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Province won’t pony up money for DTES plan

Housing minister says Vancouver ‘has done very well by us’
DTES plan
A memo from city manager Penny Ballem indicates the city is confident that the goals of the DTES plan are achievable. photo Dan Toulgoet

Housing Minister Rich Coleman says the provincial government will not contribute money to the city’s $1 billion plan to revitalize the Downtown Eastside over the next 30 years.

And his counterpart in Ottawa, Social Development Minister Candice Bergen, is leaving Coleman’s government to make any spending decisions on federal money set aside for affordable housing in B.C.

“We’re not going to be involved,” Coleman told the Courier. “It doesn’t meet any of our priorities or match up to anything we are doing.”

He said his government already committed $300 million to build 14 social housing buildings on city property, purchased more than 25 single-room-occupancy hotels to be renovated and supplies rent subsidies to Vancouver residents. The provincial government also regularly funds the city’s shelter program.

“This city has done very well by us,” he said.

Coleman’s comments come as city council prepares to review Wednesday the $1 billion renewal plan for the Downtown Eastside. The plan calls for $525 million from senior levels of government and nonprofits and an additional $245 million in fees from developers.

The most controversial piece of the plan calls for a condo-free zone in the Downtown Eastside Oppenheimer District, which is essentially a large chunk of the neighbourhood around Oppenheimer Park and runs west along the East Hastings corridor from Heatley to almost Carrall streets.

Developers have told the city’s director of planning, Brian Jackson, that only allowing social housing and rental units in the district will prevent revitalization and limit development.

Coleman said he favours a more integrated housing mix in the district, saying concentrating social housing in one area “stigmatizes the population.” He believes providing rent subsidies to people who live throughout the city is a better way to go.

“We find that we get way better social outcomes because people are integrated into the community and they’re not stigmatized by being put in to a single sort of location that says that’s where all the people on social assistance or whatever live,” he said. “You have to have integration.”

Last week, Coleman and Bergen agreed to extend both governments’ ongoing affordable housing fund, meaning another $300 million can be used for housing and rent subsidy programs in B.C. over the next five years.

The Courier contacted Bergen’s office to ask whether the federal minister thought some of the money should be used to fund the Downtown Eastside plan.

Bergen responded in an email saying B.C. has the “flexibility to use the funding to design and deliver programs that meet local needs and priorities.”

When told of Coleman’s lack of commitment to the plan, Mayor Gregor Robertson said the provincial government “needs to pay attention to the people who live in the Downtown Eastside.”

Robertson noted the success the city has had previously with the provincial government, having received money for the 14 social housing sites, the renovation of single-room-occupancy hotels and money for shelters.

“We need to continue making that progress,” the mayor told the Courier. “The community is making it clear that we need to go farther.”

A memo from city manager Penny Ballem to senior staff March 7 outlined the need for governments, developers and nonprofits to work together in order to achieve the plan’s outcomes.

“Based on the extensive work done, staff have confidence that the housing goals in the DTES community plan goals are achievable on the understanding that projects will require a sophisticated approach, in some cases additional form of financial support, and the involvement of multiple partners,” the memo said.

The plan calls for 4,400 new housing units in the Downtown Eastside and 1,650 rent subsidies. The city also wants another 3,350 social housing units to be built outside the Downtown Eastside.

Coleman estimated 4,400 units would cost $1.3 billion and operating costs of about $70 million per year. He said rental assistance for 10,000 families in B.C. costs about $50 million per year.

The Downtown Eastside has 18,500 residents, with up to 67 per cent considered low income, with a median household income of $13,691. Unemployment is at 12 per cent and more than 6,300 people receive social assistance.

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