Will Vancouver’s temporary modular housing buildings be actually temporary?
It was just over five years ago that the City of Vancouver saw the completion of its first temporary modular housing (TMH) building to provide rapid social and supportive housing for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness.
In early 2017, the municipal government opened its first modular project at 220 Terminal Avenue, adjacent to SkyTrain Main Street-Science World Station.
Since then, with a significant infusion in funding from the provincial government, the number of temporary modular housing buildings has reached 12 sites across the city, with a combined total of roughly 900 single-occupancy units. It has enabled levels of government to better respond to and address the changing nature of homelessness.
And more importantly, TMH appears to be working. According to a survey conducted by BC Housing of the initial residents in TMH projects in 2018 and 2019, 80% of residents reported that their overall well-being is better, 82% of residents have experienced positive interactions with neighbours and the surrounding community, and 94% of residents remained housed six months after move-in.
The municipal and provincial governments have been pursuing TMH for its ability to build the structures far more quicker, generally with a construction timeline of between two and four months. Similar conventional structures would take about two years, plus a longer permitting review process.
The structures — reaching two or three storeys — also carry a significantly lower construction cost, and are typically built on readily available vacant or under-utilized properties awaiting a future permanent development.
Over five years ago, when TMH was initially being explored, a benefit of the housing typology was stated to be the ability to dismantle the modular structures, and relocate and reassemble them to another site.
According to city staff, TMH projects are generally time-limited on any site, with up to a five-year period subject to extension for up to a further five-years, as regulated in the zoning and development bylaw, for a total duration of up to 10 years.
Some of the TMH sites are privately-owned lands, on a parcel of properties planned for future neighbourhood-sized developments, including TMH structures on the Heather Lands, Pearson Dogwood, and Little Mountain sites.
The 46-unit TMH at 137 East 37th Avenue in Little Mountain, built in late 2018, was dismantled at the end of 2021, when the site reached the end of its three-year agreement with property owner Holborn Group. Earlier in 2021, there were discussions on relocating the structure to the southwest corner of the site — near the intersection of Ontario Street and 37th Avenue — but that did not materialize. Over the coming years, Little Mountain is expected to see significant construction activity for its permanent structures.
Many of the other TMH projects have been built on sites already owned by the City, such as the aforementioned 40-unit site of 220 Terminal Avenue, a 52-unit site at 265 West 1st Avenue just west of the Olympic Village, a 98-unit site at 610-620 Cambie Street in downtown Vancouver (a future office tower parcel next to the future site of the new Vancouver Art Gallery), a 52-unit site at 258 Union Street at the southeastern edge of Chinatown (a future affordable housing development site on a non-park open space at the easternmost end of the Dunsmuir and Georgia viaducts), and most recently a 98-unit site at 1580 Vernon Drive at the eastern end of the False Creek Flats.
The TMH buildings constructed on properties owned by government and non-profit housing operators are more likely to remain in place longer than the TMH on private developer-owned properties.
“I’m cognizant that we’re starting to learn it’s more and more difficult, temporary but not really temporary, in terms of the investment of these infrastructures, and it is increasingly more and more difficult to relocate so-called TMH,” said A Better City councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung during Tuesday evening’s public hearing.
“It is not a simple pick it up and move it at the end of the 10 years that we had envisioned, and it creates a whole host of issues to providing stability of tenuring housing for people.”
Kirby-Yung made the comments during city council’s deliberations on the application to temporarily convert the site’s usage — from Industrial to General Urban — at 1325-1333 East Georgia Street in the Grandview-Woodland neighbourhood, which would allow for a proposal to build TMH to proceed to the formal development permit application stage.
Levels of government face the forthcoming issue of their various previous promises to neighbourhoods during the proposal stage that TMH projects will have “temporary” structures.
But even with the surge in new funding from the provincial and federal governments towards social and supportive housing, they have been unable to keep up with the pace of demand for building temporary or permanent affordable homes for individuals facing or at risk of homelessness, never mind building new replacement permanent structures to replace TMH. There has been growing discourse on this particular issue within some policy circles in recent years, especially since the pandemic housing measures began.
As a new key strategy to effectively address the mental health and opioid crisis, the provincial government has also indicated that the use of some TMH sites will be intensified with additional operating cost investments; the strategy of introducing the new model of complex-care housing provides residents already under the supportive housing model with 24/7 wrap-around support from nurses, social workers, and other health professionals. For instance, one of the first four complex-care housing sites is the TMH at 3598 Copley Street in East Vancouver, where 12 of the 58 supportive housing units have been upgraded to complex-care housing units. The 2022 BC Budget calls for adding at least 20 more complex-care housing sites across the province through 2025, creating a combined total capacity for 500 individuals in complex-care housing.
Moreover, relocating the modular structures to other sites is increasingly difficult for reasons that include a lack of suitable vacant properties with consenting property owners, which means governments and not-for-profit operators could turn more towards the strategy of acquiring new properties suitable for TMH.
The future TMH at 1325-1333 East Georgia Street is driven by Indigenous not-for-profit housing operator Lu’ma Native Housing Society. They received funding from senior governments to acquire two properties for a land assembly last year for the purpose of building TMH, with retrieved records showing they paid a combined total of $5.05 million in January 2022.
City staff expect the 12,500 sq ft lot will able to accommodate a single TMH structure with 30 units, which would be the smallest unit total for any TMH site in Vancouver.
The temporary land use designation of General Urban allowing for TMH will remain in place for up to 10 years, which was a measure approved during the public hearing in an 8-2 vote. Kirby-Yung and TEAM councillor Colleen Hardwick voted in opposition, while Mayor Kennedy Stewart was absent from the decision.
Both Kirby-Yung and Hardwick also took issue that TMH is non-compliant with the site’s and overall area’s industrial use designations. Metro Vancouver is currently experiencing an immense industrial land shortage, with the region’s industrial space vacancy rate hovering at 0.9% at the start of 2022 — one of the lowest in North America. This is limiting economic potential and pushing employment opportunities further to the outskirts of the region, or even to other jurisdictions in Canada.
“I am really concerned about the fact that I don’t think we are encouraging, protecting, or incentivizing our industrial lands. We do need economy-supporting lands. We have a dire shortage of land overall, and we need trade-enabling lands or else we won’t have businesses and jobs in the city,” continued Kirby-Yung, emphasizing that certain policy directions should also contemplate other considerations, and that the change of land use could set precedent and level of expectation.
“I think we’re going to see significant issues play into things like income, housing stability, and poverty if we don’t have the economy to support jobs.”
Hardwick added: “We can say it’s going to be for 10 years, but don’t be holding your breath.”
However, Green Party councillor Pete Fry and A Better City councillor Lisa Dominato countered that the site in question is currently not being used for traditional industrial purposes, although they share concerns on the region’s industrial shortage.
The property is largely a surface parking lot, with a 1908-built single-detached house in a corner, which pre-dates the area’s industrial zoning. It is not deemed a heritage property, but if the TMH project is approved, Lu’ma Native Housing Society has indicated they intend to retain the structure and repurpose it to provide services for tenants, including a kitchen and amenity space.
A similar temporary land use change designation from Industrial to General Use was also approved by city council in fall 2020 as a necessary step to build its TMH project on the city-owned site of 1580 Vernon Drive.
In March 2019, within only 17 months, the provincial and municipal governments reached their initial goal of building 600 units of TMH within Vancouver. This was part of the provincial government’s initial $291 million plan to build 2,000 units of TMH across the province, plus $170 million in initial operating funding to provide 24/7 staffing and support services for the TMH sites over three years.
Various other additional investments towards building more TMH have been made since, particularly as a pandemic response measure, such as the TMH project at 1580 Vernon Drive, which is part of the additional supportive housing allocation of 450 units announced in September 2020.
In spring 2021, the federal government also allocated BC with $205 million from its pandemic-time national rapid housing initiative. As the federal program stipulates the social and supportive housing must be built quickly, this provided the provincial and municipal governments with the option to either buy low-end hotel properties or build more TMH.