Monday, December 21, 2009

Muslim-Jewish Feed the Hungry

I can't help but smile at the irony.

Perhaps moved by the Christian spirit of Christmas Sunday, my daughter Claire and I joined a large number of Muslim and Jewish volunteers on Sunday December 20 to help feed the hungry. The program has been operating on the third Sunday of every month for the past four years in a hall at the First United Church at Hastings and Gore Streets in the Downtown Eastside.

The idea for Feed the Hungry came about almost five years ago from discussions between members of the Masjid ul-Haqq Mosque and Congregation Ahavat Olam, led by community leaders Tahir Din and Rabbi David Mivasair. According to a September 2005 story written by Baila Lazarus in the Jewish Independent, (formerly the Jewish Western Bulletin), a small cluster of local Muslims and Jews wanted to come together to build bridges across the faiths that held mutual distrust and suspicion and help those less fortunate than themselves.

The program seems to be accomplishing two important goals. It is helping to feed almost 300 hungry people while breaking down some of the often publicized animosity and barriers between Muslims and Jews.Yesterday there were approximately 40 volunteers, split almost evenly between Muslims and Jews. Tasks included preparing the food in the kitchen, flower arranging, (yes there were flowers on the tables) serving, cleaning-up, and greeters. I was a greeter, and my eyes were opened by the parade of people who lined up to get a meal. I could not help but notice the very high proportion of native people and blacks who came by, and the variety of personalities. Some people were very gregarious; others were very shy and almost ashamed to have to be lining up for food.Before the meal service I was given a tour of the church shelter by Frank, one of the long term workers. He told me that when the shelter initiative was proposed by Rev. Ric Matthews and approved by the city approximately a year ago, it was determined that 150 could be accommodated each night. However, some of the people with whom I spoke were amongst the 350 people who had slept in the church that night. Yes, 350 people are now sleeping in the church each night on pews and cots that have been set up in a number of areas. And now on the floors. While most are men, there is a separate area for women.

Possessions are stored in the basement in large rubber 'tupperware-like' containers that I was told were funded by Vancity. A small area is also used to store shopping carts. While the shelter is obviously greatly needed, looking around at the limited number of bathrooms, and bodies all over the place, I cannot believe this is a sustainable solution.

Pray and Connect
Ironically, it did not seem that the church offers traditional Sunday services. There are too many people sleeping in the chapel. But the Muslim-Jewish initiative does offer an opportunity to pray and connect. It is described by the Rabbi and Muslim leaders as an opportunity to share brief prayers and personal reflections on experiences of the day. It is also an opportunity for the volunteers to get to know one another a bit better and learn about each others' customs and traditions.

Other DTES initiatives
As I reflect on my discussions with those who came for a meal, a number of thoughts come to mind. The first is something I already know....that there is a need for better housing and increased welfare and shelter rates. But I also wondered about the possible benefits of a few other initiatives, that might be offered at considerably less cost.

The first is a program to try and re-connect some of the people with their families. Now I realize that many are living on the streets because of intolerable home lives. But I couldn't help but think some of the people would be interested in reconnecting with certain family members in Vancouver or back home (and yes, many of the people I spoke with came originally from Toronto and Montreal and other parts of BC). However, someone would have to help 'broker' the reconnections. One of the church workers thought this might work for some people. Is there an agency in the DTES that tries to do this?

Another thought is whether some of the men would welcome the opportunity to get cleaned up for the have a decent shave and haircut. I didn't discuss this with anyone, but I couldn't help but think this might be a welcomed treat. I don't even know if there are barber shops in the DTES but maybe this should be explored. If people wanted this, I and no doubt many others would happily donate money to make this happen.

The other thing I could not help but notice was the desperate need for dental care. I understand that there are some programs operated by the UBC dental school, and a few community spirited dentists like Larry Cheevers in the DTES.

Now I suspect that some will be laughing at these dare I talk about shaves and dental work when what people really need are homes and money and programs to help address mental illness and drug addictions. I know. But some of the people I spoke with said they wanted to get some work, and I am convinced it would be easier if they looked a bit more ready for work.

A final thought...from speaking with one of the community workers at the church.... WHY DOES EVERYONE IN THE DTES WHO QUALIFIES FOR WELFARE GETS THEIR MONEY THE SAME DAY EACH MONTH. Everyone who works in the community knows it creates havoc. Welfare Wednesday, or whatever. Why not spread out the payments over different dates, A to G one week, H to M another and so on.....We no longer renew our license plates on the same day...

In conclusion, I am very glad that Claire and I spent a couple of hours at First United rather than doing other things. I suspect there are many opportunities for others to help out in the community. I noted that the Muslim-Jewish Feed the Hungry program is dependent on donations of food and money, and there also is a need for other personal hygiene supplies...toothbrushes and toothpaste, soaps and shampoos...just to name a few. There is also a need for gloves and hats and scarves...all things that most of us have an over abundance of in our homes. Details are available on their website the hungry.

So thank you Rabbi David for letting me know about this initiative through Facebook, and thank you to all the volunteers in the Muslim and Jewish communities who quietly help out every third Sunday, every month of the year. I now know that many people appreciate what you do.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Although our Chanukah Menorah has been put away...

This special zebra will be running around the wilds of Africa, reminding us all of Chanukah '09 and the power of Photoshop.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Further musings on the future of SEFC Social Housing

Currently, two of the discussions taking place on Frances Bula's blog relate to the proposed cuts to city services, and ThinkCity's position that the city should sell the social housing units at SEFC. Yes, ThinkCity is promoting this, and I admire the organization for taking this stand.

The following are comments that I posted on Frances' blog this morning that hopefully provide a better appreciation of the context within which this decision should be made:

"I think it is ironic that there is a strong link between the two conversations currently taking place on this blog…the cuts to city programs and the decision on what to do with the Olympic Village social housing.

I agree with the concept that we should not create low income ghettos. For that reason, I have been arguing for market condominium and rental housing in the DTES, and I support the creation of smaller projects accommodating lower income households that are integrated into other communities. City Observer has reinforced the value of doing this.

The south shore redevelopment of False Creek confirmed for me the idea that when public land is redeveloped for housing, there should be a mix of incomes…it should not be exclusively for low income people (as were the first phases of the St. Lawrence redevelopment in Toronto) nor exclusively for high income people. (The city has often sold sites for top dollar, which were subsequently redeveloped exclusively with condominiums catering to higher income households.)

If the city was not facing significant financial problems at the Olympic Village, and in many other aspects of its operations, I would have no problem accepting the 252 units of social housing remaining as housing for those in the lower income brackets.

But the fact remains, for a variety of reasons, the city faces losses of tens of millions of dollars over the Olympic Village project. While these losses will not come out of annual operating budgets directly, they will reduce the Property Endowment Fund (PEF), and impact the future financial health of the city.

For those who have not been following the more detailed financing of the entire South East False Creek development, one of the reasons the city is facing significant losses is that it had hoped to cover all the cost of the soils remediation, construction of the beautiful seawall walkway and bridge, the environmental features, parks, community centres, childcare, and some of the social housing costs from the revenues from the sale of the land offered for condominium development.

However, two important things have happened. I am told the cost of all the public components, yes all… have increased, in some cases quite significantly. At the same time, there is a very real danger that the city will not receive all of the land payment it expected from the private developer to fund all of these initial costs, and cost over-runs.

I am not privy to the City’s proforma setting out the costs and revenues. But based on what has been publicly said, Millennium was to pay $193 for the land. I suspect there is a danger we will not get all of this money.

To make things worse, some people have suggested we may not receive any additional land payment, (other than a $17 million deposit which I’m told was paid). Worse still, depending on how well Mr. Rennie does with the condominium sales, we may not even get back all the money we have advanced to the developer to finish the building. (Yes, we could go after his other projects including Evelyn Avenue in West Vancouver and his proposed Davie/Bidwell project, currently going through rezoning, although I note this is being proposed by another related company.)

Now I realize I am starting to sound awfully alarmist, sort of like the mayor and Geoff Meggs and Miro Cernetig in the past, but based on the estimated costs of this project, (Frances, I’m being told the construction cost alone for the buildings is in the order of $450 to $550 a square foot, which is double what Onni or other developers have been paying to build new condominium housing.

As I have suggested before on this blog, a large part of this increase is attributable to form of the buildings and the ‘look at me’ design and construction features that were included so that we could proclaim this the most sustainable community development in the world!

If you want to know what these feature are, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, just go through the sales centre and look at the fancy shading systems on the exterior walls, and ask about the never before tried in North America heating system, and everything else that we’ll be boasting about in Copenhagen, but I digress.)

So my understanding of the current situation is that the city cost over-runs for the site development and community features are in the tens of millions of dollars, (this is in addition to the budgeted costs) and it is likely that we will not get all the money Millennium has promised to pay us for the land. Indeed, as noted above, there is a chance that we won’t receive any more money for the land, and if Miro Cernetig is right, we may not even get back all the money we have lent the developer to pay for the project.

So it is within this context, and the context that I describe in the last paragraphs of this posting, that we must now make a decision on the future of the social housing.

Before you finalize your position, you should also remember that not only is the Social Housing significantly over budget, and require tens of millions of additional dollars of further subsidies if it is to accommodate those in greatest need, IT IS PERHAPS OUR ONLY POTENTIAL REVENUE SOURCE IN SEFC TO OFFSET THE TENS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS IN POTENTIAL LOSSES.

There might in fact be another zero in the loss column, but since I haven’t seen the numbers, and don’t want to be accused of being unnecessarily alarmist, I will just talk about tens of millions in losses.

So for me this is no longer a philosophical discussion about the importance of keeping a promise, or the benefits of mixing low and mid and high income households in a community development. If we do lose a lot of money, then the assets and future revenue stream from the PEF will be reduced, and there will have to be additional cuts in future years.

This is why I advocate at least trying to recover the costs of the social housing. I complement Think City for also coming to the same conclusion. I also thank them for sharing that it can be done in a way that does not compete unfairly with the market housing.

And it can also be done in a way that will ensure some social mix, (and remember a former City Council did, at the last minute, give a bonus to Millennium to include some rental housing.

The project is not just condominiums for the wealthy as Ellen Woodsworth and others have stated, and to be fair, almost everyone has forgotten this too.)

By imposing sale and resale controls, it is possible to keep this housing ‘more affordable’ in perpetuity. (And yes, I realize $600,00 units are not very affordable for many, many people in the city, but they are more affordable than $1 million units.)

By leasing, rather than selling the land, the city can retain long term ownership of the property. And by imposing a right of first refusal provision, the city could buy back units over time, as our financial situation improves, if it is deemed important to have an even broader social income mix. (Although personally, I would just build more cost effective units on adjacent lands. )

In this regard, to respond to Glissando Remy, the reason that future social housing units on adjacent sites will likely not be so expensive is that they will not be built at a time of historically high construction costs…with lots of overtime payments to ensure they are finished by a certain date, and with many very innovative and never tried before features.)

A final thought. Yesterday Alice Sundberg, the former head of the BC Non Profit Housing Association invited me to see a non-profit housing project that according to one envelope building consultant needs $100,000 per unit in repairs, due to water penetration. The residents do not have the money.

The city and province claim not to have the money to help this low income group repair their homes. So I was being asked whether I could think of a creative solution that might involve selling the project to a sympathetic developer who might get a density increase and in turn re-build some or all of the social housing units along with some affordable market condominiums. As it turned out, I don’t think this is an appropriate or realistic way to proceed, but it might be possible to repair the building for $50,000 a unit, rather than $100,000 a unit. Nonetheless, this might still force out some of the residents, or indeed force out everyone for a while, depending what happens.

My point is this. This tragic situation is not unique. There are hundreds, if not thousands of existing social housing units currently occupied by low income households that are in need of serious repair. Many are on land owned by the city in the PEF and leased to non-profit organizations. Soon the city is going to be increasingly asked to use the assets of the PEF to help keep the low income households in their units.

So before you insist that the city keep these prime SEFC units as social housing, we should also think about those low income, single parent families, who right now are living in units just off Commercial drive, which are rotting and in need of repair.

We should also be thinking about the petting zoo, and the Bloedel Conservatory, because they too are related to what we do at SEFC.

The city needs to help a lot of unfortunate people who are currently living in deteriorating social housing, and yes, some who would be happy to be off the streets and living in any sort of housing. One way to ensure we can do this now, and in the continuing future, is to exercise good fiscal judgment when deciding on the future of 252 very expensive, but very valuable units in SEFC.

SEFC is supposed to be a ’sustainable’ community. While I am growing tired of the word, let’s come up with a fiscally sustainable solution to complement all its other wonderful and attractive features.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Adding 16 feet to a 600 foot building...

I learned last week about a property owner who was upset with a report going to Public Hearing this evening, recommending that a rezoning 'Text Amendment' be approved for 1133 West Georgia, the former Ritz Carlton development. What disturbed the homeowner was not the request to increase the number of units from 163 to 293, nor the proposal to increase the FSR from 17.74 to 20.8, yes 20.8! What disturbed him was the developer's request to increase the height from the previously approved 600 feet to 616 feet.

Now, this may seem like a very minor change, UNLESS YOUR HOME IS AT THE 600 FOOT LEVEL. And you purchased it for a lot of money on the understanding that a Council policy established the maximum permitted height for the adjacent 1133 West Georgia site at 600 feet.

Let me be the first to acknowledge that I have often requested approval for higher densities and greater heights than what surrounding neighbours would like to see. However, in each case there was deemed to be a corresponding public benefit.

In this instance, there is absolutely no public benefit. The developer wants a taller building and he knows that he previously got approval for a greater height, and the developer of the Shangri-la was able to finesse an approval for a greater height. However, at that time, there was no one living across the street whose view would be partially blocked.

The only apparent justification is the purchase of density from the city's heritage density bank.
If the city wants to sell the density, I say allow the density increase. But do it by adding a few inches or feet to the width of each floor. Just don't add 16 feet to the top of the building. Especially when this will block a portion of the north west views for those property owners who purchased homes at the 600 foot level of the Shangri-la, on the understanding that the maximum height for the 1133 property will be 600 feet.

I know it is hard for most of us to feel sorry for someone who can afford to purchase a home on the 61st floor of Shangri-la. But the fact remains that if this change is approved, the planning department and Council are basically signalling that there are no longer any approved height limits in our city. Everything is negotiable.

And while this may benefit those of us who want four storeys instead of three along West 41st Avenue, and higher buildings along Cambie Street around transit nodes, it may well create uncertainty for all Vancouver residents as more and more architects and developers seek approval to rise above previously approved height limits.

I just don't get it and do hope that Council rejects the request for the modest increase in height.

In the beginning was the word. Genesis 1:1?

I don't normally start my day with scripture, but I did yesterday when I read a Letter to the Editor to the Vancouver Sun, written by former Vancouver Alderman Jonathan Baker. Baker, who I used to know socially, and once retained for a legal opinion, was bothered by my recent Vancouver Sun Lexicon article and my earlier comments at a Dunbar Resident's Association AGM regarding the need for more housing choices in Dunabar.

Taking a cue from the editor's headline "An introductory Lesson" and what he perhaps perceived as a 'holier than thou' attitude, Baker closed his letter with the following:

In his "introductory lesson" published in the Nov 28 Sun, Geller has provided us with the proper lexicon. Now we can communicate with him. As Geller's colleague and close friend stated in Genesis 1:1 "the the beginning was the word".

Very odd, I thought. For a number of reasons.

While I don't pretend to be a biblical scholar, I knew this was not correct, since Genesis 1:1 was the portion of the bible that I was required to read at my Bar Mitzvah. In fact, Jonathan was quoting John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God.

I decided to point this out to him, and he in turn sent me the above illustration that he or someone prepared. I was not sure whether to be flattered or insulted. But in the true tradition of the bible, I have decided to turn the other cheek!

However, I do look forward to meeting with Jonathan and his colleagues early in the new year to discuss the housing issues in Dunbar that so troubled him and other members of the Dunbar Vision Implementation Committee. I think they will be surprised to discover that I actually agree with their position on the need to ensure that projects that are approved as seniors' housing, remain seniors housing.
What I do not agree with is their narrow definition of seniors' housing.