Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Relocatable modular housing for the homeless: An idea whose time has come?

A presentation panel prepared for a display in Vancouver City Hall a number of years ago
I woke up this morning to hear Vancouver Councillor Kerry Jang on CBC talking about the city's request for proposals to create relocatable housing projects for the homeless. While I know that sometimes you are supposed to glow on the inside, I could not help but think "Hey, they have finally followed up on my idea!" It's an idea that I developed as my architectural thesis at the University of Toronto in 1970 and subsequently pitched after the 2008 Vancouver Municipal Election. Here's a bit more on the origin of this idea as set out in a 2013 blogpost. I do hope that this time the idea may actually proceed.

A 2013 Christmas Present for Vancouver's Homeless
Today I received an email from rental housing activist Tom Durning describing an innovative solution to house some of Los Angeles' homeless.http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-skid-row-housing-20121216,0,1039440.story

It reminded me of a proposal I made to the Province and the City of Vancouver back in 2008 and 2009 following a study I undertook in conjunction with architects NSDA with funding from BC Housing. Our proposal was to create a stock of affordable modular units that could be set up for a period of time on a site, and subsequently relocated. Just like school portables are often used.

At the time, the proposal received a lot of media coverage but didn't go anywhere, in part I'm told, because neither Gordon Campbell nor Rich Coleman liked the idea of housing people in 'containers'.

The fact is, these weren't containers...they were purpose built prefabricated modular units that could be set up on a private property and relocated after say three years or more once the property was approved for redevelopment.

Others objected to the proposal because on a cost per square foot they claimed they were not much cheaper than permanent housing. Well, that might be true...except the units were planned to be much smaller and permanent housing solutions in Vancouver often cost significantly more than they should....in the order of $300,000 a unit. or up to $1000 a foot for projects like the Pennsylvania Hotel.

Relocatable modular units would cost less than one sixth of this amount, and take significantly...let me repeat significantly less time to construct.

Others pointed out that there's nothing more permanent than a temporary solution. I agree. But by placing these units on private property, they would ultimately be relocated...just like the community garden at Davie and Burrard. It won't be there five years from now!

Below is an abbreviated version of a presentation I made to the DTES community at the Carnegie Centre in which I suggested that we use the parking lots of the Drake Hotel for this type of housing.  Sadly, it did not proceed...meanwhile the facilities at the Drake have remained unused...and I don't believe we're much further ahead on a permanent redevelopment of that site.

So here's my proposed Christmas present to Vancouver's homeless. Let's try a demonstration project in 2013 to test out this idea. I am confident that while it is not THE answer to housing the homeless...it is another solution that could dramatically help many people by moving into something that's much better than a shelter, at a relatively modest cost
What will it look like?

Finally, here's a description of the proposal that was published on the ThinkCity website and a Vancouver Sun commentary by my colleague Bob Ransford whose judgement is regarded highly by many of us in the Vancouver housing and development community.



And a CTV story: http://bc.ctvnews.ca/architect-s-40-year-dream-to-house-homeless-1.377577

As we approach a new year, with a 2015 goal of ending street homelessness, I hope that the City and Province will take another look at this idea so that we might create a demonstration program by next Christmas Eve. What a wonderful Christmas present that might be for many Vancouver residents currently in shelters or on the street.  Merry Christmas

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Opinion Vancouver Courier: Lessons to be learned from Londoners’ long commute February 18, 2016

Some Londoners are forced to commute to their homes weekly because property in the city is so expensive. Could this happen in Vancouver? Photo Dan Toulgoet 

Could this happen in Vancouver?

This is the question that went through my mind last Thursday night while stopping off in London on a flight from Moscow.

Since I was too late to see a play, I decided to take a nighttime bus tour of the city, something I highly recommend. While waiting for the tour to start, I popped into a nearby pub crammed with noisy 30-somethings enjoying what for me were very expensive drinks.
I stepped outside with my pint of beer, because you can in London, and a young lady started to chat.
“Where are you from,” she asked. I said I had just flown in from Moscow and was on my way home to Vancouver.

“Where are you from,” I asked. Poland, she said, but she lived in London.
She went on to say she had just spent three years living in Toronto.
“So how does living in Toronto compare with London,” I asked.
She said she enjoyed a much higher standard of living there — she earned more, the housing was a lot less expensive and she got much more holiday time. But she decided to return to London to be with friends and enjoy better work opportunities.

I asked whether this pub was always so busy. “Generally yes,” she said. “But especially on Thursdays.” I was curious why Thursdays were busier than Fridays.
“That’s because many people go home on Fridays,” she said. The woman then went on to explain that quite a few of her colleagues cannot afford to live in London so they have bought homes in less-expensive communities further away. Rather than commute daily, they commute weekly.
Their spouses and children live in a house away from London while they share a bedsitter or small flat during the week with co-workers or others who find themselves in a similar situation.
I found this quite astounding and was curious to know how common a practice it was. Before boarding my Vancouver flight, I asked others who confirmed they too had friends and colleagues commuting weekly.

While it will be little comfort to those in Vancouver struggling to rent or buy a home, relatively speaking, London’s housing is even more expensive than Vancouver’s. The primary reason, as in Vancouver, is an imbalance between supply and demand.

In 2015, London’s population exceeded 8.6 million.  
The city is adding nearly 70,000 people and 34,000 jobs every year. However, the current supply of new homes is about 20,000 to 25,000 starts per year, a number that has not changed significantly over the last 15 years.
By comparison, Metro Vancouver’s population is expected to increase by around 30,000 per year, and some years, Metro Vancouver builds more housing units than London.
The reasons why London produces so relatively few homes sound familiar. There is a shortage of skilled labour and a shortage of some materials. Moreover, in the U.K., it is not to the housebuilders benefit to radically shift the imbalance between supply and demand. Furthermore, builders are often required to build affordable housing units within their projects, “subsidized” by the market units. This increases the cost of the market housing. Sound familiar?

In an effort to come up with alternative affordable housing ideas, the New London Architecture Centre invited architects, builders, economists and housebuilders to suggest different ways to address the current imbalance between supply and demand. Many interesting ideas came forward, from infilling relocatable modular housing — an idea I have been proposing for years, to “blind tenure” developments that mix market and non-market housing in different ways.

Over the coming months, I will share some of the ideas that could have direct application to Vancouver, with Vancouver Courier readers. In the meantime, let’s hope we can come up with new solutions so that we don’t have pubs filled with 30-somethings on Thursday nights, because they too must commute back home on Fridays, only to return to Vancouver Monday morning.

- See more at: http://www.vancourier.com/opinion/lessons-to-be-learned-from-londoners-long-commute-1.2174896#sthash.Jllpvzja.dpuf

CBC: Vancouver urban planner brings lessons back from Russia: How much sunlight does an average apartment get? Vancouver planners should take note, says Michael Gel

New condominiums under construction just outside St Petersburg heritage centre
By The Early Edition, CBC News Posted: Feb 18, 2016 12:40 PM PT Last Updated: Feb 19, 2016 6:11 AM PT
Vancouver could learn a thing or two from how Russians manage their cities, says an architect who just returned from speaking at a Moscow conference. Over the past two years, Michael Geller has been invited to speak at conferences and jury urban planning design competitions in Russia. He says Russians see Vancouver as one of the leaders in sustainable planning, along with Copenhagen and other European cities. But North American planners should take note of Russian priorities when it comes to designing cities, he said.

"One of the things that I discovered was ... there were some very specific rules and regulations by the government, said Geller, an architect planner and developer based in Vancouver. Those rules regulate the distance between a child's kindergarten classroom and their home, the distance between a dog park and a residential area, how much sunlight each room in a two-bedroom apartment must get, and even how much sunlight a three-bedroom apartment must get. "There's an interest in things that I think perhaps we should pay a bit more attention to," he said. "We spend a lot of time wondering about how many parking spaces per unit we have to have."
Dispelling myths
Several glass office towers stand tall in Moscow's new financial district. (Michael Geller)
Geller says the backers of a new financial district in Moscow want the world's experts on sustainable development to design it.

"There's a desire from Russia to learn from international experiences."
Many Russian cities are more cosmopolitan than stereotypes suggest, he said. 
In fact, Geller says he walked past just as many Starbucks shops in Moscow and St. Petersburg as he does when he's in Vancouver.

"It isn't this big cold place where everybody is still under some kind of government hold. It's an increasingly affluent place." Geller is giving a talk about his experience in Russia on Feb. 18 at SFU Vancouver Harbour Centre at 7 p.m.

To listen to the full interview, click the link labelled: City planning lessons for Vancouver from Russia.

Russia: Images and Lessons in Planning SFU February 18, 2016

From the SFU Continuing Education Website: 

Over the past two years, Michael Geller has participated in a number of planning activities in Russia, including serving on the competition jury for Moscow's new International Financial Centre; speaking on heritage conservation and master planning in Saint Petersburg; and acting as jury chairman for a sustainable community planning competition in Kazan, Russia's 'third capital.'

This lecture will present images of old and new Russia, with a focus on urban development and housing. It will include a review of Russian planning practices and potential lessons from this fascinating country. Be prepared to be surprised by what you see and hear.

For those who missed the talk, it will soon be posted online. In the meanwhile, here are some of the images included in the talk:
While most of us think of this when we think of Russia, there is much more to the country
Midnight in Red Square is one of the most impressive sights in the world
the Summer Palace at St Petersburg is a testament to Russian technological and construction ingenuity. These fountains operate without any pumps.
There are more than a hundred museums in St Petersburg. The upside down house is not one of the best, but allows for intriguing photos
Some of the older housing in Russia and Ukraine helps explain the need for today's condominium bylaws.
Moscow in winter celebrates winter.
My pre-Olympics visit to Sochi was a highlight of my travels in Russia over the past few years
In 2007 Sally and I took a cruise from Moscow to St Petersburg which revealed many fascinating sights including these beautifully designed locks and vodka museum!
Both Moscow and St Petersburg have magnificent subway stations. In St Petersburg, some are more than 30 storeys below grade.
If you want to be the employee of the month for the St Petersburg metro system, you better not smile!
St Petersburg deals with its long nights by illuminating many buildings at night.