Affordable housing as social tool

In last Sunday’s New York Times Brent Staples posed a theory on why there wasn’t much looting or violence in the Big Apple during the recent blackout. It was, the editorial writer said, because affordable housing had turned neighbourhoods into communities.

New Yorkers who lived through the arson and looting that followed the blackout of 1977 were understandably nervous when the power went out two weeks ago, Staples wrote. However, "This night did not belong to arsonists and looters; it belonged to families and neighbours who poured into the streets to use the headlights of parked cars for block parties and barbecues."

Staples notes several differences between the 1977 and 2003 blackouts, including post 9/11 sensibilities and the fact this year’s power outage started during daylight hours.

But the main difference, according to Staples, was the massive effort begun 20 years ago to rebuild neighbourhoods, primarily through affordable housing. More than 200,000 affordable apartments and houses have been built during this period, "… revitalizing burned-out communities and turning record numbers of New Yorkers into homeowners with a vested interest in keeping their areas safe."

Looters and arsonists have never been likely to run rampant over Whistler in the event of a major blackout, but New York provides another example of what creating opportunities for people to live in decent housing can do for neighbourhoods and communities. It’s an example that should be kept in mind next month as Whistler begins to debate the Comprehensive Sustainability Plan, and in particular what happens in the Callaghan Valley.

It’s a given that some permanent housing will be built in the Callaghan. Sewer, water, power and roads have to be built to service the athletes village and the Olympic Nordic centre. The provincial and federal governments will pay for this infrastructure, including a state-of-the-art eco-friendly sewage system, and they – as well as taxpayers across B.C. and Canada – will want to see their investment put to good use.

That doesn’t appear to be a problem. Part of the athletes village is intended to provide housing after the Games for athletes training and competing at the Nordic centre and at Whistler and Blackcomb. The Squamish and Lil’wat Nations also have plans for the Callaghan, including perhaps a hotel and golf course.

The question is how will Whistler use the 300 acres of Crown land it has been promised by the provincial government. The land bank, which has to be used for housing and related functions, is a shrewd Olympic legacy for Whistler. It can go a long way to resolving one of Whistler’s biggest problems: affordability and affordable housing.

The concern is that if the whole land bank, and by extension the whole solution to affordable housing, is in the Callaghan a large portion of Whistler’s permanent population will, over time, migrate down valley, leaving many existing neighbourhoods empty, or at least more lonely.

Staples uses terms like "civic quarantine" and "civic isolation" to describe the South Bronx, Harlem and Bushwick in Brooklyn before New York began its $5 billion affordable housing commitment. Alpine Meadows isn’t going to turn into the South Bronx of the 1980s if it’s decided all 300 acres of the land bank should be in the Callaghan. But there are still opportunities for infill housing in existing neighbourhoods that should be explored before committing everything to the Callaghan.

New York, over the past 20 years, provides an example of how powerful a tool affordable housing can be for revitalizing neighbourhoods. Whistler knows this lesson. It has wisely integrated affordable housing projects into existing neighbourhoods and has seen the benefits. This policy should be maintained.

But it won’t be easy. As Whistler develops its Comprehensive Sustainability Plan there will be pressure to maximize development in the Callaghan. Victoria, for one, has always seen the Callaghan Valley as a development opportunity – and thus a revenue source – just waiting for the right moment. The risk of succumbing to these pressures is to Whistler’s existing neighbourhoods and the vitality of the resort.

The Callaghan can be a significant pressure relief valve for Whistler, but it is not a panacea.

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