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Olympic Village to cost city another $32-million

The athletes' village for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games is pictured as construction continues at the site in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday October 9, 2009.

Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press

Vancouver will hang on to half of its expensive social housing at the Olympic village, even though it will take a $32-million equity injection to make that work.

That additional cash will allow the city to rent out half the 250 apartments for lower-than-market rates to people with low incomes. But the other half will be rented at hefty market rates - from $1,600 to $2,400 for one- to four-bedroom apartments - although preference will be given to key service workers in policing, fire, and health care in the city.

"I think it's an important decision that we honour our commitment to affordable housing in the village," Mayor Gregor Robertson said Tuesday after news media listened to a one-hour briefing by city manager Penny Ballem on the details of the proposed plan.

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"This meets the commitment the city made in the [Olympic]bid book."

But, he said, it's also financially conservative because the city won't try to subsidize all 250 units.

"I believe the 50-50 split is pragmatic," he said.

The announcement was a disappointment for two kinds of groups in the city. One was those who think the units, which cost an average of $400,000 each, should be sold off and the money used to build cheaper social housing somewhere else in the city.

"That would be way less complicated than this scheme," said Non-Partisan Association Councillor Suzanne Anton. "There are lots of nice neighbourhoods in the city where you can get cheaper land. This was a choice about maximizing the housing dollars or making a political statement in False Creek."

The city report said that all other options involving selling off the units would require a time-consuming public hearing and rezoning, and that, unless the units were sold as rental units, the city could face a both legal and financial risks because of its entanglements with the private company that built the condos in the rest of the village.

Laura Stannard of the Citywide Housing Coalition said she thought council should have provided enough of a subsidy to rent out all 250 units to low-income people.

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In fact, the recommendation for the half-and-half split comes close to the original plans for the site. The 250 units were always intended to cater to a mix of incomes, as do most social-housing projects in the province, with some units heavily subsidized and others rented at just below market rates, depending on household income.

The units were part of the 1,100-unit complex built as the Olympic athletes village, where 750 of the units are high-end condos that are expected to sell for between $600 and $2,000 a square foot.

The exact proportions of income mixing for the social housing hadn't been worked out when the project was started, but it was never intended that every unit would get a subsidy. The major change in Ms. Ballem's report is the recommendation that the market-rate apartments go for the maximum market rates, not the just-below-market rate.

The extra income from those higher rents, along with lower interest rates, means that the city will have to put in only $32-million to subsidize the other 125 apartments for the life of the building, not the $56-million that was forecast last year.

The city got into trouble on its social-housing commitment when the cost of building the units soared from an expected $65-million to $110-million, which has been attributed to high demands for green construction, a hot construction market, design elements added to make the units match the rest of the high-end private development, the Olympic deadline, lack of cost control by city managers, and the larger-than-normal size.

The city report suggests the extra $32-million for the project will come from money that's been set aside for affordable housing throughout the city, along with money from the current capital plan that normally pays for things like roads, bridges, community centres and other city facilities.

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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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