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Critics say modular homes for B.C.'s unhoused can be a problem

A UBC researcher worries modular homes could do more harm than good, putting people in an uncertain environment and worsening health outcomes.

A day after Premier David Eby announced construction of 90 modular units to help address the housing crisis in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, critics said they worry such projects have become the de facto housing solution, as permanent developments await funding.

Municipal politicians in Nanaimo and Maple Ridge say modular housing in their communities did not have the promised wraparound supports, which led to a spike in crime and social disorder to the surrounding neighbourhoods.

And one UBC researcher worries modular homes could do more harm than good, putting people in an uncertain environment and worsening health outcomes.

Danya Fast, a research scientist at the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, said while she supports creating more housing for people as quickly as possible, modular housing complexes can “actually deepen a sense of uncertainty in young people’s lives, especially when they’re temporary.”

“Yes, housing should come first,” she said. “But there is this crucial question of what’s next for these young people in this temporary modular housing?”

Fast, an assistant professor in the department of medicine at the University of British Columbia, co-wrote a commentary with two other researchers that raised concerns about the role modular homes play in institutionalizing youth, which could do more harm than good to their health.

“We also hear from young people about using more drugs in these places, whether it’s because they’re feeling uncertain about their futures or because these are places where there is a lot of active open drug use and dealing,” she said.

Eby and Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon on Wednesday announced 90 new modular homes he said will help people living in shelters and on the street. Eby said it was an urgent response to the encampments, social disorder and crime on the Downtown Eastside, which has reached a crisis point.

B.C. Housing will build two new transitional housing projects with round-the-clock supports at 1500 Main St. and 2132 Ash St. that would operate for three years.

Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog said his city’s experience with modular homes was “problematic from the start.”

Krog said two modular housing projects developed by B.C. Housing in 2019 to house 76 people living in a tent city in downtown Nanaimo were supposed to be temporary but are still operating three years later.

“There certainly were significant problems at both sites, including chop shops, drug dealing, incredible vandalism in the community and in the nearby neighbourhoods and that continued for quite a while,” Krog said. Chop shops are operations where stolen vehicles or bicycles are dismantled and re-assembled.

While the situation has improved, Krog said there wasn’t proper screening of the modular-home residents and he doesn’t believe the non-profit contracted to manage the site had the tools or resources to do the job properly.

“The mix of people — if you have folks in active addiction, as opposed to those who are clean or trying to stay clean or sober — it is a bit of a recipe for disaster,” he said.

One temporary modular housing complex in Maple Ridge was so problem-plagued, the province ordered an independent review.

Maple Ridge residents raised the alarm in March after several people died in the Royal Crescent temporary supportive housing complex, which is operated by Coast Mental Health.

The Royal Crescent complex and another one on Burnett Street opened in October 2018 to provide shelter for 53 people who were living in an encampment at Anita Place.

Maple Ridge Coun. Ahmed Yousef, who was opposed to the locations of the two modular housing complex because of its proximity to a seniors’ home, said modular homes have been nothing but “a patchwork of Band-Aids throughout our province.”

“We’ve had fires, we’ve had fights, we’ve had deaths occur within these facilities,” said Yousef. “If anybody saw the conditions in some of these modular homes — I wouldn’t want any of my loved ones living there, quite frankly.”

Yousef said the community was promised wraparound services and that people would have a pathway to permanent housing. “That’s been absent for the most part,” he said.

He said there are some success stories but “not enough to warrant the impact on the neighbourhood or the expenditure on part of the government.”

Kahlon defended the government’s approach to modular homes, saying they’ve been the quickest way to provide shelter to people living on the street.

“The truth is we have people living on the streets, we have people living in tents. And so we need to find ways to house them and the modular option is an option for us to get people out and get shelter above their heads,” said Kahlon, who was appointed housing minister last week.

“Of course, there’s always some challenges that come with it. We’re going to continue to look at it to find ways to refine and make the system better.”

Since 2017, B.C. Housing has funded 44 modular supportive housing developments, with a total of 1,400 units in 22 communities across the province, the agency said in a statement. The housing agency said some of the modular developments are meant for short-term use, while others will be used for several years and some are permanent.

Of the people living in modular supportive homes, 85 per cent stay for six months or longer, according to B.C. Housing.

A 2019 B.C. Housing report into modular supportive housing developments found such housing resulted in “improvements for residents in many areas of their lives, including increased housing stability, improved quality of life, improved health, positive community relations, and reduced use of emergency health services.”

B.C. Housing said 2,300 units of supportive permanent housing are underway, building on the 4,750 units already constructed since 2017.

Both Yousef and Krog say individuals with severe mental health issues should be given compassionate care at a psychiatric facility similar to the now-shuttered Riverview Hospital in Coquitlam.

B.C. Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon has also advocated a modernized version of Riverview, which would be an “apartment-like setting … where you have proper, genuine 24-7 psychiatric and medical supports for those folks that cannot look after themselves.”

Falcon said it’s clear the NDP government’s approach to emergency housing for people without homes is not working.

“Warehousing the mentally ill, and the severely addicted into hotels and motels, without proper supports, is not working for anybody, especially the surrounding communities that are paying the price for the social disorder and chaos that is spreading.”