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Vancouver’s leaky condos — as if we don’t have enough problems

You might think that because I am tucked up snug in my beautifully built laneway house that I no longer take note of problems other people have with their housing.

In fact, I think I’m even more interested in Vancouver housing, its affordability and its quality.  I have a long history of living in the area, in everything from basement suites to west-side detached homes, and I like to keep my oar in the water, so to speak.

And speaking of water, a headline in the Vancouver Sun caught my attention this morning:

Leaky condo crisis rears its head again in B.C

And it brought back such memories.

When DH and I first bought the condo where we lived for 13 years, we got it at a drastically reduced price.  It was a bargain because the building was about to undergo rain screening.  There was a reluctance on the part of potential buyers to move into a place that would be swathed in tarps and green mesh for the next six months while the exterior was ripped off and replaced.

LeakyCondo

Cristo would be proud! But we weren’t.

But we were happy to seize this deal because it would allow us to get into a great neighbourhood for a terrific price, and because I had just gone through the same procedure when the co-op where I was living was rain screened.  Ugly but temporary. And we didn’t have to pay for the rain screening at the new place because the assessment to pay for it had already been accepted by the condo board before the condo was put up for sale, so the previous owner had to pay for it.  That rule was to prevent people from getting a hefty assessment then ducking out and passing it on to unsuspecting buyers.

But it didn’t prevent some people ducking out before the assessment was made. We had already put in an offer to another condo conditional to our reading the minutes of the condo association meetings.  It was a really beautiful place, wood floors throughout, sun-drenched rooms, and an interesting layout.  But we had withdrawn the offer when those minutes revealed that the building was basically a sieve, and was either going to be undergoing expensive and extensive rain screening or would fall down in a few short years, a mouldy mess. It’s just a suspicion, but I felt that the owners had agreed NOT to have a proper inspection which would lead to an assessment until they had a chance to sell their places — passing on the problem to the poor saps who bought.  Rats leaving a rotting ship, so to speak.

The condo board at our building was very pro-active.  Regular maintenance was done.  And the building and the condos within kept their comfort and their value.  I have no doubt that I will be able to point out that building in the coming decades as the place where Nana and G-Pop lived when we were first married, and it will still look great.  But we paid the price — literally.  Our condo fees were high for such a small building, one of the determining factors in our deciding to move to the laneway.

Many buildings put up during the same period did not opt for rain screening.  These were often larger ones where the condo board was not made up of a few stalwarts but instead was full of people averse to spending money on maintenance. Some years ago I helped a young friend stage his condo for resale.  He had volunteered for the board, and found that he could not persuade them to raise the maintenance fees to pay for future upkeep — or even for what he felt were necessary repairs.  The rest of the board much preferred to keep the fees low, not do the work, and….rely on divine intervention.  Or resale before the mould hit the fan.  He decided to get out while the building was still in good enough shape.  But the signs were already there that there would be problems, and not too far off.

So now the chickens have come home to roost — and found it’s falling apart.

Why now? What’s happened to bring this problem to the forefront again?

And why are Vancouver condos so prone to leaks?

Stay tuned for part II.

Renting trouble

Last week I attended a panel discussion on housing affordability here in Vancouver.  It’s a big complex problem, with lots of different solutions.

Jim O’Dea talked about social housing.

Yuri Artibise talked about coop housing.

And Lyndsey Poaps talked about the problems of finding rental housing in a city with a vacancy rate of about 1%.

Because the people who are having problems finding housing are not just those at the bottom (and the edges) of the economic strata — they are middle class people, too.

In this article in the Vancouver Courier about the panel, Lyndsey Poaps is quoted as saying

“If we want to change the culture so that this becomes a city where people have expectations that they’ll rent for life — bring it on,” said panelist Lyndsay Poaps, a former park board commissioner who rents part of a duplex with her family on the East Side. “But the gap between that culture and our reality is like the Grand Canyon.” 

Over and over, when talking about rentals in Vancouver, you bump up against that cultural problem — the concept that people in Metro Vancouver don’t rent their homes.  They buy.  The idea that you’ll rent one home for twenty years or more — that’s European!  Back in Montreal you’ll find that — but not here!  Vancouver isn’t a city of renters.

Except it is.

I’m not just talking about the fact that every house on our street has some form of rental housing — whether it’s a laneway, a basement suite, or a house subdivided into two or more suites.  Nope. That’s just anecdote.

Vancouver is a city of renters.

Let’s look at the percentage of people renting in the Metro Vancouver area:

RentalsVancouver

It’s not just in the west end of the city, either, where you find a high percentage of renters.  Throughout the central area (including Kitsilano and Shaughnessy) nearly 70% of the housing is rental.  (Thanks, CMHC for the info.)

How does that compare to Montreal? You know, where “everybody” rents rather than buys?

RentalsMontreal

Sure, in the inner city it’s higher — but not much — but in the central area it’s less.

In central London, England, the rental rate is about 73%.  High, as was expected, but about that of Vancouver.  Even in Vienna, the city of government-owned and subsidized housing rental, the rental rate is about 75%.

So the question is not “Will Vancouver be a city of renters?”.  The question is “How can we best serve the high proportion of people in Vancouver who rent their homes?”.

Let’s just think about how Vienna has handled their rental housing.  As Harvard professor Eva Blau puts it, in the 1920s the city decided to really get involved in the rental situation in their city

There was also an economic reason to push for the public housing expansion. By subsidizing housing costs, rent would be kept low. That, in turn, meant wages could be kept low too — without negatively impacting living standards. Low wages allowed Vienna’s industrial sector to be more competitive internationally. There was a political aspect to the effort as well: The new government expected improved living conditions would engender loyalty from citizens. The push for housing was so expansive that today, nearly 100,000 of the city’s 220,000 city-owned apartment units were built in the 1920s and 1930s.

The idea that everyday citizens should have access to not just affordable apartments but also attractive ones — and that it’s the city’s responsibility to provide them — continues to this day. There’s a mindset that housing is a way to link residents to their communities and the larger city through design. “It was never just about housing,” Blau says. “It was always about the city. It was about not just providing private living space but also public living space to people for whom they were also providing housing.”

We don’t have to re-invent the wheel.  It’s time for Civic, Provincial, and Federal governments to get together and work out how people will have access to safe, reliable rental housing in this city.

Because right now we’re just renting trouble.

Concord Pacific coughs up

I went to a very informative meeting on Affordable Housing put on by Vision the other day — and you can expect a post on that soon.

But first…this story from Metro News says mega-developer Concord Pacific looks like it “might” make good its promise to build a park in False Creek.  They promised to in 1990, but this time it looks like it may go ahead.  

“This appears to lift the last stage of the process before a direct effort to build that park,” Coun. Geoff Meggs said, advocating the city move forward with the application.

The parkland has been tied up in legal agreements between developer Concord Pacific, the city and the province. It cannot be converted into a park until Concord develops the final package of its Expo lands, although an application has yet to be made for that “trigger” site.

Obviously, the park is still years away, but in the interim Concord will contribute $500,000 to an interim seawall, $808,850 to improvements under the Cambie Bridge north of Pacific Boulevard and $4.2 million to an enhanced paddling centre, according to the city.(emphasis mine)

The Dragon Boat Festival people have been waiting for a permanent home for years.  The Festival brings in a lot of money to the city in paddlers and partiers every year, so this could definitely be good news for them.

Also (drum roll, please)

It will also transfer a property worth $11.6 million in the Downtown Eastside to the city so the city can build affordable and social housing.

Whoa!  That is good news.  I will be following this story for sure.  Fingers crossed for increased social housing in that area.

Getting around with an ELF

I get around most of the time by transit — I don’t like to drive (and DH does not like me to drive his vintage auto) and I don’t like to ride a bicycle. In the rain.  Uphill. And I’m not ready for a motorized wheelchair, although my Dad loved tearing around the streets of Nelson on his Rascal.

I work too far away to ride a bike to my job, and if I want to go shopping there is a strict limit on how much I could carry home.

But what if there were another way of getting around?

Meet the ELF

elf-2

It’s a trike, so it’s more stable than a bike.  It can hold a lot of cargo (up to 350 lbs, according to Life Edited). It’s got an electric motor so you don’t have to pedal all the time.  It’s solar powered.

And it’s so darned cute!

Check out the website for Organic Transit — the people who make this adorable little transport.  It’s a great idea, maybe a game-changer for traffic-congested cities.

I don’t see me driving down the main byways of Vancouver in one of these — and riding a bike or a trike on the sidewalk is not allowed.

But if they can knock down the price from five grand American, if they can get a few communities to adopt them, I think we have a fighting chance to replace cars for zipping around the immediate neighbourhood. After all, if half of all car trips in the US are three miles or less, this could revolutionize how we get around.  With our aging population (and rainy weather), bikes are not always feasible.

The ELF could be the answer.

But isn’t that what I said about the SEGWAY?

Who gets to live here?

It’s no secret that I’m a real fan of any housing that lets people live in the city of Vancouver.  Houses, duplexes, condos, rental suites, basement suites, laneway houses.  Bring them on, in greater numbers.  I think that anyone who wants to should live where they want, in the city that has won the Best City in the World award and offers everyone the joys of living in a big, cosmopolitan, multicultural metropolis such as this.

Vancouver hasn’t always been such a “cosmopolitan” place.  We’ve always been a railway terminus and a seaport, a place of sawmills, stevedores and gandydancers, hard-working blue-collar workers.  And for many, many, many years, these people have ended up in the Downtown East Side (DTES) when they couldn’t work any more because of age or injury.  That neighbourhood has been the skid road — a term that started in this town when the corduroy log-paved roads would be greased to allow logs to slide down them to the sawmills — of Vancouver.  It’s a district of Single Room Occupancy hotels, where the sad and the broken live.  There are drugs, drug users, drug sellers (they don’t have to be pushers down there, just vendors). There are people struggling — and losing — with substance abuse of every kind.  There is prostitution.  There are the mentally ill. And there are also the agencies and organizations who help these people through their struggles. It’s a tough neighbourhood — but caring.

So in the middle of this vibrant town, full of life and activity and fun, there’s a place of shadows and sorrow.

Right next to this area is Vancouver’s Chinatown, a cultural treasurehouse. But it is also feeling the pressure of urban development. 

The property these areas sit on is becoming more and more valuable; development is pushing into it, squeezing the “have-nots” into a smaller and smaller area.

 Now maybe the city has found a solution to the squeeze.

From the Vancouver Sun comes this story of a new revitalization of the downtown east side and its centre, Hastings Street.

Today, Hastings is the heart of the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver’s most troubled neighbourhood. Hastings has become synonymous with drugs and poverty, an internationally-known eyesore.

But change may be around the corner. The city of Vancouver has spent the last couple of years going through a new Downtown Eastside local area planning process (LAPP), in tandem with many of the neighbourhood’s most vocal anti-poverty activists.

And therein lies the secret to this plan’s success.  Lots of times experts and pundits and caring folk from all around the city will try their best to solve the problems of civic blight.  But it’s only because they have pulled in people who live and work and advocate here that I think that they might have a chance to make this work.

If the Downtown Eastside plan succeeds — and that’s a big if — much of Hastings between Clark Drive in Strathcona and Abbott Street in Gastown is likely to be replaced with new developments. Taller buildings filled with single room occupancy hotel rooms, known as SROs, around Hastings and Main will probably survive, but most everything else is up for grabs, unless it is a designated heritage building or existing social housing.

There will be condos allowed in the five blocks between Clark and Heatley, as well as in the two blocks from Carrall to Cambie. Any new development will have to include 20-per-cent social housing.

The condo-free zone between Heatley and Carrall is called “Hastings Central.” Maximum heights range up to 12 storeys, although pure social housing projects can apply to go higher. All new projects in this zone have to be at least 60-per-cent social housing.

Overall, the plan calls for 4,400 social housing units to be built in the Downtown Eastside. Most people think this is the rough patch around Hastings and Main, but the city plan defines it as a much larger area that includes surrounding neighbourhoods like Victory Square, Gastown, Chinatown, Strathcona and Thornton Park.

Is it going to work?  Who knows?  It’s a noble effort, there are lots of people who are fighting it — well-meaning people with good arguments against it.

I’ve had some spirited discussions with them.   Why should developers buy into this plan?  Why should we, the lucky ones, bother with these people, drug addicts and the like?

Because, that could be us.  One or two mis-steps.  Age.  Illness.  Injury.  We could be there. According to counsellor Andrea Reimer:

She figures fewer than a hundred of the Downtown Eastside’s 18,000 residents are involved in the street disorder that goes on. Most of them just “fell through one crack, and then another.”

“How many times did I meet guys who lost their job, got divorced, had gambling addictions, were injured at work and were on pain medications they couldn’t get off of. People with brutal childhoods. It’s amazing that some of them are still walking around, right? And some of them aren’t.”

I want it to work.  I want the people who live in the DTES to have clean, safe, pleasant homes to live in.  And I think it could work if those homes were a mixture of those who have and those who have not.

I want it to work because I think the true measure of a society is how they care for those who cannot take care of themselves.

Learn more about building Laneway Houses from the experts!

If you are interested in building a laneway house on your property, or if you are just curious about the process, then you owe it to yourself to attend a presentation on Laneway Houses on Wednesday, March 12.

A panel of experts will be there to answer your questions and provide information:

Ralph Case, President of the Real Estate Action Group – Investment benefits of laneway housing
Jake Fry, President/Owner of Smallworks Laneway Housing Inc. – Designing and building small
Colin Lawrence, VanCity – Financing made easy
Richard Bell, LLC – How to share title

Date: Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Where: University Golf Course
5185 University Blvd (10th ave. west of Blanca)

Time: 7:00pm – 8:30 pm

BTW, that address is quite accessible by bus, if you would like to go but don’t have an automobile.  But there’s lots of parking there if you want to take the car.
If this is something you think would be of value to you, please attend.  It’s the best way to get expert advise I’ve seen so far (other than reading this blog, of course!)

The Co-operative solution to affordable housing

We have spoken several times about the difficulties finding affordable housing in our fair city.  One idea I haven’t written about is Co-operative Housing.  That’s ironic, because I lived in a housing co-op for 14 years.

witsend

A housing co-op, whether for-profit or non-profit, differs from other multi-unit housing in that everyone who lives in it owns a share in the whole building — not just your unit.  So you own — and have responsibility for — the whole building.  The co-op board (made up of people who live in the building) determines who can or cannot move in and how the building will be managed including how much each share in the building will cost.

Lots of people find it hard to get their mind around the idea that co-ops are affordable.  That may be because they have only heard about exclusive, expensive co-ops such as the famous Dakota in New York City, where suites could cost millions of dollars.  But they are an excellent way to get affordable housing right here in Vancouver.

Let’s say you know several people who all have the same problem you do — they can’t afford to buy or build a home in Vancouver.  You may know several hundred people in that boat.

Well, you can all get together and form a housing co-op.  That’s the way I found myself in Wits End Housing Co-op.  The apartment complex where I lived in Kerrisdale was sold and razed to make a much larger, more expensive tower.  Most of us in the original complex could not afford to live in the new building, but we could afford to pool our resources and our time and talent to form a co-op.

It took a lot of time, and much energy, but many of the families from the original complex called Wits End home for years.  It was a good place to raise your children in a nice neighbourhood convenient to transit.

If you go to the Wit’s End web page you’ll see that the charges for housing are quite reasonable, from $782 for a one-bedroom to $1,215 for a four-bedroom unit.  Plus you must purchase shares in the building, costing from $1,600 to $2,400 depending on the size of the suite you want.  That’s very affordable for Vancouver.  But there’s a way to save even more.  In some co-ops you can receive a housing subsidy through the government that will allow you to live in a suite that you might not ordinarily be able to afford.  The subsidy is given to the co-op, and it is limited.  Extremely limited. Check the Wit’s End page and you’ll see that they do not currently have any subsidy available.  Plus all their suites are full and they are accepting names for a waiting list (you don’t have to come up with the share purchase money until you are accepted into the co-op).

If you want to form your own housing co-op, the first step is to contact the CMHC, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and follow their guide to forming and running a co-op. There are also guides specific to the province where you live.

Is it cheap?  No.  There will be lawyers, architects, contractors, inspectors and many more people you will have to hire.  The CMHC can guide you through it. There are guidelines, rules and regulations you have to follow all the way.

Once you live in your co-op you will have responsibilities that condo dwellers do not.  You will have to serve on a committee, you should serve on the board at least once.  And if you choose not to hire cleaning people you will have to do your bit to keep the building clean and safe.

Co-operative housing gives you an instant neighbourhood, a safe neighbourhood for your kids, plus an affordable place to live.

I look back on my co-op years with great fondness.

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