How big a dent will re-developing scores of places of worship into housing make in a metropolis that ranks as one of the most unaffordable in the world?
Metro Vancouver’s churches have been leading spirited campaigns to supply more housing for the city’s 2.4 million residents and new arrivals.
But how big a dent will re-developing scores of places of worship into rental, market and social housing make in a metropolis that ranks as one of the most unaffordable in the world, where there is no meaningful connection between local wages and housing prices?
“Hopefully, the redevelopment (of places of worship) is one of the steps of creating a stairway to housing nirvana in Metro Vancouver,” said Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s city program. “But the scale of trying to house those on local incomes affordably and suitably is almost biblical.”
Because Christian denominations in the past century built the most places of worship in southwestern B.C., most of the faith groups contributing to housing supply are United, Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Anglican and evangelical.
As Dan Fumano and I wrote on Saturday in “Houses of the Holy,” many churches have been at the forefront of developing their property for mixed purposes — to upgrade their often under-used sanctuaries and to contribute new housing.
Jewish organizations, in addition, have also built some social housing. Meanwhile, most Muslim, Buddhist and Sikh organizations are too relatively new to have begun thinking of adding housing on their sites, except possibly for their seniors.
Many Vancouver churches have been behind residential towers of more than 20 storeys. Their two-storey sanctuaries are often able to sell their “air rights” to highrise developers for tens of millions of dollars.
Two downtown Vancouver congregations have even contributed to the creation of 60-plus-storey luxury skyscrapers — such as Westbank’s Shangri-La and its upcoming Butterfly, which will be on the land of First Baptist Church.
Roughly speaking, Christian and Jewish religious groups are together adding hundreds of units a year to the region’s rental and housing market. Sometimes their annual contribution exceeds 1,000 new units.
That is a small portion of the roughly 20,000 to 28,000 units being constructed each year in Metro Vancouver, however.
Housing demand is being fuelled by the population of Metro, according to the Urban Development Institute, growing by 40,000 people each year, mostly foreign-born immigrants. Only a few hundred net newcomers arrive annually from other provinces. This does not include the ownership desires of thousands of non-residents, whom Yan has found are buying more than one in 10 new Metro condominiums.
Despite the complexities of the housing debate, Christian and Jewish organizations deserve credit for jumping into the game. Here is a sample of some of their projects:
A few years ago the Catholic archdiocese sold its headquarters at 150 Robson to become the site of a new hotel and apartment highrise. And Holy Rosary Cathedral in downtown Vancouver, built in 1900, is in the preliminary stages of approaching city officials about a tower, ultimate purpose undetermined.
The Catholic Knights of Columbus has built several large complexes for seniors and others. Mike Garisto, president of Columbus Homes, says its latest efforts are a $40-million rental apartment for people over aged 55 on the west side of Vancouver, plus another 50-unit apartment building in Cloverdale.
Presbyterians and Lutherans
Vancouver Chinese Presbyterian Church has re-developed, creating 20 market rental units near its old site at 45th and Cambie — an area that has become a hub of exploding housing construction, including by the congregation of Oakridge Lutheran.
Central Presbyterian also just opened its church at Thurlow and Pendrell in a colourful new 22-storey multi-purpose residential tower. Rev. Jim Smith is proud that, apart from a $10,000 grant, “there is not a dollar of government money in this project.”
Holy Trinity Cathedral has long advanced a 30-storey housing project for its site in downtown New Westminster. But the complex, which could include 42 affordable rental units, 30 market rental units and 173 market ownership units, keeps running into stumbling blocks. One vibrant housing arm of the Anglican church, however, has been the 127 Society for Housing, which created Jubilee House and focuses on subsidized housing for seniors and others.
“The mission of Tikva Housing Society is to provide access to affordable housing, primarily for low and moderate-income Jewish adults and families,” says the society, supported by Jewish donors and various governments.
In 2017 Tikvah helped construct the 14-storey, 129-unit Diamond Residences in Richmond. Working with the city of Vancouver, it’s involved in a 358-unit complex for moderate-income families and others on the Fraser River. It’s also in the early stages of planning two towers of rental housing for a redeveloped Jewish Community Centre.
Muslims and Sikhs
Most Muslims did not arrive in B.C. until beginning in the 1970s, so Metro’s mosques are not primed for re-development that would include housing, says Musa Ismail, former president of the B.C. Muslim Association. But Ismail hopes several mosques in Surrey and elsewhere will get approval from their city councils to build seniors’ homes.
Similarly, Metro Vancouver’s Sikh gurdwaras have not yet become involved in housing. That said, non-profit organizations like Surrey’s Progressive Intercultural Community Services have been actively building seniors housing, tailored for members of ethnic minorities.
United Church of Canada
The highly active United Church’s key effort in 2019 is partnering with the B.C. government’s Housing Hub to convert five outmoded church properties into mixed-use buildings, which will provide 500 units of purpose-built rental housing, some of which will be subsidized, for people of all faiths and no faith.
Como Lake United in Coquitlam is developing 75 rental units. Brighouse United in Richmond will give birth to 140 units and Lakeview United in East Vancouver will have 100 more. United Church officials, collaborating with Colliers real estate company, have also helped the congregations of Oakridge in Vancouver and Jubilee in West Burnaby to provide hundreds of more units of market-based condominiums. Peninsula United in White Rock is taking a different tack, developing a community-care facility.
Meanwhile, individual United Church congregations have done their own thing in Metro Vancouver. St. Andrew’s-Wesley on Burrard Street has just sold the 199-unit residential tower it helped create years ago, in part to pay for extensive renovations to its heritage church. Wilson Heights United built housing years ago on its parking lot.
Two United Church congregations on Vancouver’s pricey west side, Pacific Spirit (Ryerson) and Knox, are also at various stages with their housing projects. In Port Moody, St. Andrew’s United Church has dived into providing housing, as has North Vancouver’s Lynn Valley United.
The list of faith-fuelled new housing goes on.