Modular housing is urgently needed in Marpole, and throughout Vancouver

Modular housing under construction in Marpole. | Photo courtesy of City of Vancouver

The Vancouver neighbourhood of Marpole has become a flashpoint in the fierce debate over how to solve the city’s housing emergency.

Some local residents have objected loudly to the municipal government’s announcement that 78 units of temporary modular housing are being built at the corner of 59th Avenue and Heather Street.

Over 2000 people have signed an online petition, “Say NO to modular housing.” On Nov. 10, a small group rallied at City Hall with signs like “Kid’s Safety First” and “Our Voices Matter,” arguing that the modular housing residents could endanger nearby schoolchildren and that the City had failed to consult adequately on the project.

Although the organized opposition to this effort to put a roof over the heads of a tiny portion of Vancouver’s swelling homeless population says their only objection is to its location near several schools – the petition actually reads “Right idea, wrong location” – their protests and comments reported in the media have included ugly expressions of vitriolic poor-bashing. Some of these objections to the modular housing in Marpole have been the worst kind of NIMBYism – rejecting a few new neighbours because they are poor and thus deemed a threat to middle-class homeowners.

Fortunately, some of the nearby students have decided not to let those with prejudices against the poor speak in their names. A group at Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School, which is located just north of the building site, recently formed “Marpole Students for Modular Housing.”

“We need to educate people, students at Laurier and Churchill, and build positive attitudes because these aren’t people to marginalize, they’re people to integrate and welcome into our community,” Churchill student Ishmam Bhuiyan told CBC Radio last week.

“It was parents that were perpetuating fear and a NIMBYism attitude that we didn’t agree with. We want these people in our communities.”

As of Nov. 19, the teens’ Facebook page had 561 likes; the competing “Marpole Students Against Modular Housing” had a mere 43 likes. The kids are all right, and the adults rallying against poor people moving to their neighbourhood could learn a thing or two from these youth.

How this debate plays out in Marpole matters, because this modular housing initiative is part of a new wave of similar developments planned with new funding from the provincial NDP government.

Premier John Horgan recently announced over $60 million to build 600 units of this type of housing in Vancouver. This is an important start, but it’s not nearly enough. The last homeless count was a whopping 2,138 people. With winter fast-approaching, it’s unacceptable that anyone is left to sleep on the streets.

We need way more modular housing as an immediate stop-gap measure, but what we really need is far more high-quality social and public housing. That will require all levels of government stepping up to get the housing we need built. It’s going to require some political courage from the new provincial government to really tackle this large-scale problem.

The NDP, for instance, could implement a progressive property tax on the rich and super-rich who have reaped the rewards of Vancouver’s out-of-control housing market. A simple, modest tax reform like that would easily generate enough money to build thousands of modular homes and could go a long way towards the tens of thousands of new social and affordable housing units we need.

As for Marpole, let’s take the opponents of this modular housing development at their word that their only objection is that the housing is being put close to schools. Let’s demand way more modular and social housing at other locations in the surrounding neighbourhood. Marpole and every other neighbourhood in Vancouver should include low-income and supportive housing.

They’re wrong, of course, to argue that poor people living in the area pose a threat to schoolchildren. Homelessness is a threat to homeless people, and anti-poor attitudes are a threat to society as a whole. Hopefully future students at Churchill will learn about this episode as a case study of the dangers of poorbashing and the benefits of compassion, inclusivity, and social justice.