Why This City Councillor is Pushing for Temporary Modular Housing in Low-Density Neighbourhoods

Housing Vancouver’s growing homeless population will take political courage and funding from senior levels of government. But until that surfaces, the city is expanding the search for spaces to host temporary modular housing (TMH) units to include neighbourhoods previously exempt. 

OneCity Councillor Christine Boyle’s big ask was answered positively last week, when she put forward a motion asking for temporary modular housing units to be built in lower-density residential neighbourhoods. These areas make up a majority of the city’s land, but zoning restrictions made them off limits for the over 600 TMH units that have gone up in Vancouver in the past two years. 

“The history of our city is that neighbourhoods have been in large part divided,” says Boyle. “Most of us aren’t used to living quite close to very low-income people. It’s an adjustment and there’s a lot of learning to do.”

That education has to happen fast, as Vancouver counted 2,223 homeless citizens this year. It’s a record-breaking number, and considering the nature of temporary housing, new locations are needed as permanent structures start to replace time-sensitive solutions. In the second half of her motion, Boyle also put forward new ideas for how to streamline low-income housing that is permanent. 

A recent survey by Research Co. found that while 74 per cent of Vancouverites are favour of building more temporary modular housing for the homeless, 31 per cent of residents say they would not like to see it close to their current home—a proportion that rises to 41 per cent among residents aged 55 and older.

“I’m hopeful that as more people adapt to living in mixed-income neighbourhoods, the more they realize there are a lot of benefits and we see more people acting from a place of compassion and courage rather than coming from places of fear,” Boyle says.

Riley Park Community Garden is an example of this courage. When they heard a new temporary modular housing unit was coming to their neighbourhood, the group reserved a garden plot for the 46 tenants of tə cecəw (The Beach).

It’s one of several garden programs Coast Mental Health offers residents at its facilities across Metro Vancouver—spaces where residents can socialize within the community and share gardening tips. 

According to tə cecəw’s program manager, Cynthia Leighton, the tenants enjoy being outside, doing something productive with their hands, and nurturing their crops for harvesting. 

“We have an amazing cook who often incorporates fresh garden vegetables into his meal plans for tenants,” says Leighton. “A healthy diet is an important part of our tenants’ sustained recovery.”

The garden is also a source of food for the community lunches tə cecəw hosts twice per month with a senior’s home next door, City Heights. To Leighton, the interactions between higher and lower income neighbourhoods is impressively ordinary.

“We’re a lot more alike than we are different, and nothing highlights that quite as well as a shared goal or sense of purpose,” Leighton says. “At the end of the day, we all just want to be safe and loved and feel like we belong. We all have something to contribute.”

Both Leighton and Boyle highlight the misinformation that generally fuels fears around new TMH units. 

“Reporting from emergency services, police and paramedics show there actually isn’t a significant increase in emergency calls or safety concerns around existing temporary modular sites,” says Boyle. Conversely, this year police saw an 87 per cent increase in emergency calls to Oppenheimer Park between June and August. The city block has become Vancouver’s longest runnest tent city, where hundreds of the city’s homeless have congregated since August 2018.

“Of course when people have a home, a place to go, they don’t need to rely on desperate and criminal acts just to survive so there’s a real value for our neighbourhoods.”

With her motion passed, and Vancouver’s TMH pilot program complete, Boyle says the city will begin pushing for family sized modular housing units—particularly as an act of recognition of how Indigenous women lose their children to a higher rate in the child welfare system.