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NPA’s Michael Geller at St. James Community Square

Politicians look to churches for housing salvation

Vancouver city politicians may be looking to churches to do what they won’t be able to afford in a deep…

Vancouver city politicians may be looking to churches to do what they won’t be able to afford in a deep recession: build housing.

“A lot of churches and other institutions have parking lots,” says Non-Partisan Association council candidate Michael Geller. “Why not build housing on those parking lots?”

NPA's Michael Geller at St. James Community Square
NPA's Geller sees housing potential in parking lots

Geller might be on to something. With the looming threat of even harder economic times, developers looking for profit could become less interested, while city council may find itself with fewer resources to throw at the affordable housing crisis.

“We hope that we haven’t missed an opportunity now that we’re in a recession,” says Vision Vancouver council candidate Geoff Meggs. “You can’t be trying to defy physical gravity when you do projects, you have to make them work financially.”

Vancouver’s real estate has plummeted nearly 9% since May and the slide is expected to continue. While welcomed by some, the softening market has potential to complicate an already difficult situation.

Existing housing is skewed to the wealthy, leaving entry-level housing beyond most families. Renters are also unlikely to benefit from the dip, since high land value and low vacancy keeps rates high. And by all accounts, homelessness is likely to rise.

Related: Two churches who have developed their parking lots

Geller’s suggestion to develop parking lots of religious institutions is no passing fancy. As an architect and former developer, he has experience with similar projects. He has also been touted as the NPA’s housing expert by mayoral candidate Peter Ladner, recently appearing together  arguing for temporary modular homes.

Social housing

Geller sees many benefits to developing parking lots owned by religious institutions, especially the zero land cost. In some instances, development may help a church through a critical juncture. For example, a declining congregation could use development to restructure its finances or move into a smaller facility.

Churches or synagogues could also create what Geller calls “affinity” housing built for congregants or a specific group of people, such as senior citizens.

This lot at University Chapel is under land negotiations, but illustrates the potential for development
University Chapel's parking lot is currently under negotiation, but could be developed in the future

Unlike developers, churches are not bound by a “purely market” rationale. Geller suggests churches could adopt a “Robin Hood approach,” using a proportion of full market housing to offset affordable housing.

Vision’s Meggs agrees churches are a logical solution for adding density or creating social housing, and are often motivated to gear their housing toward a needier population.

“A church is not necessarily looking for market rates of return,” he says.

The question of how much of a difference churches could make is admittedly difficult to quantify.  Jonathan Bird, director of Shalom Seekers, estimates that apart from school board property, these parking lots constitute Vancouver’s “largest acreage available for redevelopment.”

Shalom Seekers is a Christian parachurch organization supporting social housing solutions among churches in the Lower Mainland. According to their recent inventory, more than 6,500 affordable housing units in greater Vancouver are already under ownership or management of Christian organizations.

While 54% of existing units are for seniors, Bird sees growing interest among Vancouver’s churches to branch out to other demographic groups.

While broadly supportive of developing non-profit land, neither Meggs nor Geller sees churches or synagogues as a panacea for affordable housing.

“There’s no one solution,” Geller says, “but there are lots of ideas happening around the world that are worth exploring.”

While not offering financial incentives, Geller suggests the city can support churches and non-profits by easing minimal parking requirements. Since underground parking costs approximately $30,000 a stall, existing regulations can easily make projects cost- prohibitive.

As a proponent of densification, Geller feels the city already needs to reduce parking requirements along arterial corridors.

Meggs argues the affordable housing crisis will require strong government leadership. “I think it’s too much to hope,” he says, “that well meaning people will come forward in sufficient numbers to make a dent in the problems we face.”

Recognizing the federal government is unlikely to step in and help, Meggs stresses partnerships with “a whole set of stakeholders” including credit unions, the labour movement, pension funds, and the private sector. With his longstanding connections to the B.C. Federation of Labour, Meggs may well be able to bring these groups to the table.

For investors such as pension funds, the city could market entry-level housing projects as a long-term, stable investment with consistent cash flow.

Housing “might not give you the kind of excitement we got on the stock market over the last couple of years,” Meggs says, “but would give you security down the road.”


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