Despite the fact that homelessness and poverty are hot topics amongst BC voters this year, a community group in Kitsilano is doing anything they can to prevent a social housing project from being built in their neighbourhood.

The project would be 13-storeys and add 129 below-market rental units to the city, including units with supports for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. But the Kitsilano Coalition is vehemently opposed to the project, saying that the plans for the city-owned site -- which runs between 7th and 8th avenues at Arbutus Street -- would make the family-friendly neighbourhood unsafe.

The reactions to the proposal have been so visceral that the public hearing on the matter has taken four days (so far) and accrued close to 300 registered speakers. Today, at 3:00 p.m. PDT, the public hearing will resume and City Council is set to vote on whether to carry on with the project or axe it altogether.

RELATED: Kitsilano Social Housing Project Supporters “Deeply Frustrated” by Petition to Remit Rezoning

Owen Brady is a volunteer and director with Abundant Housing Vancouver. He has been following the public hearing and can attest to the fact that the proceedings have been especially controversial. As of today, there are over 1,400 letters of opposition and 530 letters of support.

"It's not surprising that people are concerned about supportive housing," he says. "People are worried [that] social issues present in the Downtown Eastside are going to be moved over to where they live."

The project was hotly debated from outset. Cheryl Grant, a volunteer spokesperson for the Kitsilano Coalition, tells STOREYS that over 80% of respondents opposed the rezoning during BC Housing’s community consultation. The percentage opposed remains the same today.

"The proposed rezoning is for a prefabricated modular tower, which is a new format that does not currently exist in the community. In addition, the building overwhelms the narrow and irregular lot size, with very limited setbacks and green space," she says. "Little consideration has been given to managing an increased inflow of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, with the project adding frequent trips by emergency vehicles and HandyDART to an already-congested traffic situation."

More of the arguments against the proposal include that it would be too close to the St. Augustine School and Sancta Maria House Society. Other naysayers argue that congregated housing model is not conducive to recovery and reintegration of vulnerable peoples into the population, and a scattered model should be used instead.

"Pursuing this model costs no more than building the large-scale congregate projects BC Housing proposes, but requires a shift in mindset and a political will," says Grant. "Scattered recovery housing has been adopted by Portugal, which has successfully addressed mental health and addictions challenges without inclusion of drug consumption sites."

Additionally, on July 14, Thomas Gove, a retired BC criminal judge, made his opposition to the project clear in a public statement, criticizing the model, size, and location of the proposed development.

He asserts that because of the size of the project, and the potential for the single-occupancy units to end up housing more individuals than they are meant to, the building could become a hotspot for crime and addiction.

"I worked in the Downtown Eastside for more than 25 years, including 14 years at the community court, and the model being proposed for 7th/8th and Arbutus does not work, particularly when there is no treatment that is tied to housing," Gove said in the statement. "When you gather people with serious [mental health and addiction] problems in a building, you just import the culture of the street into your building and that doesn’t help the residents of the neighbourhood."

But Brady argues that for Gove, a Kitsilano resident, there is a blatant lack of objectivity.

"It's the same talking points that everyone else is using," says Brady. "The wrong model thing is just not true. The wrong location -- I mean, it's across from the Skytrain station. I don't know what better location there could be."

He adds that comments like Gove's feed into harmful misconceptions surrounding social housing and the people who it stands to help.

"There [are] always concerns about an increase in crime, which tends not to be borne out. And then, the concern about property values, it's not really an issue. Basically, property values do not, according to the research, go down more near social housing than elsewhere in the same communities," he says.

This kind of apprehension when it comes to social housing is not a one-off. But Brady says the City of Vancouver actually has a good track record of approving social housing projects like this one, especially compared to other cities in Metro Vancouver, like Surrey and the District of North Vancouver.

For instance, in 2019, the City approved a rezoning proposal for a 10-storey mixed-use building at 1636 Clark Drive and 1321-1395 East 1st Avenue, which would include 90 social housing units, a social enterprise space, and a withdrawal management centre with around 20 short-term transitional beds.

In this case, the support outweighed the opposition, and both sides were considerably less polarized. That said, this project was much smaller than the one in debate now. But there is a more relatable, more recent precedent.

"[Vancouver City] Council unanimously supported a very similar proposal just a month ago," Brady tweeted earlier this month.

The project he is referring to in his tweet is a 14-storey residential building at 1406-1410 East King Edward Avenue, which would include 109 social housing units. The location is close to schools and beside a park. The project was proposed in 2021 and City Council voted 8-0 in support of the project just last month.

"The difference there is it's in a different part of town. It's in East Vancouver, where there's less organized neighbourhood opposition. This is in Kitsilano, where there are multiple different residents' associations that have been organizing against housing more and more over the years," says Brady. "We need social housing and all types of housing everywhere in the city. And it's not really great that particular West Side neighbourhoods are able to organize to opt-out of that. It's not healthy and it's not fair."

Bridgitte Taylor is a volunteer with Kitsilano for Inclusivity. She feels the bigger problems at play here are the processes in place for public hearings and rezoning.

"Too often, rezoning processes for supportive or social housing are overtaken by stigmatizing, harmful comments around the makeup of future tenants or residents," Taylor tells STOREYS. "In the case of the proposal at W7th and Arbutus... many of the comments expressed throughout the hearing have been hurtful, drawing on stereotypes and assumptions about unhoused people. This only discourages people with lived experience from speaking up and providing public input. It is therefore marginalized communities, who often have less time, less power, and fewer resources, who end up being excluded from these public forums."

Taylor stresses that there are better ways to go about social housing matters that don't involve unbridled public forums, and the onus is on the government to amend current processes in favour of the greater good.

"Non-profit building providers and experts have highlighted that Vancouver's current zoning frameworks make it difficult to deliver projects without these lengthy and emotional processes," she says. "The majority of Vancouver is zoned for single-family homes, whereas non-profit builders require certain levels of density for affordable housing projects to be financially viable. The current model is clearly failing to meet the needs of the city amid a housing crisis."

She adds that while some steps have been taken to enact changes to the systemic processes, there have been frustrating setbacks.

"Recently, the City of New Westminster introduced changes to the public hearing process that would allow councillors to raise a 'point of order' if speakers begin to discuss future tenants of social housing proposals -- especially if harmful or oppressive language is used," she says. "Moreover, this past fall, Councillor Boyle brought forward a motion to streamline zoning for non-profit and affordable housing developments in some areas. The motion ultimately failed, with some citing concerns over the definition and threshold of 'affordability' that would need to be met for operators to qualify."

Amidst all of the opposition to the project, there is no arguing that the social housing development on Arbutus Street would add affordable, supportive housing to Vancouver's market at a time when the city sorely needs it.

"In Vancouver, the homeless count is over 2,000 and vacancy rates for rental housing under $1200/month is 0.5%," Margaret Pfoh, CEO of the Aboriginal Housing Management Association (AHMA) tells STOREYS. "The push-back this project is getting is disappointing. During this housing crisis, a privileged community like Kitsilano needs to strive to understand the importance of making space for those less fortunate. Inclusive communities are vibrant places to live and they contribute to a healthy society."