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Creating new homes in just five months

January 10, 2019

It’s a conundrum.

We know that homeless people need homes.  But when people are dying in the streets and our shelters are over-capacity, we can’t wait years to shepherd affordable or supportive housing through funding and planning approvals. So we create shelters and respite centres – not because we think they are a permanent solution to homelessness, but because they are the solution we need right now.

But what if we could create a self-contained apartment as quickly as a shelter bed?  It’s what Vancouver is doing.

From site identification to occupancy in five months

Since September 2017, the City of Vancouver has created 404 self-contained apartments for people who are on the street or chronically homeless, with another 202 under construction.

These transitional homes are designed to combine the benefits of self-determination and community. Each resident has a furnished apartment with a small bathroom, kitchenette, storage and a door they can lock.  The homes are arranged into small 35 – 60 unit buildings with communal dining facilities, program space, a medical room, and offices for counselling, housing help, and other services — in fact, all the services now offered in a Toronto shelter.

And here is the astonishing part: these self-contained homes can be created in just five months. How do they do it?

Modular housing on sites that are ready-to-go. The homes are built on City-owned land or on privately-owned sites being held for future development. The sites are already zoned for residential use, and site plan and permit approvals have been streamlined. If site contamination is suspected, services are run above ground to avoid costly and time-consuming soil remediation. Units are manufactured off-site and delivered when needed, with on-site assembly typically completed within 90 days.

And when the owners of the site want to develop their land? The location may be temporary, but the homes are publicly owned and were built to last for 40 years. They can simply be transported and re-assembled on another site as either transitional or permanent housing.

The costs?

In the Vancouver model, the land is free. The City donates its own land and does not pay for the use of privately-owned sites.

The development budget to create 600 units was set at $66 Million, or an average of $110,000 per unit. The first units funded under the program were reportedly created for $75,000 for a 250 square foot apartment. Some subsequent units were built to higher standards — 350 square feet, upgraded kitchens and bathrooms, and quadruple the community and office space — and budgetted at $145,000/unit, covering all development costs except the time of City staff.

That’s certainly more than the roughly $25,000 for the temporary respite centre beds now being erected by the City of Toronto, but it’s comparable to the costs of creating a permanent shelter bed and, according to a recent Globe and Mail article, 25% lower than BC’s “cheapest ‘stick-built’ social housing.”

The path to success

Like Toronto, Vancouver has a hot real estate market. Suitable sites are scarce, even on a temporary basis. And of course there is always pressure to limit public spending. And yet they have managed to gear up a program and create 606 transitional homes within 16 months.

I asked City of Vancouver staff their perspective on the keys to success. Here’s what I heard:

A guaranteed funding envelope that enables the projects to proceed without requiring funding approval for each location. The selling points to government? Demonstrating modular housing was cheaper than other building forms, and definitely cheaper than the public costs of homelessness. Another selling point: with modular homes, the government who provides the funding can see results within the election cycle.

A commitment straight from the top. In Vancouver both the Mayor and the City Manager drove the agenda, freeing up city-owned land, assigning planning staff to the modular housing file, and streamlining processes. As one staff member said, “We sat down with the Planning Division and re-engineered the process. How do we turn a process that normally takes a month into a week, and turn a week into a day?”

Political commitment also means responding to community concerns without losing momentum. The City has staff assigned to community engagement, and keeps neighbours informed through on-line project information and Community Advisory Committees. But the City does not allow opposition to stall the process.

A city agency mobilized to create housing. The Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency (VAHA) was created to enable the City to move quickly to make effective use of the City’s own land.  VAHA acts as a broker, taking City land through design, rezoning, permit approvals and construction before entering into long-term agreements with non-profit organizations. It is also a trouble-shooter, stepping up to resolve any delays.

A supplier who can deliver.Vancouver was able to take advantage of a downturn in the oil and gas industry to attract bids from companies who had been manufacturing homes for resource workers. The winning bidder ended up building all 606 homes. Having a reliable supply of houses constructed within the province — the houses were manufactured in Kamloops, a four-hour drive from Vancouver — was essential to the project’s success.

Could it work in Toronto?

There are lots of practical questions that would require investigation: is CreateTO ready and able to take on the role of Vancouver’s Affordable Housing Agency? And if not, who can? Do we have suitable sites? Are there reliable manufacturers? Can we re-tool the planning approvals process to facilitate quick starts?

But we do have the ingredient that was essential to Vancouver’s success: the will to make something happen.

For many years, affordable housing and homelessness were seen as back-burner issues. No longer. In the last election, Mayor Tory launched his election campaign by stating affordable housing was his number one priority. The majority of elected City Councillors pledged their support for a housing agenda.

We have the will. Now can we find the way?


4 Comments leave one →
  1. Kate Chung permalink
    January 10, 2019 11:05 am

    And these homes can be made accessible from the beginning for less than 1% more.

  2. January 10, 2019 12:41 pm

    Good article. Thanks Joy. I liked this statement, knowing what we know about our politicians. "Another selling point: with modular homes, the government who provides the funding can see results within the election cycle." Gini

  3. January 10, 2019 1:45 pm

    Brian Davis asked me to post this message. (He was having difficulty registering his comment. I’m investigating, but in the meantime if you are having difficulty too, and you know me, just email it and I’ll post it on your behalf.)

    How encouraging it is to see the rapid construction of modular homes for the most vulnerable in another Canadian City that shares Toronto’s housing market challenges. It gives whole new meaning to the term – transitional housing! This is a story about adjusting long established rules and planning procedures to make it happen – and leadership from the top being the key ingredient. I’m sure we have the capacity to apply a similar approach here in Toronto.

    Brian Davis, Houselink Community Homes and Chair of TAEH’s Development Working Group

  4. January 10, 2019 9:39 pm

    Thanks Joy.
    It was an inspiration to read this blog.
    If it can be done in Vancouver, it can be done in Toronto.

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