OP-ED: The Case for Housing for the Homeless

By Michael Geller

I have been interested in the idea of using factory-built relocatable modules as affordable housing since 1970 when I won a Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) traveling scholarship.

That was the year of "Operation Breakthrough," a US government initiative to promote factory built housing, and my travels included visits to housing factories across America. I subsequently developed this idea as my university architecture thesis.  Today, I see the opportunity as follows:

Throughout Vancouver there are vacant sites that could be used for interim housing for the homeless and others seeking affordable housing. These sites vary in size and location. Some are 'infill' locations along urban streets; others are larger undeveloped 'brownfield' locations. Some are privately owned; others are publicly owned.

While each property will ultimately be developed at some time in the future, many could be available for short term use with certain incentives. The resulting housing would not be a replacement for permanent homes. Rather, it would be an interim solution which could be available until adequate permanent homes are developed. Thereafter, the housing modules could be put to other uses.

I see an opportunity to develop different housing solutions including:
• a modified version of 'workforce housing' with individual sleeping rooms, shared bathrooms and cooking/living areas;
• small units comprising a sleeping/living area and a private bathroom; and
• self contained units for singles and families with cooking facilities

In addition to the housing units, there would be communal living spaces and live-in manager/support units, where appropriate.

This housing could be owned by government, non-profit organizations, or private companies and installed on private and publicly owned lands. Support services could be provided by the same non-profit organizations that are currently providing services to those in single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels and other more permanent forms of housing. While priority would be given to those who are homeless, the communities might include other households, resulting in a broader social mix.

In terms of design, the units need not look like 'trailer parks' as some critics fear. The housing could be one or two storeys in height and very attractive with a variety of exterior design treatments to fit the neighbourhood. One approach might be to create decorative murals, such as a forest or urban views over metal siding.  The units would be designed to applicable provincial and municipal building codes.

Based on my research with two major modular housing companies in the lower mainland, I have determined that the housing would cost approximately $110 per square foot. When one adds in the costs of installation, site servicing, consultant and other fees, the cost per unit ranges from $37,000 to $46,000 depending on unit size and bathroom arrangements. Design, approvals, construction and installation would take approximately four months.

In summary, this is not the solution to house the homeless. However, it could be a cost effective and speedy solution for many people desperately seeking decent shelter.  

Michael Geller is a Vancouver based architect, planner, real estate consultant and property developer with four decades’ experience in the public, private and institutional sectors.

OP-ED articles do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Think City. To make a submission to the OP-ED section of the Think City Minute, please email editor@thinkcity.ca for details. 

Temp vs Perm Housing

I think the comments by Monica Ullman sum it up well enough. Having visited Tokyo and seen some of these modular units, I'm convinced they aren't the answer. Three points: First, in talking with people there, it soon became clear that they are more expensive than you might think. In fact, some of the cost factors that people mention here are also huge issues there. Second, the lack of quality building is an issue. While they don't sell cheap, they are certainly made cheap. Here in BC, with largely non-accountable non-union construction contractors operating via numbered companies dominating most of our residential construction sector (resulting in huge problems, including the whole leaky condo crisis), that should be a concern. Third, is simply the quality of life issue. Many of these units are so small that it makes it near impossible to live in them on a long-term basis, especially when considering raising a family, etc. Obviously, the best way to build affordable housing is to build it to last on a permanent basis. This doesn't mean necessarily that the government has to subsidize the operation of housing projects forever. Rather, experience with various forms of cooperative and other democratically self-managed integrated housing projects, things can be done on a non-profit equity basis, funded by community trusts, pension plans, etc., thus greatly reducing the costs to the buyers/residents.

Temporary Housing

The problem with anything 'temporary' is that it generally becomes permanent, like the income tax that was supposed to be temporary and pay for the war...somehow, it never went away. The huts at UBC also were installed as temporary classrooms and then remained for decades. No, if we're going to build anything, let's build for permanence, since that is what happens when the pressure if off. I applaud the idea of using prefab modules to bring down the price, but the problem of sky high real estate prices in Vancouver is not going to be solved in that way. The only way we can have housing that is affordable and adequate is by supporting a government funded public housing effort like the one that we engaged in after WWII. Why can't the city make some of its land available on a permanent basis? What if we actually hired prospective home owners to work on their own future housing? Many people are unemployed and would jump at the chance of building a home for themselves. Prefabs are only as good as the permanent solutions we can come up with.

Good One

One of the possible causes of NIMBYism in Vancouver could be a visual factor, namely people do not want to give up the pitched-roof craftsman style houses they are accustomed to. A stack of factory-built relocatable modular units can be threatening to some not just because they don't want their backyards to be sacrificed but because the architectural typology appearing in their backyards is unfamiliar.In saying the above point I would like to, with the help of other architects and planners, conduct a survey on what building/house-form do people see as more representative of the term "community" and what building/house-form people see as "global-capitalist". (The term global-capitalist is used because it seems to be some opinions amongst Vancouverites that any building form taller than two storeys is susceptible to become a tool for greedy developers to bully the "people". Though the term "community" itself is dangerous as it, even in well-meaning ways, can exercise exclusion.) Architecture and urban planning is after all not just about function but also about design, hence visual forms. Reactions to a city's visual form is also one of the indicators of liveability.

another good site for these units

Michael: I know I have mentioned this before, but the provincial government has cleared a huge strip of land in my neighborhood, Bridgeview in North Surrey that would be perfect for this use. It is close to Scott Road Skytrain so transit and transportation options are available. Then long term they could develop it for more permanent affordable housing solutions, probably in a mix with market housing to make it work for developers since the location means the South Fraser Waterfront could be quite the amenity. Ideally some commercial units and live/work light industrial artist studio type units would also be welcome for a dynamic, diverse, sustainable community. The waterfront also has huge recreational potential for hiking / biking trails and since the soil is so fantastic community gardens are also possible, in fact proposed for nearby along an oasis park that has been reclaimed from a street. Those laneway homes sound like they might have potential here too. Only trouble is they plan to pave that cleared strip over for the South Fraser Freeway and the major development around here now is warehouses and truck parks. As you can see it is easy to think of many much better uses for the land. Other cities are fixing their mistakes and reclaiming their waterfront from past industrial use, while Surrey just seems bound and determined to repeat the mistakes of the past and is planning a future of industrial wasteland for this prime waterfront area. If you have any ideas how to stop it please pass them on. Thanks Bernadette

a response to Peter

You're right. The $110 a foot does not cover the cost of delivery, installation and site works, soft costs, etc. Those costs bring to the total up to the $37,000 to $46,000 per unit. The relocation costs would be in addition. However, when one looks at the 'life-cycle costs' over 10 years, (assuming 3 moves), this is still a very cost effective solution. I do not worry about there not being vacant sites, since historically there is always a stock of vacant properties in a city...yes it moves about, but it is surprisingly constant. As for the exterior materials, I proposed corrugated metal since it can be attractive, reasonably durable and 'illustrated'. However, there are new plastics and other types of insulated panels that might be used in future. But most have not yet been approved for Vancouver, and would likely cost more. As for what happens to the residents, hopefully they can move into permanent housing as it is completed. However, if not available, then they move into relocated units that are set up nearby.

What a wonderful idea! We

What a wonderful idea! We can now solve our housing crisis by stacking boxes on top of boxes and end up looking like some of the ghettos so prevalent in the "Old Country". But wait! Aren't the empty lots disappearing and reappearing in the form of "community gardens"? Hey! I have an idea.....maybe we can have Mr. Geller donate his backyard in the spirit of solidarity with those who can't afford a home. Or will feelings of Nimbyism overwhelm his desire to provide homes;.....I mean, shipping containers, to solve the high cost of owning your own home? As far as the cost being too high, you can be absolutely guaranteed that the greedy developers will charge as much as they can and push the price as high as they can, so don't expect any bargain when that first unit of "corrugated iron with a cement floor" is offered for sale. Confused? Ask Mr. Geller to explain the concept of "supply and demand" and its effect on the price. One burning question remains though....."Will they leak"?


I agree with Geller that modular housing is part of the answer. But he hasn't gone far enough: these modulars should be ten stories high like in the UK.

Temporary housing

I like Geller's idea of using vacant space for temporary housing, although neighbours of said empty lots might not be as supportive. I don't like the $110 per square foot cost though, nor do I think that this is a realistic figure, because it doesn't seem to take into account the cost of moving the units and relocating them when a site is to be developed. At that time, there might also be a cost in simply storing the unit until another site is found for it. There is another problem too, which involves the inevitable shrinkage over time of space available for temporary housing units. There is also the problem of what happens to the residents when their unit is to be moved or stored. In London after the war there were erected many Nissen huts on vacant land to house the displaced. These were long huts of corrugated iron with a cement floor divided into "suites" suitable for variously sized families. This might be a much cheaper solution. And I also wonder whether technology hasn't reached the point where corrugate iron couldn't be replaced by a flexible tenting type of material which would be more easily transported and stored, obviously at a fraction of the cost of Mr. Geller's proposal.

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