Projects such as one in South Surrey that combines accessible, independent-living units with affordable-rental units could be instrumental in helping address the lack of housing in the Lower Mainland, officials say.
But those behind Chorus say that while the model is one they’re looking to repeat, it’s unlikely to happen in Surrey if the city doesn’t commit to investing more in such housing initiatives, through things such as bylaw or policy changes that equate to financial support.
“Surrey is going to have to really step up and do what other municipalities do, such as forgive development cost charges,” said Doug Tennant, executive director of Semiahmoo House Society, which supports individuals with developmental disabilities.
“In our build, it was close to $1.3 million (in DCCs and permitting costs) that we gave to the city (that could have gone towards further reducing rental costs at Chorus). That can’t happen in future builds.”
Tennant made the points last week, just days after Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner helped celebrate the opening of The Bristol in Cloverdale, describing it as the first purpose-built rental housing created in Surrey in three decades.
In fact, Chorus, which opened a year ago, holds that title, he said.
Advised Wednesday of Tennant’s call for Surrey to invest more in such projects, Hepner told Peace Arch News that how local governments can help with affordable-housing projects is an issue being discussed this week at the Union of BC Municipalities convention in Vancouver.
And, she said, one thing Surrey “is tossing around” as it develops its affordable–housing strategy – expected to come to council this fall – is whether a portion of DCCs, from the development of other units, can be allocated to an affordable-housing fund.
“I don’t know where that will land,” she said. “It’s one of many things that will be on the table.”
Hepner described Chorus, however, as “somewhat different” than affordable housing, and something she would like to see replicated.
“They are actually below-market, especially as it goes toward serving the clients they’ve currently got,” she said.
Regardless, Hepner emphasized, housing help from municipal government is not as simple as committing to waive DCCs.
“Years ago, we used to. DCCs were, at one time, we could forgive them easily and say, OK, well you don’t have to pay that, we’ll absorb that,” she said. “What has happened more recently, the legislation now says you cannot confer that kind of benefit on an application without using money from your general revenue and putting the money back in.
“We can’t do it and not repay it ourselves to the tax base.”
For the Chorus project, she noted, Surrey provided “hundreds of thousands of dollars of the road work at no cost.”
Tennant said it’s clear to him and others who partnered on Chorus – The Semiahmoo Foundation and Peninsula Estates Housing Society – that the model is worth repeating.
“I think the point a lot of people are missing here is it’s actually just an affordable-rental complex that happens to have a couple of people with disabilities in it,” he said.
He confirmed preliminary discussions are underway with not-for-profit developers “to try to find a way to build more,” and that plan is expected to come into focus within three months.
“It’s a model that has been really successful and we would like to replicate,” Tennant said, noting that any future projects “will always be inclusive… always be affordable.”
What remains unclear, he said, is whether it will be built in Surrey.
Chorus, he said, has been phenomenal for those who call it home, both for those with disabilities and those without.
Of 71 units in the 2358 153 St. building, 20 are reserved for tenants with developmental disabilities. Rents, which start at $725 for a studio unit, are 15 per cent below market.
John Sayre lives in a one-bedroom unit on the building’s top floor, with his Jack Russell/pug cross, Bashad.
The senior, who moved from Newton, said he was “thrilled” to find Chorus, describing the mix of people as interesting and colourful.
“The sense of community that you can feel here is positive,” said Sayre.
For Michaela Robinson and Krista Milne – 31 and 30 years old, respectively – Chorus provided perhaps their biggest foray into independence. The roommates have been friends since attending Semiahmoo Secondary.
Both women said they “love” the balance it’s given them in life; between having control of their own lives and receiving the support they need.
“It helped me with my growth, my independence, my everyday thing,” Milne said.
Before, when Milne lived with her mom, “I was mostly in my comfort zone, doing my own thing in my room.”
“I’m doing new things now. I want to keep doing it.”
The only downside, said Robinson – who figures she is about three-foot-nine-inches tall – is garbage bins in the parking lot “are just too freakin’ high for me.”
For Rod Pennington, life at Chorus with his four-year-old son – and being close to his brother, Cory, who lives in one of the supported units – feels more accepting. At his former complex, neighbours would complain about the noise from his toddler, he said.
“People are understanding here,” he said. “I appreciate having more of a sense of community.”
Pennington noted the below-market rent “wasn’t a deal-breaker.”
“I just wanted to be close to Cory.”
Joan Pope, 72, said she moved to Chorus from a “dump” of a basement suite where her landlords didn’t want her to have people over.
She said she watched as Chorus was built, “but I never thought I’d live in it.”
“And my outside’s bigger than everybody’s,” she said.
“I like it, I don’t think I’ll ever move. I’ve got a safer place to live. Here, I can go out, come home at night, I stay up, I go to the drop-in (at Semiahmoo House Society) three times a week… it feels good.”