False Creek South fights to keep affordable homes in an unaffordable city

Residents battled city hall and stopped the area’s redevelopment plan. They will lobby for a new plan to include more affordable homes.

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When Darcey Johnson and his wife, both fully vaccinated, contracted the COVID Delta variant last month, their False Creek South neighbours went grocery shopping and dropped off food to help the couple and their eight-year-old daughter get through their days of isolation.

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Damla Tamer felt lonely after immigrating from Turkey and financially unstable while her husband battled poor health, but the couple and their four-year-old son “flourished” after moving two years ago into a False Creek South co-op, where they built partnerships and friendships with their neighbours.

After moving from Ontario to Vancouver to study architecture at UBC 20 years ago, Shira Stanfield struggled to find an affordable apartment that could accommodate her wheelchair. When she got an adapted unit in a False Creek South co-op, it provided her with accessibility and affordability, and also a community where neighbours looked out for each other.

“If I didn’t open my front door, someone would notice. And as a single person when I first moved in, it was so important to me,” said Stanfield, a landscape architect with Parks Canada. “The beauty of this neighbourhood is all of the little interconnected pockets and places and enclaves and community spaces, and you meet people.”

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It was this sense of an interconnected community that False Creek South residents say was missing from Vancouver City Hall’s recent proposal to redevelopment their neighbourhood , a community that has been lauded since it was created four decades ago with an equal mix of low-, middle- and high-income residents living together in affordable and market housing.

Instead, city hall’s conceptual blueprint for change — which last week was sent back to the drawing board after significant community opposition — called for increasing the proportion of market housing, tearing down much of the affordable housing, and putting the low-income people in new buildings on the back edge of the property, far from the water.

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A rendering showing of the rejected City of Vancouver’s conceptual development plan for city-owned land in False Creek South, with the goal of being built out by 2040.
A rendering showing of the rejected City of Vancouver’s conceptual development plan for city-owned land in False Creek South, with the goal of being built out by 2040. Photo by City of Vancouver

“I was completely disheartened (by the redesign plan), because my home literally was not there. And for years now, many of us have been working on the assumption that when there’s such a great thing here, why not build on it,” said Richard Evans, an architect who moved to the community with his wife and two daughters in 1986.

“Everybody’s talking about the sense of community that we have, that social capital that we have, and up until very recently, that wasn’t actually recognized as something valuable.”

After three days and more than 100 speakers voicing opposition last week to the city’s original plan , council spiked it and asked for a formal consultation process with False Creek South residents and First Nations, one that is expected to begin in early 2022. Councillors also asked for more priority to be given to issues such as a greater percentage of affordable housing to help low-income families, people with disabilities, marginalized populations, and essential service workers who can’t afford to live in Vancouver; protecting green space and biodiversity; and zero-emission construction and mitigation against sea level rise due to climate change.

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That has given False Creek South residents some hope that their voices may be heard, because they have ideas about how to successfully expand their community — which has, for 40 years, provided affordable homes in the middle of a city that is famously unaffordable.

“There’s no way we can afford this (housing) market. It’s ridiculous,” said Doug Leaney, president of a False Creek co-op where he has lived with wife and two school-aged daughters for five years. “(The co-op) gives us that home and that stability, and it puts us in a community that’s very diverse and inclusive. I’m so grateful to have that. It’s just a beautiful place to be in Vancouver, and you can’t get that any other way, unless you’re very wealthy.”

The half-a-square-kilometre pedestrian-only community is on the south side of False Creek between the Cambie and Burrard bridges. The Indigenous people who first inhabited the lands were pushed out when the area was industrialized in the early 1900s. Later in the century the city acquired ownership of roughly two-thirds of the land.

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In the 1970s , the city worked with residents to create a plan for a unique neighbourhood that ensured a range of citizens could live in the waterfront community.

Coun. Colleen Hardwick’s father Walter, an alderman from 1968-1974, played an early role in the development of False Creek. Now she is one of two new liaison councillors, appointed last week, to start working with today’s residents on future plans.

She is critical that the staff report on the area’s redevelopment didn’t properly consult the residents, and she promised to speak with them about important first steps. For her, that includes ensuring the housing mix in the neighbourhood remains at least one third low-income, one third middle, and one third high-income, and that people are intermixed throughout the community.

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“The idea of stacking low-income people up against the street on Sixth Avenue is absolutely contrary to the underlying principles on which this development was born in the first place,” Hardwick said.

Other important details to discuss with residents, she said, include demanding the federal government fund the new social housing, getting leases renewed for buildings on city-owned land, and having a good displacement plan for residents if their buildings are torn down.

Reimagining the development of False Creek South has wider ramifications because it could influence the future of other similar Vancouver neighbourhoods, such as Champlain Heights, Hardwick added.

False Creek South residents. From left to right: Doug Leaney, Damien Reed, Damla Tamer, Maria Roth, Richard Evans, and Shira Stanfield (seated)
False Creek South residents. From left to right: Doug Leaney, Damien Reed, Damla Tamer, Maria Roth, Richard Evans, and Shira Stanfield (seated) Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

Postmedia interviewed a dozen False Creek South residents, of various ages and backgrounds, about the future of their community. None was against city hall’s suggested growth in density, from 1,849 homes today, to roughly 3,770 by 2040, and 6,645 at some point after that.

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But they question why the plan calls for tearing down existing affordable homes, when so many buildings on the property have been maintained well and have years of life left. And they insist the mix of new proposed housing needs to include far more affordable units — and wonder why any new market housing should be built on city land at all.

“Let’s make it all available for people who live and work in the city and contribute actively to the life of the city. I don’t think any of it should be for profit,” said Maria Roth, co-chair of a group that advocates for the area’s co-ops. “That’s the best use for (the land) in the middle of the housing crisis.”

It is not that False Creek residents think they should have a special “sweet deal” to live in more affordable houses. Rather, they argue, financial and political solutions should be found to expand this model not only in their community, but across the rest of pricey Metro Vancouver.

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The city acknowledged in its original plan that money from senior governments would be “an important part” of constructing any new non-market housing. That is a concern because six lots on the north side of False Creek , which were to contain social housing, have sat empty for more than 30 years due to a lack of federal government funding.

Residents are encouraged, though, by a councillor’s request last week that the city work with the non-profit sector to explore more options to get additional affordable housing built on the site.

Robyn Chan with her daughter Ramona.
Robyn Chan with her daughter Ramona. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

Robyn Chan, a SFU urban studies grad student who works with the False Creek South Neighbourhood Association , hopes the city’s new consultation process will also involve residents from other areas of the city, because new ideas tried in her community could work elsewhere, too.

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“There’s other housing models that could be tried here. We have co-ops, and we have non-profits and we have rental, but maybe affordable home ownership, different things like that,” said Chan, who has lived in a non-profit rental in False Creek for three years, with her husband and two young children.

More affordable housing in the area is definitely needed, say residents who screen applications for those wanting to get a spot.

“I’ve had 15 years of looking at desperate people applying to the co-op,” said Stanfield. “These are teachers and artists and nurses. … Crazy long wait lists, we get flooded with hundreds of applications.”

Chelsea Haberlin and her husband, both artists and environmentalists, put themselves on waiting lists for 20 different co-op buildings, where they sat for five years before getting a spot in False Creek South a year ago. They wanted to live in Vancouver to be near work, but could not afford to buy, and they wanted more of a community than they could find in the various rental complexes where they had previously lived.

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“A lot of people in our (co-op) building have lived there since 1985, like since the building opened, and so it feels like they’re welcoming you into their home when you move in,” said Haberlin, who has a three-year-old daughter, Rose.

“And in the evenings, you see all the kids playing in the playground and all the other kids rush down and join them. And we just sort of right away were welcomed into that and made a part of that. And prior to that, I couldn’t have told you our neighbours’ names.”

Chelsea Haberlin with daughter Rose.
Chelsea Haberlin with daughter Rose. Photo by Francis Georgian /PNG

Co-ops are typically mixed-income communities where monthly charges, or rents, are set to cover operating costs and repair bills. Neighbours get to know each other because they own their homes together and jointly decide how they are managed.

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Haberlin and her husband pay $1,200 a month for a small two-bedroom apartment, compared to $2,500 for a similar place in their former market building.

“I feel concerned about a loss of affordable housing,” she said of future city hall plans. “I would like to see an increase in the number of co-ops and an increase in below market rentals.”

Many of the residents were buoyed last week by the fact that all city councillors, regardless of party affiliation, endorsed amendments to the original plan that are intended to keep the community more affordable, inclusive and green. Roth remains optimistic, for now, that city hall’s next plan will better reflect the character of False Creek South.

“It’s a great neighbourhood for kids. And it’s quite different in design than a lot of the other new communities that are going in,” she said. “So what’s really special about this place? Let’s pause and think about it, and figure out where we want to go, how we want to go forward.”

Maria Roth in False Creek South.
Maria Roth in False Creek South. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO

lculbert@postmedia.com

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