Frustration, despair about affordable housing

The odds were never good that the 89 low-cost apartments at 4550 Fraser could be saved from redevelopment, as a small and determined band of remaining tenants hoped.

Council had no legal authority to withhold a demolition permit or slow the development of more than 200 new apartments and townhouses organized around a new grocery store, bank and drug store planned by Ledingham-McAllister on Fraser and an adjoining site on Prince Albert.

But when council finally, after more than eight hours of public submissions and debate over two nights, approved a staff report on the project on Feb. 28, the atmosphere in the chamber was thick with emotion.

It was a grim mix of frustration, anger and despair about the crisis in affordable housing and council’s inability to save the Fraser units.

The debate put a human face on the issue in an intense pair of hearings that forced a dialogue, however imperfect, between the political and economic forces driving development and the people that must live with the consequences.

It also offered a remarkable contrast between the long-established community leaders who have shaped the city and the new, diverse and often low-income residents who make up a majority of the population and workforce.

More than 30 residents put their case, urging, demanding and imploring the council to save the only affordable homes they can find in a city where the vacancy rate for any apartment is close to zero.

“This is my home,” cried retiree Derek Lennie. A resident since 1990, he shares his apartment with a blind room mate while he awaits hip surgery.

Keira Adem, a recent immigrant who works late and returns home at all hours, called Fraser Villa “our community,” where she knows her neighbours and feels safe at night, confident they would answer a call for help.

Senior Anita Eriksen, another long-term resident, told council “I need affordable housing. There is no place to go.”

Silvia Olvera, a single mother, estimates that even the low rents on Fraser – they average $800 a month – are consuming 67 percent of her monthly income as she works through a recent marriage breakdown.

And Haroon Asadullah told of finding a two-bedroom apartment at $1,400 a month, only to be refused because he has four children, too many for the unit in the landlord’s judgement.

All of them forcefully reminded Mayor Gregor Robertson and his Vision colleagues of our commitments to protect affordable housing.

(The stress was evident on all sides. A representative of the development team fainted at the podium as I asked him some questions, toppling backwards into the arms of solicitous tenants. He was attended by Dr. Penny Ballem, city manager, until he was well enough to go home.)

But as planner Rick Michaels told council on several occasions, staff brought forward the report not to seek approval of the demolition permit – it could not legally be withheld – but to flag the loss of one of the largest affordable rental complexes in the city.

Such updates had been anticipated by the last council’s rate of change bylaw, which requires a one-for-one replacement of rental units in most parts of the city but not above commercial zoning on arterial streets. (The Fraser St. side of this project is outside the bylaw’s boundary, the Prince Albert St. side is covered.)

Michaels reviewed the three-year approval process the developer had already endured: a rezoning proposal rejected by staff and the community, a new approach based on existing zoning, the delay occasioned by the civic strike, discussion on steps required to replace 48 rental units on Prince Albert and a further pause to allow the council report.

The ownership group includes representatives of some of the city’s most successful and well-established families. The landlords are Sergio Cocchia and Wendy Lisogar Cocchia, owners of the Absolute Spa chain and other properties.

Developer Ward McAllister, the president Ledingham-McAllister and a director of the UDI, is proud of his firm’s 100-year history in Vancouver.

The tenants, many of them of long standing, are working families, seniors and recent immigrants.

Beginning about a year ago, the owners and the developer left apartments vacant as tenants moved out, rather than trigger a a mass eviction. They eventually offered all residents a $2,000 payment and $500 in moving expenses if they agreed to leave by a given date.

But with nowhere to go, at least 30 residents decided to stay and fight. The election of the Vision council raised hopes of a reprieve.

It couldn’t happen.

Vision councillors asked staff to find ways to make the 48 replacement rental apartments affordable. But current policy didn’t offer the tools.

Could the city buy the building? It wasn’t for sale.

What about senior levels of government? Neither the federal nor provincial budgets offered any relief.

Could the city force the ownership group to delay another year for the remaining tenants? No, the costs would be too high and the developer would lose his existing commercial tenants. The future of a major new development, supported in much of the community, would be put at risk.

Finally, after 11 p.m., the report was adopted with Gregor Robertson expressing the frustration the entire council felt at its inability to achieve an affordable housing solution.

The tenants will have to move. Staff will bring in proposals to tighten the controls on demolition of rental apartments.

Next week’s council will debate Vision’s proposal to tackle the problem, a motion deferred to hear the Fraser tenants.