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New Vancouver Art Gallery forces closure of 98 units of supportive housing

BC Housing: "We have been working with residents for several months on individual relocation plans."
The 98-unit two-building Larwill Place temporary modular housing complex will close this summer to allow the land to be redeveloped for a new Vancouver Art Gallery.

One of Vancouver’s largest temporary modular housing complexes designated for people who were previously homeless or at risk of becoming unhoused will close this summer.

The 98-unit two-building complex at 610 and 620 Cambie St. known as Larwill Place will cease operations after July 31 to allow redevelopment of the property for the new Vancouver Art Gallery.

“We have been working with residents for several months on individual relocation plans,” said BC Housing in an emailed statement.

“All residents have been provided with advance notice of closure, first in 2021 and later in March this year. We are also committed to making sure that all current residents have a place, or at least the option to move to a new place when these units are closed.”

The city-owned property runs a block long, with most of the site used as a parking lot.

That’s where Glacier Media spoke last week to former resident Patrick Munroe, who was visiting friends at Larwill Place. Munroe said he was disappointed the housing would no longer be available after July, and was worried his friends might end up on the street.

“I don’t think they should tear it down,” he said, noting some tenants are living with an addiction, mental illness, or both. “This place was good. I have dreams about this place being there forever.”

BC Housing and the City of Vancouver were clear at the beginning of the temporary modular housing program initiated in 2017 that the units and others across the city would eventually have to be vacated for redevelopment.

More than 750 tenants in modular housing

In the case of Larwill Place, the land has to be prepared for the long-promised new art gallery for the site, which is adjacent to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Office towers were also in the original plans for part of the property.

Ten of the 12 modular housing sites in Vancouver are owned by the city, with two on private property. The focus of the program in 2017 was to provide housing as soon as possible for people either living on the street, or in a precarious housing situation.

The ready-made housing, which is owned by BC Housing, is home to more than 750 people.

Known as “supportive housing,” tenants have access to health services and other personal needs not always offered in other types of accommodation such as single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels.

BC Housing conducted a survey on the impact of temporary modular housing on residents six months after many of the buildings in Vancouver opened.

The survey found that 80 per cent of residents reported their overall well-being was better, 82 per cent had experienced positive interactions with neighbours in the surrounding community and nearly all (94 per cent) remained housed six months after move-in.

'Case-by-case basis'

Lease agreements as to how long the modular housing can remain on a property vary by location, as an email from the city’s communications department explained.

“When a lease approaches expiry on a city site and the property is ready for permanent development, the city, BC Housing and the operator work together to relocate residents to other appropriate, affordable supportive homes for residents,” the city said.

“In the event the city site is not ready for permanent development, the city works with the partners to find a suitable lease extension. This is completed on a case-by-case basis.” 

Expiry and extensions on private sites depend on the objectives of the owner and BC Housing, according to the city, which referred questions to BC Housing about what happens to the modular housing once removed.

Modular housing units in storage

BC Housing said work is currently underway to determine best use of the units from Larwill Place.

It’s unclear whether the units will end up being stored somewhere — as was done after the 46-unit modular housing building (The Beach, or tə cecəw) was vacated and moved from the Little Mountain development site — or relocated for more people to move in.

All tenants from Little Mountain were offered the opportunity to relocate with assistance to other BC Housing projects and into units of a similar size, type and “affordability appropriate to their individual need,” the housing agency said.

“We are developing long-term plans for all the temporary modular sites in Vancouver and are committed to ensuring people in supportive housing remain in their units, without disruption, wherever possible,” BC Housing said. “This work is in progress, and more details will be made public once plans have been finalized.”

While the modular projects are designed to be easily redeployed to other project sites when necessary, BC Housing said its goal is to move “these buildings as little as possible in order to mitigate increases to the embedded cost of housing.”

Discussion about Larwill Place comes as city crews continue to move people, tents and structures from East Hastings Street. City officials have said the number of people on the street does not match the limited supply of shelter.

'That's crazy'

Coun. Pete Fry said he hoped BC Housing’s plan for the 98 units at Larwill Place is to move the housing to another spot in the city and open it to people in need. Fry said he was surprised when told the 48 units from Little Mountain were in storage.

“That’s crazy,” he said. “I kind of assumed that BC Housing would be redeploying them in other places as space was made available. Having said that, I know that here in the City of Vancouver, we don't have an abundance of space for stuff like that. So maybe it's easier said than done, but it seems a waste.”

Fry said he has heard from his counterparts across the region that modular housing was needed for homeless people in their communities. He noted Vancouver has done “a lot of the heavy lifting” when it comes to providing modular and other types of housing for homeless people.

“If there's opportunities elsewhere in Metro Vancouver, I hope local governments would be stepping up and offering their municipal-owned land as a temporary modular housing location,” he said.

'An actual home'

Meanwhile, Munroe, who said he’s been six years clean, was evicted from Larwill Place over a dispute and now lives at a nearby single-room-occupancy hotel. He had been homeless prior to securing a spot at Larwill Place, he said.

He spends his days travelling to a health clinic, participating in counselling services with an Indigenous Elder and writing music. He’s lost a lot in the past few years — a brother to a fentanyl overdose and his mother died in December.

Originally from Grand Rapids, Man., the 30-year-old Cree Nation member shared that he was in and out of child and family services when he was a boy.

“That's why I was homeless and stuff,” he said. “That's why I was in poverty this whole time. They didn't teach me anything, and that's why I'm in these places. Indigenous people shouldn’t be in poverty, they should be succeeding, right?”

His income is now derived from social assistance. He doesn’t see a future living in an SRO and wants to get permanent housing — “like an actual home, where I can feel comfortable in a nice neighbourhood for once and not in the gutter like down on [East[ Hastings somewhere.”

The Metro Vancouver homeless count was conducted in March and results are expected to show an increase in the number of people living on the street or in a shelter, with Indigenous peoples — as has been recorded year over year — overrepresented.

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