Under One Roof

Builders Without Borders hopes its new East Side housing project with the Aboriginal Mother Centre could become a model to help ease Vancouver’s housing crisis.

Michael McCarthy
Special to the Vancouver Courier
Friday, October 17, 2008

The Aboriginal Mother Centre at 2019 Dundas on the East Side is not a historic site. Architecturally speaking, the 30-year-old former school building is an eyesore, but the bland three-storey concrete structure may one day be looked upon as a memorable location.

It’s a first for Builders Without Borders, a Vancouver-based non-profit group of architects and planners that has constructed post-disaster sustainable housing in developing countries around the world for nearly a decade. BWB is partnering with the Aboriginal Mother Centre (AMC) to develop a new “all under one roof” multi-purpose centre in the Grandview-Woodlands neighbourhood, and it’s a radically different model that could have profound implications for how other low-income housing will be built in the future.

Juanita Santos has been coming to AMC for several years. Until the centre lost most of its funding last Christmas, the 30-year-old single mother used to come to the centre every day, volunteering to answer the phones, helping out where she could and gaining a real sense of community.


Photo by Dan Toulgoet

Builders Without Borders hopes its new Hastings-Sunrise housing project with the Aboriginal Mother Centre could become a model to help ease Vancouver’s housing crisis

“The Mother Centre was the only safe place in the neighbourhood where my son could play without having to worry about needles on the ground and junkies shooting up,” says Santos. “I’m excited to learn that AMC will be renovated and expanded, and that the Builders plan calls for more than just a clean room and free meals.”

Clean and sober for six years, Santos says the centre offered her the camaraderie of other mothers, playmates for her son, vocational training and some counselling. The renovated AMC, when it opens next year, will hopefully offer much more than that, including micro-entrepreneurship and retail opportunities, a sense of pride and ownership and stable economic prospects for the centre’s future. As one-third of the Canadian workforce readies for retirement and the government’s taxpayer base shrinks accordingly, the BWB model that has worked in Third World disaster zones may prove to be the solution for sustainable housing for Vancouver’s economically challenged neighbourhoods.

The BWB model in developing countries doesn’t simply provide free housing for the poor. It recognizes that people need to afford their rent, and to pay rent they need employment, and to secure employment they need to generate income.

“Young native mothers dealing with poverty and substance abuse need four things to regain their footing,” says BWB founder Neil Griggs. “[They need] healing, housing, gainful work and a supportive community. When one piece is missing, the investment in the other pieces usually fails to make a lasting difference. AMC currently provides three of these needs. The one vital piece missing is shelter. By combining these resources in an ‘under one roof’ model, real changes can be possible in even the most severely dysfunctional families.”

Griggs’ “Under One Roof” project includes renovating the centre’s 28,000-square-foot building to feature a self-sustaining community enterprise. The initial phase of the project will provide 12 residential shelter units and a meeting space for mothers and children on the third floor. The second floor will host a day care for 25 children, a commercial kitchen, a dining facility, offices and meeting rooms for education and counselling. On the ground floor, street front commercial space will be upgraded and leased to existing tenants to provide income. Some space will be retained for aboriginal cooperative business enterprises that will provide work and generate further income. The second stage will be to construct a new 39,000-square-foot adjacent building that will provide studio and one and two bedroom apartments.