There’s nothing like a feel-good story in the local free newspaper to set the blood boiling first thing in the morning. As I was finishing my run I spied the headline on the Vancouver edition of the Metro, “Million-dollar view for $375 a month.” The headline caught my eye because, unlike the majority of the so-called “journalists” working these days I have a skeptical mind and an elementary acquaintance with some basic principles of economics. “If someone is getting a million dollar view for $375 a month,” I thought, “then someone else is paying for it… and that someone is probably me.” And, lo and behold, a quick reading of the story demonstrates the correctness of my snap assessment.
Here’s the tl:dr version of the story in question: BC Housing and the City of Vancouver have built a $28 Million building at 1134 Burrard Street that consists of 141 units of social housing. The story doesn’t bother quoting anyone who thinks that this is a bad idea, but generously allows the building manager to take a pre-emptive swipe at opponents (definitely some balanced journalism there).
The address and the cost immediately caught my eye – until very recently I lived half a block away in a unit not much larger than those in this new development (350 square feet). It’s a beautiful neighbourhood – and an expensive one. When my 452 square foot apartment (in an older building) was re-rented it was for around $1300 a month. It’s a nice and quiet area, though I should also note that it’s an expensive one in every possible way (the closest grocery stores, for example, are an IGA and an Urban Fare, with lower-cost options like a No Frills located all the way on the other side of the West End along Denman St). In other words, setting aside NIMBY’ism (which, frankly, I’m going to come back to and defend in a moment anyways), it’s probably not a great place for people who, by definition, don’t have much money in the first place to live in. In fact, it would seem to me that tossing formerly-homeless people into a high-end neighbourhood where everything available locally is expensive (thanks, of course, in part to the reluctance of the City to permit various large, low-cost retailers to set up Downtown over the years) is actually kind of cruel to the people “helped.”
But, let’s take a further step back and review the economics of this: what possible sense does it make for the city to build social housing on expensive real estate (and to subsequently subsidize the cost of housing people on said real estate) at a time when social housing is scarce and the count of the homeless in the city is increasing? The best that the article can come up with is that, “homeless people deserve a safe, decent, affordable place to live”, but that line of reasoning would only if you think that the only “safe, decent” place in the city is along Burrard Street. If you’re going to spend $28 Million on housing people at at time when there plainly isn’t enough available social housing for everyone who the city wishes to install in it, why wouldn’t you build cheaper units on less-expensive land that could house more people?
Let’s just do a little bit of math. The rent on these units is $375 a month. The city and province spent $28 Million on this housing. It will house 141 people. If the the city and province, rather than building this Cadillac building, took the same money and spent it on private rent subsidies, they could provide five hundred people with a subsidy of $400 a month through the year 2026. Or, alternatively, given that the city has already sunk $28 Million into the building, if – instead of renting these units out as subsidized units they had built them as market housing units – they could probably have rented them out for around $1200 per month. Minus maintenance costs on the building, the profits from such a social enterprise would probably be enough to pay rent subsidies for around three hundred people.
It is hard to think of a more illustrative example of the idiocy of good intentions than this. Housing the homeless is a laudable enough goal, but this is the most foolish way to go about it imaginable and it does a better job than anything else I could imagine of demonstrating why so many of our present leaders are plainly unfit to administer anything, let alone a great city and province.
It is also, I am very sorry to say, likely to prove to be an act of great cruelty to local businesses and those who already live in the area. As I mentioned above, I lived about a block from this building until last fall. I quite liked the area and actively explored a purchase there before I decided, instead, to decamp for sunny (and slightly, slightly cheaper) Kitsilano. Even without this development, many of the local businesses – especially quick service restaurants and coffee shops – already had problems with street people camping out inside of them all day. I can only imagine how that effect will be multiplied by adding one hundred and fifty people off the streets and out of shelters to the region, especially given the well-known refusal of the authorities to move along even disruptive street people. One wonders if the intent of the city and the police is to allow the sort of open-air peddling that now characterizes much of the Downtown Eastside along Burrard and through the rest of the area. Some, I suppose, will dismiss such concerns as those of a NIMBY elitist, but those who do so will generally be those whose businesses aren’t being diminished or who bought half million dollar condos only to find themselves harassed by street people.
Again, I return to the point of the Building Manager, Mr. Murphy – the one who I quoted at such length in the article. If we are all agreed that we should have, “safe, decent, affordable” places for the homeless to live, is there any reason why it logically follows that those places need to be located on some of the most expensive real estate in the world, or even in the city of Vancouver at all? After all, one of the primary reasons why Vancouver has such a severe homeless problem is the fact that, for some reason, almost everyone has decided that allowing a large portion of the entire homeless population of the nation to migrate to and then congregate here isn’t at all problematic. We all must do our part for those in genuine distress and, if you agree with the prior platitude, than it should naturally follow that some of the cost and effort of housing the homeless ought to properly rest with Surrey, Prince George, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Toronto, Sudbury, Oshawa, Ottawa, Montreal, Cape Breton, and all of the other places that these people actually came from in the first place. It’s one thing for people to put on a solemn face and say something like, “this is all of our problem,” but it’s another to live it.
This is yet another example of how our leaders – particularly those at the municipal level here in Vancouver – continue to exist in a make-believe world where the sentiment “wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if?” is allowed to ride roughshod over the real world that people who aren’t organic juice millionaires have to live in.