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Developer experiments with affordable condos near downtown Vancouver

No parking. No fancy finishes. No costly marketing program. No speculators. No one who isn't willing to do some building maintenance.

That's the condo experiment that one Vancouver developer is trying in an effort to build housing in the city priced low enough that a couple working minimum-wage jobs could afford it.

"Our objective was to continue the legacy we started at Woodward's and, at the same time, we didn't want to just bring a bunch of BMWs into the neighbourhood," said developer Ian Gillespie. He submitted his application last week for the unusual project at 60 West Cordova.

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It sits on the border of Gastown and the Downtown Eastside, on the neighbouring block to his Woodward's project that combined condos, social housing, a university fine-arts centre and offices in the formerly derelict department store.

Not providing parking has two benefits. It lowers the cost of the units, since a single parking stall typically costs $30,000 to $40,000 to build downtown; that saving will be passed on to the buyer. As well, Mr. Gillespie believes the lack of parking will act as an automatic filter to keep out better-off households.

The 108-unit project is a collaboration involving Vancity credit union, Habitat for Humanity and a Downtown Eastside housing group. Habitat will get four condos suitable for families in the building and will choose who gets them. Another eight units, to be managed by the PHS housing society, will go to local community workers.

The remaining 96 condos will go to buyers who will have to prove that they plan to live in the units and who agree to do some maintenance themselves instead of just paying standard condo-maintenance fees. According to the material submitted to the city, nearly three-quarters of the condos will sell for less than $300,000, and more than half will be affordable to people making between $29,000 and $36,000 a year. That's the income of an individual earning $15-$19 an hour, or a couple in which each partner makes the $8-an-hour minimum wage.

Architect Gregory Henriquez said the idea of requiring owners to also occupy the condos as a way to keep prices down is something he adopted from his early days of living in the West End. Then, before the legislation that created individual condo ownership was brought in, the only way for someone to own an apartment was to own the whole building co-operatively with a group.

"Those condos continue to trade at the low end of market because of how they regulate who is allowed to live in them," Mr. Henriquez said.

Besides building Woodward's, Mr. Gillespie has erected two of the city's swankest hotel/condo complexes in recent years, the Shangri-La and the Fairmont Pacific Rim. He is also the developer of a controversial rental-housing project in the West End, one of eight projects he's working on in the city.

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The vice-president of community real estate for Citizens Bank of Canada, a Vancity affiliate, said the project is the first of its kind for Vancity, as part of the credit union's new initiative to find ways to build affordable housing in Vancouver. "We definitely have a new mandate to work on this," Stuart Leslie said.

The land, previously owned by developer Robert Wilson, was repossessed by Vancity last year. He had purchased it for $7.9-million in July, 2007, shortly before the city's real-estate market deflated. It's now assessed at $5.4-million.

The Downtown Eastside's most vocal advocacy group says it is opposed to the project because, even though its ownership is geared to low-income households, it will still bring gentrification and increased property prices to the neighbourhood.

"This was a prime lot that could have been used for 100-per-cent social housing," said Wendy Pedersen of the Carnegie Community Action Project.

But Habitat for Humanity Greater Vancouver CEO Anneke Rees said her group is excited because the project gives it a chance to provide housing not just to the most desperately poor but to low-income households trying to get a foothold in Vancouver's pricey housing market.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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