Council – December 6, 2021

The Council meeting of December 6 was limited to addressing three Public Hearings (run concurrently) to hear about 6 Bylaws. This collection of important and time-sensitive Bylaw changes are all in direct response to the ongoing Homelessness and Housing Affordability crises. They represent us acting quickly when senior government supports come available, and will further provide us the ability to act swiftly in reaction to new funding opportunities coming from senior governments.

There are two specific sites in the City, one City-owned and one owned by the province, where there is an immediate opportunity to provide truly affordable housing totaling up to 110 units – not enough (as we have at least 120 unhoused people living in New West, and many more precariously housed) but a big move in the right direction. This Public Hearing addressed the necessary OCP and Zoning amendments needed to make these two sites a reality. Staff have also put forward proposed Bylaw changes that would permit Council to more rapidly approve certain types of supportive housing and supportive land use projects.

Official Community Plan Amendment Bylaw (City-wide Crisis Response) No. 8285, 2021 and
Zoning Amendment Bylaw (City-wide Crisis Response) No. 8286, 2021
These Bylaws give Council and staff the ability to fast-track certain land use changes if those changes are in direct response a BC Public Health Emergency, a State of Emergency Declaration, or a regional crisis recognized by multiple member municipalities in Metro Vancouver.

This is, on one side, a broad city-wide application, but on the other side pretty restricted. Besides the need for there to be a declared provincial or regional emergency, the project getting fast-tracked would also have to be on City-owned or government-owned land, be funded by a senior government, and operated either by government or a non-profit. This directly addresses the issue of local government approval processes sometimes creating critical time challenges or risks that make otherwise viable projects harder to implement, even if the funding and senior governments are on board. We don’t want to be standing in the way of getting people housed or otherwise supported during a crisis, and these Bylaws will facilitate that.

We did not get a lot of feedback on these proposed bylaw changes in correspondence or the Public Hearing, but we did have one person ask what the rush is, considering homelessness and affordable housing has been a crisis for 15 years. My response to that is that I wish we had the luxury of time. I wish that when the seeds of today’s overlapping homelessness and housing affordability crises were sown by neo-Liberal austerity 20 years ago that we instead had Federal and Provincial governments that cared. But we didn’t, and for two decades the problem got progressively worse, until COVID snapped the strings holding so many support systems afloat. We are acting now, aggressively and rapidly, because we finally (see the two items below) have senior governments putting money into this problem to fund the types of housing and housing supports our community desperately needs, and we don’t know how long before the austerity cancer recurs.

Council moved to give the Bylaws third reading.

Official Community Plan Amendment Bylaw (60-68 Sixth Street) No.8283, 2021 and
Zoning Amendment Bylaw (60-68 Sixth Street) No. 8284, 2021
These bylaws would facilitate the building of a supportive housing project on a long-vacant piece of land in the Downtown that was purchased relatively recently by the province. BC Housing is ready to deliver a 4-storey modular building with 52 supportive housing units that was rejected by another community. The housing, once up and running, would be supported by BC Housing and a not-for-profit operator, and will be similar in size and operation to the current Mazarine Lodge in Queensborough, which has been operating successfully and with no problems for more than a year now.

This is truly affordable housing, with units renting for the Income Assistance Rate of $375/month. The units are self-contained studio suites (with full bathroom and small kitchens) with some common amenities like social space and laundry facilities. There will be 24/7 support staff on the site, life skills and employment training, referrals to other community services, and on-site medical and other health support. But this is not “shelter” – this is housing, where people have the dignity and comfort of their own safe space. Their own home.

This item had the most feedback in the Public Hearing, with a few people speaking in support, but more neighbors calling in to oppose this intrusion into their community. The main opposition seemed to hinge on the notion that people living in supportive housing are a danger to their neighbours, which is demonstrably false. The arguments were familiar to those presented at the Public Hearing for the Mazarine Lodge, and the dangers alleged have of course not appeared. From a land-use perspective, this is an excellent place for modular supportive housing, and with BC Housing covering the bill, it is a real boon for our community during these difficult times.

Council moved to give the Bylaws third reading.

Official Community Plan Amendment Bylaw (350-366 Fenton Street) No.8281, 2021 and
Zoning Amendment Bylaw (350-366 Fenton Street) No. 8282, 2021
This proposed project would see four City-owned lots in Queensborough amalgamated into a single lot, with 58 units (totaling 88 bedrooms) in a low-rise apartment style, to be funded primarily by the federal government through the Rapid Housing Initiative, and operated by the Vancouver Native Housing Society.

This is a continuation of the City’s Small Lot Affordable Housing strategy. Unlike some of our neighbouring communities, the last generation of City leaders didn’t leave us with a big land bank, but over the last 7 years, Council has been asking staff to find opportunities to put affordable housing on City-owned lots that do not have another specific purpose (Park, Road, Library, etc.). This is the fourth project to come along that seems to math out on an available site (the other three are up and running).

The one challenge raised by a neighbor at this site is the proximity to some long-standing drainage issues in a part of Queensborough that is a bit of a low spot. Drainage improvements have not come with the low-density redevelopment in this area, and the open watercourses do sometimes fill up and even overflow, resulting in flooding of the road. This flooding does not, generally, impact the houses because of the floodplain building standards that are meant to prevent this, and indeed this proposed building will be designed with the flood construction level to manage that risk. The drainage issue is partly about ongoing maintenance, and there is some medium-term engineering plans to improve the network in the area. Unfortunately, loosely-regulated driveway crossings and drainage impacts make Fenton Street not particularly pedestrian-friendly, with a gravelly shoulder on a highly crowned but beat-up road and very loosely regulated parking. The accessibility of the site is somewhat compromised by this situation, so I added another motion asking that staff report back on how we can assure safe and accessible pedestrian connections to the development.

Council moved to give the Bylaws third reading. Then supported my motion on Pedestrian accessibility.

It was a bit of a long (almost 4 hours), and at times challenging, Public Hearing, but I am glad the City is moving the needle on truly affordable housing, and acting as swiftly as the law allows in getting it done. This is the shit I got elected to do, so in the end it was a good day.

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