Housing solutions eyed

Maple Ridge looks to Vancouver and Victoria for alternatives to deal with its homeless population.

Shipping containers can be converted into apartments.

Shipping containers can be converted into apartments.

Vancouver has provided housing for homeless people in shipping containers, and Victoria last week approved so-called micro houses that are the size of a garden shed.

These ideas are not lost on Maple Ridge City Hall, as it tries to end homelessness locally.

The long-term solution will be a variety of housing and sheltering initiatives, said Mayor Nicole Read, and she has personally investigated some of these options.

Janice Abbott is the CEO of the Atira Women’s Resource Society, which modeled shipping containers into apartments, stacked them two wide and three high, and created affordable housing units for some of the more elderly women who were living on the streets of Vancouver.

Since then, she has been contacted by municipalities across North America, which are interested in Atira’s container housing, and any cost advantage that can be had.

Maple Ridge was one of the interested cities, and Mayor Read said such affordable, semi-permanent housing could be part of the answer locally.

“It’s one solution. We need to make sure we provide housing options for the homeless in the community.”

Abbott is proud of the units. She asserts that, from the street, they are hardly distinct from other buildings. But the residents enjoy the fact that they have their own space, in this “funky” type of housing.

They work well on small lots, and she says they can be stacked eight high, with an outside stairwell providing access. They meet or exceed all building codes.

Construction is quick – they are insulated, drywalled and furnished. They get full bathrooms and kitchens, some even have in-suite laundry.

The cost is $72,000 per unit, and Atira already had property to accommodate 12. People moved in during the summer of 2013.

Abbott believes this kind of housing is a critical element for communities trying to house a homeless population.

“Shelters serve a purpose, but they’re not the best solution,” she said.

“I’ve been doing this for 23 years, and people need to feel grounded. Most people – they need to feel secure.”

Outreach workers meet with the women in the Vancouver container units.

“We’re going into their housing,” she said. “But it’s light touch support.”

Atira didn’t invent container housing, and looked at similar projects in the Netherlands, New Zealand and Great Britain.

Abbott concedes some people “despise” container housing, terming it a way of warehousing the homeless.

“But they can look like whatever you want them to look like,” she said. “You’re only limited by your imagination.”

“They’re not cold and steel.”

The City of Victoria last week approved micro-housing units, with peaked roofs and windows, as an affordable housing solution.

Victoria proposes putting 35 to 50 of these semi-permanent structures on a one-acre site.

“This is a First World country, we live in a capital city and there is absolutely no reason why our parks should be used in the way they are by people who are in desperate need of housing,” said Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps.

The costs for any such project will run into the hundreds of thousands, and Read maintains that is a provincial responsibility.

“Technically, that money needs to come from the province,” she said. “B.C. Housing is involved.”

But the mayor said it will not help the city’s urgent housing need – spaces for the residents of the homeless camp on Cliff Avenue.