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Shoddy townhouse complex in Vancouver may face wrecking ball

Vancouver's real estate scene; Fairview slopes townhouses under construction (foreground) and high rise condo towers in the city's Yaletown district, May 3, 2013.

Bayne Stanley/The Canadian Press Images

Residents of a Fairview social housing complex say Metro Vancouver's housing body has allowed their homes to fall into disrepair and they've been left with no options but a lengthy redevelopment.

Current and former residents of Heather Place decried the state of their homes as plans were discussed to demolish and redevelop the 30-year-old townhouse complex at a public hearing at city hall on Tuesday evening, where the Metro Vancouver Housing Corp.'s application to rezone the complex was on the agenda.

The redevelopment proposal before council would replace the current 86 units of affordable housing with 230 mixed-income rental units spread across three buildings of five, seven and 10 storeys at 706-774 West 14th Ave. It also includes a common area and underground parking.

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"There is a huge problem with the mould at Heather Place," Penny Bourque said at the hearing. "We don't want redevelopment – we need redevelopment for the sake of our health and the well-being of our family and loved ones."

According to Metro Vancouver's director of housing, Don Littleford, Heather Place is beyond repair and the only options available are to demolish and redevelop it or sell it to a developer.

"The day that place was built, it was doomed," Mr. Littleford said. "We are chasing our tail on that complex. There is a reason why we want to demolish it and build clean and secure units."

One option considered by the housing corporation's board of directors, which includes Vancouver councillors Geoff Meggs and Kerry Jang, was to sell the valuable property and use the money to build elsewhere in the region.

But Mr. Littleford said the location of Heather Place, in an area with frequent transit, made it an ideal candidate for redevelopment.

Of the more than 50 rental sites across the Lower Mainland that Metro Vancouver's housing body owns and operates, many are wood-framed and have suffered extensive water damage. According to Mr. Littleford, between $30-million and $40-million has been spent by the housing corporation to rehabilitate these buildings.

The rundown state of Heather Place – which Mr. Littleford said is due to poor design and building methods used in the original construction – means it is not a candidate for renovation.

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One unit at Heather Place that was recently vacated was discovered by building managers to have such serious mould problems that it is not likely to be rented again.

"The repairs to the existing facility would run in the range of $90,000 a unit," Mr. Littleford said. "That just puts a new envelope on the building and doesn't address kitchens, bathrooms, and underground services that are 30 years old and near the end of their life."

If the three-building project goes forward, the current tenants will be given first right of refusal to return after it's built.

Many residents who spoke at the public hearing support the redevelopment – seeing it as the only option given the rapid deterioration of the 13 wood-framed buildings that make up the complex.

"There is a building across the street that approximately the same age and not in the same condition," said resident Karen Gilchrist. "I'm concerned with the Metro Vancouver Housing Corp. managing the new building. They have not pressure-washed our buildings, they have not painted our buildings, and they have left graffiti on our children's playset for eight years now."

Also of concern to residents is the loss of affordable housing under the current redevelopment plans. Currently, 26 units at Heather Place have subsidized rents. The remaining 60 existing units are market rentals. A two-bedroom unit that rents for $1,100 at Heather Place would increase to $1,800.

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According to a city staff report, market rents in the proposed development will be higher than existing market rents because "the units are brand new."

In a news release, the advocacy group Save Heather Place said that Mr. Meggs "promised that Heather Place's affordable housing units will be replaced on a one-for-one basis."

Mr. Littleford said it would not be possible to keep the current rents in place for 86 of the rental units in the redevelopment.

"We are maxed out on what we can offer right now," Mr. Littleford said. "Tenants will be able to come back to Heather Place at rates that will not exceed 30 per cent of their gross income."

Vancouver City Council will make a decision on the proposed redevelopment in two weeks.

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