers being focused on building luxury units.

"The way the market has gone in recent years, it's completely outstripped incomes here in the city," said Robertson, adding that city council is working with staff to correct that problem.

Robertson said 20 parcels of city-owned land, which he referred to as a "rainy day fund," have been made available for partnerships with the provincial and federal governments to build affordable housing, including a lot west of the Olympic Village.

The mayor said he expects rental stock to rebound with the city's empty-homes tax and with regulations for short-term rentals, which go to council next month, and said the city is working to expand modular housing to support those at risk of homelessness.

After his speech, Robertson told reporters he considered the situation with rundown SROs unacceptable but said the city is hamstrung by limited means with which it can intervene and enforce bylaws against slumlords who, he added, are rarely convicted in court.

"Ultimately, there's a B.C. government and federal government role to be investing in income assistance, to be investing in the buildings with capital and making sure that we have low-income housing here in Vancouver," he said. "We can't maintain that as a city — we don't have the tax base to do that."

Asked about the city's failure to house tent-city residents, Robertson said the site of the encampment is now in the hands of Lu'ma Native Housing Society, which on Thursday leased the land from the city to develop 26 units of housing.

Robertson said the city needs B.C. Housing to secure housing for those displaced residents, as it did with those at the Balmoral.

Kathleen Llewellyn-Thomas, the city's general manager of community services, said that with the housing situation currently "so dire," the city is looking at installing modular shelters to ensure an increasing number of unsheltered homeless people are kept warm next winter.

neagland@postmedia.com

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