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North Vancouver affordable housing project has been a long time coming

It took some financial jujitsu, but an all affordable housing project is ready for tenants in Central Lonsdale
VRS housing 2 web
Chris Kirby is eager to move into his new home, The Eleanor, an affordable rental building in North Vancouver.

Tenants are getting ready to move in to one of the most affordable new housing projects on the North Shore.

The Eleanor in Central Lonsdale boasts 85 below-market rental homes, 10 of which are being offered at $375 per month.

Some of the suites will be offered on a rent-geared-to-income model, which means they’ll come out around $1,200 per month. The remainder of the units will come in about 10 per cent below market levels. All told, the average rent will be about $1,600.

Twelve of the suites are designed specifically for people with disabilities, including appliances and fixtures set within easy grasp of wheelchair height, and kitchens and bathrooms designed for wheelchair access.

The project from VRS Communities Society, a non-profit developer, was only made possible through some financial jujitsu and outside help.

City of North Vancouver council voted unanimously to rezone the land at 125 East 20th St. in 2019, but their involvement with the project goes back much further. In 2010, city staff approached the non-profit with a proposal to help them finance the purchase of the property. At the time there was an aged walk-up with 28 units from the 1960s on the site. Since 2010, the equity grew, allowing VRS to pay back the initial loan from the city and go through the rezoning process.

“We created that equity by just buying and holding and then redeveloping it at higher density, so our land costs was quite low,” said Ken Fraser, executive director of VRS, noting they now can set rental rates to cover the remaining mortgage and operating costs.

“So our real affordability starts kicking in in about 10 years, and this building’s here for 80,” he said. “Housing is a slow process, but once it's here, it's also here for a very, very long time. We just need to do more of these.”

VRS has followed a similar model for about 50 years.

“You’ve got to start today to get that affordability in 10 years,” he said. “It might not solve the problem today, but we’ve got to start somewhere.”

The city also contributed $400,000 from its affordable housing fund for the project.

“We are always open to be looking at innovative ways in which to deliver housing,” said Mayor Linda Buchanan, adding council uses density bonusing, direct funding, and partnerships with non-profits and the province to add new affordable units. “Core housing need is probably the one thing I hear about from almost everybody. We know what the economics are right now and what the land costs are, and it's getting harder and harder to deliver, which is why we keep looking at policies that we can do at the local level that help us to deliver the kind of housing that people need.”

The capital cost of construction was financed with a $24.1-million low-interest loan provided by the province’s HousingHub program, which has been popular with developers seeking to build more affordable housing with lower overhead, said Bowinn Ma, North Vancouver-Lonsdale MLA.

“Our work to address the housing affordability crisis must include solutions that help individuals and families with middle-level incomes, as well as those who are in deep need for subsidized housing,” she said. “The Eleanor is a welcome addition to North Vancouver that will allow more middle-income community members and their families an affordable place to call home.”

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation provided a grant of $3.1 million for the project.

By whatever means The Eleanor came to be, it’s a greatly appreciated, said Chris Kirby, a soon-to-be tenant who has used a wheelchair to get around since an accident more than 30 years ago.

“I’m very excited. It’s quieter. It’s a better neighbourhood. It’s accessible to pretty much everything,” he said.

The affordability crisis that affects the whole region disproportionately impacts people with disabilities, and about 18 per cent of Canadians will have a disability at some point in their lives, Kirby noted.

Kirby said he’d like to see every new market highrise have similar suites incorporated into them.

“It is very challenging. There is a definite shortage of wheelchair housing for people,” he said. “I'm looking forward to being around other people that are in wheelchairs. I've got a friend that's moving in here.”

The tenants from the original building on the site were given first right of refusal to move back in – at their original rents. About 12 of them agreed to the offer. One of them, a woman in her 90s, had lived in the original building for its entire 50-year-life span.

“We gave her first pick,” Fraser said.