A Plan to Turn a Former Jail Into Rental Housing
“A Plan to Turn a Former Jail Into Rental Housing” by Kerry Gold was originally posted in the Globe and Mail on December 22, 2011.
Gregory Henriquez believes that transforming a former city jail into affordable rental housing is poetry.
He is the architect behind the transformation of the former remand centre at 211 Gore into 95 units of rental housing in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
The poetic metaphor of transforming a jail into housing is really a healthy message for any society,” says Mr. Henriquez, seated inside his upstairs office in the old B.C. Securities heritage building at Homer and Pender. The office is grand with plaster cornices, tall windows and marble floors.
“Incarcerating people isn’t the answer,” says Mr. Henriquez. “Housing them is.”
He has become known as the Vancouver architect with the vision towards equitable housing. He is the designer behind the Woodward’s Building, lauded as a successful merger of low-income housing and market housing, as well as the affordable Downtown Eastside condo project at 60 W. Cordova.
Mr. Henriquez is often confused with his famous architect father Richard, well known for Eugenia Place in English Bay, with the tree rising from the rooftop, a tribute to the forest that stood there before it.
The remand centre is a passing of the baton from father to son because Richard designed the original building, and Gregory has re-designed and will soon re-purpose it for social and affordable housing. While Richard is the true poet of the family, son Gregory has carved out his own niche as the social issues-minded architect.
“He is the architect with the ethical pen,” says condo marketer Bob Rennie, who worked with Mr. Henriquez on Woodward’s as well as numerous other projects.
Mr. Henriquez’s decision to focus on the remand centre was driven as much by personal necessity as it was to supply essential rental stock.
It was 2008, when the market had bottomed out, and Mr. Henriquez thought that he could either take a long break, or put his architects to work on a housing project he’d considered for awhile. His father’s 1973 remand centre had been sitting unused since it closed in 2002, and was an ideal and obvious source of rental housing for low-income tenants in the area.
It was, in fact, an empty shell awaiting a new purpose. It had already been gutted before the basement became home to a community courtroom.
“I thought, we can either give up or look for projects that are really meaningful and put some people to work drawing up things that would be very exciting around issues of social justice and affordability and housing and inclusivity, and things we hold near and dear to our hearts,” he says.
A remand centre is a detention centre for people who have not yet been found guilty and are awaiting their appearance in court. The Vancouver remand centre at 211 Gore is striking because of the rows of concrete bays that jut out the side of the building. Inside, the bays are used as alcoves for beds. The feature is a Richard Henriquez metaphor.
“They are obviously in prison but still in society, and they are not yet guilty, so the metaphor of them sleeping on the outside of the building was an interesting thing,” says Mr. Henriquez.
He made a pitch to the province’s housing ministry, and after three years of back and forth, the idea became a reality last spring. The remand centre is set for a makeover to be completed by mid 2013.
The 95 rental units built, to be managed by the St. James Community Service Society, will include 34 rental units for low-income tenants. Tenants who qualify for a studio apartment can earn around $32,500, while one-bedroom units will be rented to tenants who make $36,300, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. housing income levels. The maximum rents would be about $800 to $900 a month. Studios will be up to 485 square feet in size, and one bedrooms up to 590 square feet.
The remainder of the units will be for at-risk youth who work in the BladeRunners construction-training program, as well as those who are on a shelter allowance. The 34 rental units will generate enough revenue so that the project won’t require subsidies. Rents will cover the $1.6-million mortgage.
Housing Minister Rich Coleman has said that the $13-million project is also possible because of the already existing building, which drastically offsets construction costs.
As for the concrete bays, Mr. Henriquez will replace them with larger glass bays, allowing light into the units.
The project provides much-needed affordable rental housing in an area where rental and condo prices have skyrocketed in the last couple of years. Some of his own architects, says Mr. Henriquez, cannot afford to live in Vancouver.
“Which is sad and wrong.”
While an effort has been made to provide affordable condo housing, such as Mr. Henriquez’s project at 60 W. Cordova, many people still can’t afford the down payment. About 50 per cent of Vancouverites rent, and in the Downtown Eastside in particular, rental stock is essential.
Mr. Henriquez doesn’t expect the new housing to transform the gritty block, but he figures it will, for what it’s worth, help fill the massive gap that is rental housing. He can’t think of another new rental building in the neighbourhood, which isn’t surprising considering land values.
“Vancouver hasn’t produced rental because most land trades at market housing rates,” he says.
“But straight market housing by itself in the neighbourhood isn’t going to work. Every project has to bring some level of affordability and some statement about caring about the neighbourhood … You don’t want people to feel you are bulldozing their neighbourhood.”
Mr. Henriquez says speculative condo buyers push prices up, and creative methods must be used to keep them from purchasing units that are intended to be affordable. Those methods include making the project a no-rent building, not including parking, and banning the practice of flipping.
Condo owners usually don’t provide affordable rentals, either. Condo marketer Bob Rennie says those speculative condo investors who need to rent their units to cover their mortgages are currently providing much of the rental stock.
“These passive condo buyers that everybody hates are the rental supplier,” he says.
They price their rents on average around $1,600 a month, which is too high for many people. And because the number of condo units being developed in the last few years downtown has drastically dropped, there will be less of those rental condos available.
“To find rental under $1,250 or under $1,000 is a rare commodity, given our land costs and construction costs,” says Mr. Rennie. “So building small suites and providing affordable rental fills a need.”
The city has recognized the need for rental stock with its STIR program, which stands for Short Term Incentives for Rental Housing, and includes breaks on property taxes, development cost levies, and parking, and allowances for greater density, in exchange for development of rental housing.
Vancouver property prices, however, are expensive, and condominiums remain more lucrative to the average developer.
“You just have to look at really creative models, and looking at smaller sizes,” says Mr. Rennie. “So whether it’s condos or affordable rental, you have to try different models. We can’t keep hanging onto yesterday’s model, because land has become so expensive.”