Penticton city council has sent B.C. Housing and city staff back to the drawing board on one of four major affordable housing projects currently in the works.
Council voted against second and third reading for a zoning amendment that change an empty lot currently zoned for duplexes to fit a modular project with 52 units of supported housing.
The plan was to consolidate the empty lot with two lots already owned by B.C. Housing, both of which are zoned for higher density. Both Ann Howard, regional director for B.C. Housing, and city planner Blake Laven told council that because of the high-density zoning in the other two lots, the project could go up on that same site regardless of council’s decision.
After the project went to council for first reading earlier this month, it was sent to a public hearing on Tuesday, where it was met with a mix of resistance and support.
Howard outlined the importance of bringing housing not just for the working poor and seniors, but for those experiencing homelessness as well.
“It isn’t all about the homeless, but it is, tonight, about the homeless,” Howard told council.
She noted Vernon, which has slightly fewer homeless, but a larger population overall. She also pointed to the 2016 housing needs assessment that called for 290 units of affordable housing in the city. Meanwhile, she added that there have been fears of gentrification at the neighbouring Mayfair, Meadowlark and Sun Valley motels with a combined 57 units.
After a public hearing that lasted more than two hours, council bowed to pressure from local residents who spoke largely to the location of the proposal, voting 5-1 against the project, with Coun. Judy Sentes dissenting and Coun. Tarik Sayeed absent.
If it were approved, the project would have gone up at the corner of Main Street and Green Avenue, joining another B.C. Housing supportive housing project. That location, however, is near three schools, which many said was a major issue.
“I have actually picked up needles in the neighbourhood. I have put garbage can and chained it to the fence, so that the garbage will be collected rather than thrown into our yard,” said Mike Biden, a nearby resident who submitted a petition with a few dozen signatures on it.
“I commend B.C. Housing. I commend how they want to do this. But … with 600 kids that walk down and forth in front of that place on their way to Tim Horton’s or the 7/11, I’m a little fearful of adding another 52 individuals into that high-density complex.”
Biden’s comments were largely reflected among the majority of those who spoke out against the project in the meeting, saying they are in favour of housing, but against the location.
Debbie Scarborough, executive director of the South Okanagan Women In Need Society, said she was happy to hear some of the compassion in the room toward homelessness.
“What concerns me is that this is not the right location. And yet if we move it to another location, that won’t be the right location, either. And a lot of communities have struggled with that,” Scarborough said.
“If not one of us in this room has ever known anyone that has struggled with addictions, which is mostly trauma based, I don’t see how we say we’re compassionate and yet we don’t afford the building.”
As a coroner, Scarborough said she’s well aware of how street life risks the lives of those who don’t receive supports.
And while many people pointed to issues with the Fairhaven complex, Howard and others said those issues had largely been quelled, particularly since ASK Wellness took over operations. That same organization is proposed to run operations at the new proposal, as well.
However, owners of neighbouring Dauphin Mobile Home Park said while the problems have largely gone away at Fairhaven, they are still seeing some behaviour that affects their park.
Howard pointed to a case study of five different housing projects across B.C., and said over time the public opposition to those projects had ended. She added that some B.C. Housing projects near schools ultimately become part of the community, and are not problematic for those schools.
When the matter went back to council later in the evening, most councillors called it a tough decision, balancing the needs of the homeless versus the demands of the neighbourhood.
“I can’t support this as it is. I do have to agree with the community, or that area of town, they have done their fair share with this. I know it makes business sense and perfect sense to have all of that together, but tying it to a school is another issue,” Coun. Andre Martin said.
Coun. Judy Sentes countered that she would support the project because it came with a “huge resume” from ASK and the commitment to 24/7 support from two staff members. Bob Hughes with ASK said the latter commitment was potentially “unprecedented” from the B.C. government.
Coun. Max Picton was the only councillor who said it was not a difficult decision, as he prepared to vote against the project.
“We’ve now got Super 8, Fairhaven, Unity House. The list goes on and on, from what was once a vibrant, activity-filled main corridor in our community, is now turning into — whatever, it’s not what I want for our community. It’s not the right location,” he said.
“I’m very strongly against congregating them all into one area. There’s a term for that; it’s called a ghetto.”