Metro Vancouver senior planner Margaret Eberle speaks at a forum on 'housing and development with a social lens'

Metro Vancouver senior planner Margaret Eberle speaks at a forum on 'housing and development with a social lens'

South Surrey forum examines development through ‘social lens’

Attendees of South Surrey forum learn how land development by churches and non-profits can help address social issues.

In all of Metro Vancouver, the highest populations of seniors living alone are found in South Surrey and Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

“It’s about eight per cent,” Peter Greenwell told Peace Arch News during a forum earlier this month at Gracepoint Church.

“People talk about the grey wave coming – it’s here.”

Greenwell is facilitator of the Peninsula Homeless to Housing (PH2H) Task Force, which hosted the forum to explore “housing and development with a social lens” – how congregations and other organizations can use their land assets to help meet such demands as financial need and affordable housing for seniors and others who struggle.

About 40 people turned out to hear from five panelists, who offered tips for the best chance of success with such undertakings, shared examples of land-development-for-social-purposes initiatives and cautioned cities against handing land ownership over to private interests.

“One of our biggest concerns, we see a lot of land ownership and even development rights on land… being transferred from what I would call community ownership to private,” said Robert Brown, president of Catalyst Community Developments Society, a B.C.-based not-for-profit real estate developer.

“It’s very difficult to wrestle land back from private ownership. Once it’s gone, it’s probably not coming back.”

According to the task force, congregations across B.C. are pursuing redevelopment of their land assets with an eye to matching their social missions.

Forum attendees heard that securing support early on in the process, getting the community onside and having, at minimum, a basic business plan are critical in the endeavours.

Emily Beam, Vancity’s manager of strategic programs, said groups that own their land have the best chance of success. Those assets represent a “tremendous opportunity” to both create long-term financial stability and contribute to the community, she said.

“I really do believe that there’s so much potential and that we can effect change in our community.”

Locally, at least two groups are exploring such projects.

Brown said Catalyst has been working with Semiahmoo House Society for about 18 months on plans for a 71-unit project that will create affordable housing for people with developmental disabilities.

Eyed for land adjacent to the society’s “treehouse” facility in South Surrey, the cluster-housing project recently secured the necessary zoning, he said. Of 20 units earmarked for people with developmental disabilities, half will be made available in 60-year leases, an aspect Brown said was “an important piece of this particular project.”

First United Church began exploring the possibility of redeveloping its White Rock property in 2010, and contracted with the B.C. Conference of the United Church of Canada’s Property Resources team in 2012 for a feasibility study. In June 2013, they voted to have a redevelopment proposal prepared that included a new church as part of a four-floor mixed-use housing project.

According to the church’s website, the process is ongoing, however, construction is not expected until at least next summer.

Central Presbyterian Church’s Rev. Jim Smith – whose Vancouver church is in the midst of a major redevelopment into a multi-use facility – told the forum it’s critical that groups planning such a redevelopment understand why they are doing it.

“The best reason for this is to do more of what you do,” he said, noting that goals of a new building or saving a struggling congregation are not enough.

“And you need to understand what’s involved. It’s not simple… but it’s really worth doing.”

Other panelists included Margaret Eberle, Metro Vancouver’s senior planner for housing; and Terry Harrison, property resource team lead for the United Church in B.C.