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Collingwood condos: immigrant services trump affordable housing

When Cora Maming first moved to Vancouver in 2008, she spent most of her days alone.  The 68-year-old spoke little…

By stephaniek , in City , on November 21, 2012

Cora Maming teaching an ESL class.
(Photo by: Stephanie Kelly)

When Cora Maming first moved to Vancouver in 2008, she spent most of her days alone.  The 68-year-old spoke little English and was terrified to do even simple tasks like going to the mall or answering the phone.

“Before, I could not go out. Where will I go? I just go out and sit down in the park. It’s lonely there. No one is with me.”

But after months of isolation, she found the Collingwood Neighbourhood House, just a few blocks from where east Vancouver meets Burnaby near Kingsway.

Maming began as an ESL student, but now she’s teaching an English class for Chinese seniors. She says if it weren’t for the neighbourhood house, she would probably still be staring out her living-room window, lonely and afraid.

“I have so many friends now and it grows and I think I have confidence now.”

For more of Cora’s story, click here [audio:]

Maming is only one of many immigrants in Vancouver who rely on services like these. And soon, there may be even more opportunities for them to connect with their communities.

And while some are welcoming the change, others are left questioning why these services were chosen over affordable housing.

Last fall, city council approved a rezoning application that will bring three residential towers to Renfrew-Collingwood near Boundary and Kingsway.  These buildings won’t just provide over a thousand new living units, they will also help expand immigration services in one of the city’s most diverse neighbourhoods.

Two of the towers will soon be home to non-profit groups: MOSAIC, which provides translation services for immigrants and refugees and the Collingwood Neighbourhood House, which runs educational and recreational programs for people of all ages.

Spending questioned

The project developer, Wall Financial Corp., has contributed $1 million for the affordable housing fund for this project.

That’s compared to the nearly $10 million the company has offered to contribute for its development at 955 E. Hastings St., which has 70 affordable housing units out of a total of 352.

Collingwood Neighbourhood House executive director Jennifer Gray-Grant said the decision to use the space for the non-profit groups stemmed from a process with neighbourhood service providers.

“[We] said ‘Okay, there’s going to be this project. It’s going to bring a substantial number of people to the neighbourhood, do we need more amenity space and if so, what are our priorities?'”

In the end, the community decided it needed more multi-purpose space.

ESL class for Chinese seniors at the Collingwood Neighbourhood House.
(Photo: Stephanie Kelly)

The city said the development permit was approved on Nov. 18, but didn’t say why the community services trumped low-income housing.

“The primary public benefit was incorporation of community space in the podium for local service providers,” said communications manager Sandy Swanton.

“There were a variety of things that service providers needed space for, but everybody could agree that multi-purpose space would probably suit best, because then everybody could have use of the space.”

MOSAIC’s headquarters are scheduled to move about seven kilometres from where it is now, just off Commercial Drive. The Collingwood Neighbourhood House will expand to a second location when the towers are completed. New additions will include multi-purpose rooms, a commercial kitchen and an on-site orchard.

Renfrew-Collingwood in east Vancouver is known for being a hotspot for newcomers and has the second highest number of immigrants in the city — far more now than traditional immigrant landing spots like now-gentrified Strathcona or Commercial Drive.  Only about one-quarter of people speak English as their mother tongue.

The project also includes a six-story midrise and over 1,300 underground parking spaces.

The architecture firm, gBL Architects, applied for the rezoning application on behalf of Wall Financial. Construction will begin this spring, but it may take up to five years before it’s completed.

Services will go further in diverse neighbourhood

Until then, MOSAIC will have to continue at its cramped quarters near Commercial Drive.

MOSAIC does everything from teaching immigrants how to set up a bank account to helping them find work.

Joan Andersen is the director of employment and language programs at MOSAIC. She said the services won’t change, but Collingwood residents will benefit from having programs at their doorstep.

“It will be closer for them to come get settlement counselling and attend employment workshops and get access to some of our specialized employment programs, so it will be handier for them.”

Andersen said that Renfrew-Collingwood’s diverse neighbourhood makes it the right fit.

“It’s a really good place for us to be, because I think there will be more newcomers that are closer to us than now.”