Atira Women's Resource Centre is redefining Vancouver's architecture

There's a real estate developer in Vancouver whose target market is people who can't afford to pay rent. Atira Women's Resource Society is thinking outside the box, with the help of some rather large boxes. Providing affordable accommodation to vulnerable citizens is also giving Vancouver better architecture.

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The group owns the Imouto container housing unit, having borrowed money from VanCity to buy the land. Another project in Richmond sees Atira partnering with other nonprofits to buy a strata building they’ll manage together. Atira will own 18 of those units.

Over at 41 East Hastings, Abbott and her crew are working with some additional private-sector partners. Atira owns the property, but it was not an easy deal. “We bought the property at $4.9 million, with an agreement that if we were unable to convince the City to give us the height and density at that site needed to make that purchase price work, the owners needed to buy the property back at no loss to us. We had a one-year window of opportunity.”

They paid half up front, and then went to work on convincing the City. “We were working with some difficult dynamics,” notes Abbott, as the DTES is the epicenter of gentrification in Vancouver; 41 East Hastings would serve to slow the pace of that gentrification, if only slightly. Out of those 200 units, 120 are non-market.

“It became very clear partway through that year that what the City would support on that site would not justify the $4.9 million, so after a year I had to start renegotiating the purchase price with the group of owners, and that took about a year to come to an agreement on a reduced purchase price. It took another ten months to find the money to close the deal. I eventually did a vendor takeback mortgage (VTB). Just this past summer, VanCity took up that VTB. So it’s been this long, complicated process.”

Cressey has committed to building it at cost, which constitutes about a $1 million in-kind contribution to the project.

While all this wrangling was going on, Atira had to iron out the design of the building, as well as prove to the city that the new building wouldn’t get abandoned partway through construction, and that it wouldn't be an eyesore once it was complete. Oh, and and the pro forma’s tight, since it’s 60% non-market housing. Atira is submitting its development permit this month, and wants to start construction before the end of the year.

"It’s a difficult building,” says Abbott. “We’re working on getting BC Housing to finance the construction, because their interim construction loans are really cheap ." An $800,000 interest advantage, apparently.

“It’s this long, convoluted, complicated process which no market developer has to go through," notes Abbott. "It’s not about whether they’re trying to break even–– which we’re trying to do–– it’s about how much profit [they can bring in], and ‘is it enough to be worth my while?’. This has a different kind of goal, right?”

The road less traveled

There's a reason you don't see that much non-market housing in Vancouver: building here is really freakin' expensive.

A market-rate condo building can (and must) pre-sell to get itself positioned for construction. A non-market rental building has no such luxury. “We have to raise about $8 million in equity to do non market housing, says Abbott, who adds that Atira has commitments from other foundations and from the city; but “the money isn’t in the bank yet.”

Abbott leans forward again. "It’s been a slog to get here. But at least I know that, with this particular project... but at the end of the day, we’re gonna own that,” and Atira will be better positioned to meet its mandate. “Over the long term, for me, the stress and the time and the effort, it’s worth it, because Atira can continue to house and to meet its mandate for a long time into the future... because we will always need non market housing.”

From little things, big things grow

Atira is applying some of that metabolic thinking to existing projects, such as adding eight units to seventh floor of a building on the DTES.

Still, Imouto is the belle of the ball at the moment, and Abbott's eyes shine with pride. “I never would have done it if I didn’t believe they were going to look good... but they looked better than I ever imagined. That’s when projects really come alive for me, when we start thinking, ‘Who are we going to offer these units to?’ And then moving women in. Many of these women have lived in single-room accommodation hotels for 40 years, and so them coming in and seeing these units... most of them wept.

“It’s also [about] paying attention to women's experience living there. And it’s been great. The women living there are thrilled. They love everything about living in those units. So that tells me to build more. Which we are.”

Indeed, 420 Hawkes will see a larger shipping-container structure, complete with elevator.

Vancouver's architectural future will involve more of this...

... and the city, overall, will be the richer for it.

I step into a doorway, out of the winter sun's glare,  to read a text message. A forty-something woman pushes past me, wearing too-tight sweatpants. “Thought you were  ___’s pickup off the street! I said, ‘I’m gonna start working the street!’” A woman around the corner yells, “You made him blush!”

Yeah, she kinda did.

The DTES is still in need of a few lucky breaks, but hey: hope is within reach, brought to us with the help of active brains and giant cranes.

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