The clock is ticking on homelessness and the Olympics

August 15, 2007

At the Vancouver Art Gallery is the official countdown clock for the
2010 Olympics: there are now well less than one thousand days left
until the opening ceremonies. That may seem like plenty of time, but
for folks concerned about the crisis in affordable housing, there is a
lot of work to be done to get the place in shape.

While there is
lots of housing being built right now, the problem with the current
boom is that almost none of it will be affordable. The mass marketing
campaigns plastered on billboards and in full-page newspaper ads have
one thing in common: an obsession with luxury, exclusivity and
privilege. This inner-city housing aims to safely tuck away affluent
people from the homeless on the street, not to reduce the latter's

This should be no surprise: this is the market in
action. Developers build to make money on their investments. And poor
people are not profitable.

With this context in mind, a group of
unlikely collaborators called the Inner-City Inclusive Housing Table
produced a report in March with 24 recommendations to end homelessness
by 2010. The report's centrepiece is a call for 3,200 units of social
housing between now and the Games, a target that is not that radical.
Back in the days when the federal and provincial governments were still
in the business of creating social housing (before 1993), we built
2,000 units per year in BC.

On the other hand, the table was
under the wing of VANOC and its participants included such figures as
developer Robert Fung, Al Kemp of the BC Apartment Owners and Managers
Association, and Peter Simpson of the Greater Vancouver Home Builders
Association, in addition to representatives of three levels of
government, and a number of community service providers. So consider it
a broad-based recognition of the need for action. Since the report came
out, over 100 organizations have endorsed its recommendations.

directly address the immediate crisis, the 3,200 units would largely be
"supportive housing" units for people with mental health and/or
addiction problems. This model, where access to health care and other
supports is provided on site, has proven to be successful here and

The good news is that resources are available to make
this happen. Based on standard estimates, the cost of the VANOC 3,200
units is $640 million. In contrast, over the past three years, the
provincial government has had a surplus of revenues over expenditures
of $10 billion, with another $3 billion surplus expected this year. The
cost of meeting the VANOC units thus amounts to less than one-sixth of
last year's $4 billion budget surplus.

In addition to the
up-front capital cost, there would also be an ongoing cost of running
the housing. But we should not necessarily think of this a cost
increase. A study done in 2001 for the provincial government found that
while it costs money to house the homeless, doing so is actually
cheaper than the indirect costs of neglect – paid for through expensive
visits to emergency rooms, the criminal justice system and other social

The bottom line: we can afford to do this – and more.
Ultimately, we need a long-term, "big bang" approach to affordable
housing that guarantees a percentage of affordable units as new housing
development happens. If we do not ensure it by design, it will simply
not be there. In the meantime, we need action.

The Housing Table
report provides a good starting point for addressing the worst problems
of addiction and mental health problems related to homelessness, and
all levels of government should make it a top priority.

Marc Lee is Senior Economist with the CCPA-BC.