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New West council supports housing projects in downtown and Queensborough

Crisis response bylaws also approved after a tense three-hour public hearing
BC Housing
BC Housing has purchased a vacant property at 68 Sixth St. with the hopes of building a supportive housing project to address homelessness in New West.

New West city council has supported a series of actions and projects aimed at helping the city to address homelessness and to better respond to a variety of crises and emergencies.

Staff “bundled together” what they deemed to be three separate but closely related items into one process: a 52-unit supportive housing project at 60 to 68 Sixth St.; a 58-unit Indigenous housing project at 350 to 366 Fenton St. in Queensborough; and a citywide crisis response bylaw.

Council supported six bylaws related to these items following a three-hour public hearing. The tense meeting included numerous stoppages when council called “points of order” so council could instruct speakers to avoid using stigmatizing language.

BC Housing’s plan to build a four-storey modular housing building in the downtown generated the most discussion at Monday’s public hearing.

Several residents living around the site expressed concern about the neighbourhood’s current safety and livability, citing concerns about homelessness and open drug on the street.

A downtown resident who is involved in Block Watch expressed concern about the project. Having lost her brother to an overdose, the woman said she supports effort to help people but she isn’t convinced this is the right location because of its proximity to areas that are already creating problems for residents.

“I have seen a lot in this neighbourhood. I have called the police several times. I have helped people many times,” she said. “My concern is that having housing built there might be detrimental to the residents because of the neighbourhood. I don’t see them being lifted up in this neighbourhood because they are so close to other shelters here.”

Naomi Brunemeyer, director of regional development at BC Housing, said the safety of the community and the residents is the Number 1 priority.

“Bringing people indoors benefits both the residents of the surrounding neighbourhood and the residents of the supportive housing. They won’t be outside without a place to go. They won’t be doing drugs in your neighbourhoods because they are actually brought inside,” she said. “As opposed to a shelter that is only operated certain hours, this is people’s homes. They have access to meals. They have training and support services.”

Brunemeyer said the building would have one point of access, would be staffed 24/7, would have security cameras and would incorporate crime prevention through environmental design principles.

“The goal is to keep our residents safe. They are often vulnerable people as well that are preyed upon, and also keep the surrounding community safe,” she said.

John Stark, the city’s supervisor of community planning, said residents had expressed concerns about a modular, supportive housing development before it was built in Queensborough. To address those concerns, he said a community advisory committee was established, but at its last meeting it was suggested the group meet on an as-needed basis because concerns that had been expressed have not materialized. (A similar committee will be established for the Sixth Street building, which is expected to open in late 2023.)

A resident of a nearby highrise said she’s lived in the area for just over two years and does not feel very safe.  As she described her experiences in the area, she was instructed by council to only comment on the proposed housing project and not refer to past experiences that are “unrelated” to this project.

“They are related to each other because it’s all in the same neighbourhood. … My personal experience that I experience on a daily basis is either being followed or being verbally attacked by people on the street. That can be either daytime or nighttime,” she said. “I fear by having the supportive housing go through at Agnes and Sixth it is going to make the situation worse. This is my home. This is my neighbourhood. I do not want to be made to fear going out for a walk. I want to feel safe.”

Project garners support

Supporters of the project argued that providing housing for people would help improve the downtown’s livability and house people who are currently homeless.

“I work downtown; it’s not the nicest place in the world to be right now. But I also know that leaving things as they are is not the solution,” said Brow of the Hill resident Alice Cavanagh. “The Sixth Street project is supportive housing. It includes skills training and opportunities for people. I cannot imagine a way that this is going to make things worse. I certainly see it as a way to make things better. I think this is a good project and the location is available, and the sooner we get people into housing and the sooner these opportunities open up for people, the better for the city.”

Queen’s Park resident David Brett said the issue of homelessness is personal for his family, as one of his children suffered on the streets of New Westminster for the better part of 15 years. He supported the project, with some reservations.

“I don’t think it’s wise to concentrate services for very needy people in the downtown core. This has not worked in the Downtown Eastside,” he said. “There should be a more distributed housing strategy to keep people away from downtown urban centres. That is the best policy.”

Brett said his son now lives in a modular housing complex that’s very similar to the one being proposed downtown. While supportive housing developments are “like a Shangri-La” compared to the offerings of the shelter system, he said they provide limited supports for residents who may have extreme needs.

Some of Brett’s comments about drug use prompted one of the evening’s numerous “points of order” by council members, who urged speakers not to talk about the type of people who would be housed in the development but to focus on the land use being considered.

“I just want you to refrain and make sure we are not making comments about people, not generalizing or stigmatizing individuals that may  be in need or be helped by this housing,” Mayor Jonathan Cote told one resident. “It’s really important to create a safe environment for our public hearing. Please relate to the project at hand and not direct comments towards individuals or residents.”

Brett, however, argued that it’s not stigmatizing people when residents are expressing concerns about the issue of drug use in and around the facility, as it’s one of the root reasons for social housing.

“I don’t feel like we have a purpose in this meeting,” said one area resident. “Our concerns keep getting shut down.”

According to BC Housing officials, the people who will live in this building would be low-income individuals over the age of 19 who already live in the community, have a history of homelessness or are at risk of homelessness, and need supports. The building would be operated by an experienced non-profit operator, would be staffed 24/7 and would includes supports such as meals programs, life skills training, employment skill training, access to health supports and referrals to other community services.

Council unanimously gave third reading to the official community plan and zoning amendment bylaws required for the project to proceed.

“I can’t think of a better location,” said Coun. Patrick Johnstone. “This is an empty lot we have downtown. With the need we have for housing downtown right now, for affordable housing and supportive housing, having a vacant lot just sit there vacant is not something I am comfortable with.”

Coun. Jaimie McEvoy said social problems do have huge impacts, as residents pointed out at the public hearing.

“Homelessness does make people feel unsafe,” he said. “What makes safety? Housing makes safety. There is nowhere in the world where not housing people has made it better; nowhere in the world.”

McEvoy said the whole community benefits when homelessness is addressed. He said the tenants who will be living in the building will need to apply to live there, will be screened and will be required to live by the facility’s requirements.

“We are getting people who need that address to be able to get a job or to join a program,” he said. “I really want to make this point: When it comes to homeless people in New Westminster, we are getting people who already live here. We are getting our neighbours. We are getting people who are already in our neighbourhoods. I think that’s something that’s really important not to lose sight of when we are talking about impact on our neighbourhoods.”

Queensborough housing supported

While the Sixth Street project dominated the discussion at the public hearing, council also considered bylaws related to a 58-unit long-term affordable housing project on city-owned land on Fenton Street in Queensborough. Two residents voiced concerns the project is proposed in an area that doesn’t have adequate infrastructure to support a project of that density.

“We have open ditches on both sides of the street right now. It has a narrow width of roadways because of open ditches There are vehicles parked on both sides, which further reduces the road width,” said Fenton Street resident Chit Vyas. “No sidewalks. Open ditches.”

Vyas noted BC Housing listed transit as one of its main criteria for site selection. Although the road would be reconstructed and sidewalks would be built along the subject property’s frontage, he said that’s not happening on other properties en route to transit services and amenities on Ewen Avenue.

“That does not address the concern of the residents and pedestrians,” he said. “Pedestrians are not going to be limiting their movement to the front of the lot.”

After giving third reading to zoning amendment and official community plan amendment bylaws related to the proposal, council approved a motion by Johnstone to direct staff to report back on strategies for the city to address pedestrian safety and accessibility of the site. Council also approved a motion by McEvoy to have the city begin exploring the possibility of an accessibility network between key sites in Queensborough.

Crisis response

In addition to the two specific housing projects, Monday’s public hearing also dealt with citywide crisis response bylaws that would allow the city to respond more rapidly to projects that address an identified emergency or crisis. This would be done by “pre-approving” specific land uses on publicly owned/leased land that could respond to emergency situations.

Future projects that meet all of the city’s criteria wouldn’t need to go through a rezoning process, but they would still be subject to other city approvals.

The crisis response bylaw amendments would be limited to the following criteria: the property or properties must be owned or under long-term lease by the city, BC Housing or another public agency; the projects must be funded by a government agency; and the projects must be operated by a non-profit society or a public agency. Additionally, the projects must address needs identified through a B.C. public health emergency declaration, a B.C. state of emergency declaration, or be a crisis affecting the Metro Vancouver region that’s publicly recognized by multiple municipalities, including New West.

Brett opposed “this hurry up process” that allows the city to jump at whatever provincial opportunity or grant arises. If anything, he said “more rigorous public consultation” is required in order to get community buy-in for projects.

“A key success factor is neighbourhood acceptance of them, and, if they are seen to be rushed through, neighbourhood acceptance and community acceptance will go down, not up,” he said. “I don’t think shortening the process is necessarily helping the marginalized people it purports to help.”