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Here comes the neighbourhood: New social housing and rezoning for DTES

A social housing building championed by a non-profit, a new home for United We Can, and the continued super-sizing of the Downtown Eastside.

Mixed social-housing building for East Hastings and Columbia. (Design by Perkins + Will)

Meet the new neighbours

A shiny new building is going up in the Downtown Eastside, but it's not the kind of building you probably expect. Atira Development Society has won City Council approval to build a 14-storey apartment building in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, but it will not be an investominium oasis for the well-heeled and largely-absent.

31-49 East Hastings, between Carrall and Columbia, will transform completely: over 100 social-housing units are moving in, and a core element of the DTES economy will be moving out.

Atira's project may be that rarest of unicorns: a downtown apartment project that isn't pilloried as a heartless gentrifier. Atira Development Society is a nonprofit social housing group owned by Atira Women's Resource Society, which provides housing, support, and advocacy for women facing domestic violence.

Moving in, moving out

31-35 East Hastings is the Ginseng Building, built in 1909. The ground floor is empty; the three residential units on the second floor are currently used by Atira as temporary shelter housing, home to eight women. While old enough, the Ginseng Building is not a designated heritage building.

41-49 East Hastings Street, built in 1945, is occupied by United We Can, which operates beneath two floors of SROs that have been vacant for a generation, according to the paperwork submitted to City Council.

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According to the Policy Report delivered to City Council (pdf), those properties would be replaced by a 14-story complex comprised of self-contained apartments, primarily studios averaging 350 square feet and junior one-bedrooms averaging 450 square feet.

A "junior one-bedroom" is basically an alcove studio whose nook can be converted into teeny little room. In New York City, the presence of drywall dictates whether it's an alcove or a Jr-1, but Vancouver seems to use the term to apply to the footprint rather than the build-out. This detail of the project's floorplans shows the apartment types side by side:

31-49 E. Hastings: studios & Jr-1 bedrooms

These would be called alcoves in NYC, and not Jr-1's; that footprint is surprisingly versatile, though. At any rate, the plan also calls for a shared amenities room, a rooftop terrace, and a children's play area.

The new building was designed by Perkins + Will. Atira Women's Resource Society CEO Janice Abbott said that the project has been underway for three years.

Affordable? Market!

The first two floors of the new building will be set aside for commercial space, as the future home of a low-cost grocery store. Above those will be 12 floors of apartments. 102 of these apartments will be earmarked for social and supportive housing, for which there is a demonstrable need in Vancouver. Nothing controversial there.

The other 67 units are listed as "market residential units" in the filing, though they were touted as "affordable rental housing" in a post from the Mayor's office.

This triggers the question, "affordable compared to what?"

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