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New West supports affordable housing project for Indigenous and Swahili communities

More than 70 people spoke at Monday's virtual public hearing
Aboriginal Land Trust housing complex
New West city council suports the Aboriginal Land Trust Society's plan to build a 96-unit apartment building at 823 to 841 Sixth St, which would provide affordable housing for members of the Indigenous and Swahili communities.

In a week where Canadians were horrified to learn that the remains of 215 Indigenous children had been found in unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, the city at the “epicentre” of colonization in B.C. took a step toward reconciliation.

On Monday night, New Westminster city council unanimously supported a zoning amendment and an official community plan (OCP) amendment for the six sites at 823 to 841 Sixth St. That’s where the Aboriginal Land Trust plans to build a 96-unit, six-storey rental building that will provide rental housing for members of the Indigenous and Swahili communities.

Mayor Jonathan Cote said an OCP change isn’t something that should be taken lightly, but he thinks it’s appropriate in this case. He said the proposal is bringing a lot to the community through the provision of affordable housing and is helping the city meet some of its policy goals.

“There are many different paths that reconciliation will take us. I can’t think of a stronger action that we can be taking than to provide the opportunity for Indigenous housing, Indigenous affordable housing, and welcome new Indigenous members into the community,” he said. “This feels like the right project, and it feels like the right time to be supporting this work.”

Coun. Chuck Puchmayr said it’s “long overdue” to be building housing for Indigenous community members.

“We are living in a city that was once only Indigenous, and now it is barely Indigenous,” he said. “The Indigenous communities have been pushed out of New Westminster – the epicentre of colonialism, the first capital of British Columbia.”

Puchmayr said it’s appropriate for the city to amend the OCP to take advantage of an opportunity to create affordable housing. Like other members of council, he acknowledged there will be some impacts on the project’s nearest neighbours.

“I really understand the concern the neighbours bordering this have. I have driven down that lane. I have a friend that lived there – he actually sold his home because of this development. … I understand what their concerns are,” he said. “I feel for those concerns, but I believe the need for this housing outweighs this, so I will support the changing of the OCP.”

Having a say

Council’s support for the affordable housing project came after a four-and-a-half-hour virtual public hearing.

In addition to letters, a petition and online feedback submitted during the consultation process, the city received more than 350 pieces of correspondence at the public hearing. More than 70 people spoke at the hearing, with a majority supporting the application.

Qayqayt First Nation Chief Rhonda Larrabee said she welcomes affordable housing for members of the Indigenous and Swahili communities. She’s looking forward to the day when the Welcome Centre is complete across the street at the new New Westminster Secondary School.

“When the Welcome Centre is complete, Qayqayt First Nation will have an office there,” she said. “I hope that we will be able to meet with people in the community to let them learn about the history, the culture and any questions they may have.”

Speakers cited a wide variety of reasons for supporting the project, including:  providing affordable housing; supporting meaningful work on truth and reconciliation; and creating housing for community members who have the greatest need. Supporters said the project meets at least 18 policy goals in the city’s OCP and supports council’s strategic plan.

Many supporters feel a six-storey building is appropriate at this location because it’s on a main street and is near transit, schools and other amenities.

Tanushree Pillai urged council to take reconciliation into mind when making a decision on this “much-needed” project.

“Especially in light of recent news coming from Kamloops, I think that it is very important that we go ahead and approve something like this,” she said. “We also need more inclusive and family-friendly, especially affordable, housing in the city. As someone who has a family myself, I found it incredibly hard to find a family-friendly unit. I understand how difficult it is for families like us to find something like that. This project will make our city more diverse, and we all know we need diversity in this city.”

Jill Atkey, CEO of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, said renters in New Westminster are facing “significant challenges” with affordability. She said more than one-fifth of renters in New West are spending more than 50% of their pre-tax income on rent, which means that they are forgoing other basic necessities and are at real risk of homelessness.

 “A building like this will literally change the life course for hundreds and hundreds of families lucky enough to call it home over the years,” she said.

Agnes Black urged council to support the proposal in the spirit of truth and reconciliation.

“Our country and our city are walking a path toward truth and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples of Canada. That journey requires each of us to take action,” she said. “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action include language that calls upon all governments to fully adopt and implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation. Justice Murray Sinclair (TRC chair) stated that reconciliation is not a spectator sport; we all have to participate. In addition to Canada’s legacy of taking over Indigenous territories, we must also acknowledge how Black communities have been displaced and marginalized. The official community plan is not carved in stone. Exceptions can be made.”

Project concerns

Council received a petition signed by more than 1,300 residents opposed to amending the OCP.

“All the people who signed the petition or sent a letter should be considered a voice tonight,” said Lana Bordignon. “They are speaking just as much as I am right now. I am asking you, please, to honour the OCP.”

The vast majority of people who oppose the project are concerned about the size of the building, saying a six-storey building is too big to be built next to single-family homes. They suggested the applicant should bring forward a proposal for a two- or three-storey project, or find a location elsewhere in the city where that size of building is contemplated in the OCP.

Residents opposing the project told council they support reconciliation and affordable housing, but the building’s height and density are too extreme for the Sixth Street location. The other major concern cited by residents relates to the safety of providing access to the new building via the narrow lane between Fifth and Sixth streets, as it’s only wide enough to accommodate one moving vehicle at a time.

Other residents worry the OCP amendment could set a precedent for changes in neighbourhoods throughout the city, while some voiced concerns about parking, loss of privacy and shadowing caused by six-storey building.

Some residents were disheartened about being labelled as “NIMBYs” or “racists” because they don’t support construction of a six-storey apartment beside single-family homes.

Ellen Vaillancourt requested that council reject the proposal and ask the applicant to consider other locations in city that conform with the OCP or revise the plan so it conforms with the land-use designation at the Sixth Street location.

“I am deeply troubled by the divisiveness that this process and the current proposal has elicited among the community, and how it’s turned into a matter of racism, NIMBYism or white privilege directed particularly to those who have spoken out against this development proposal,” she said. “Indeed, it contravenes the very spirit of the truth and reconciliation commission. Were this development more in keeping with the OCP … this would not even be an issue.”

Don Hauka said the OCP is a “living document,” but he urged council not to “rip the heart out of it.”

“I really feel that this is a good project, but it is not in the right place. It is in the wrong place,” he said. “You can’t put a project of this size in the midst of a single-family residential neighbourhood, with the only street access down a single-lane dead-end alley, especially when there are other sites within the city that could accommodate this type of development and have the proper OCP designation.”

Here’s a few additional sound bites from the public hearing:

Mayor Jonathan Cote:  “No form of discrimination is acceptable or tolerated. We will all take responsibility to create a safe, inclusive environment for everyone to participate. Members of council and senior staff may call point-of-order if a speaker’s language is not respectful. The chair may mute the speaker and ask that their language be adjusted before continuing. Comments that include criticisms or attacks on other people are considered discriminatory and are not allowed. Comments should be accurate and direct. Let us know whether you are in support or opposed, or how the project affects you.” (This message was repeated several times at the hearing.)

Andrew Adams: “I had to leave New West because I couldn’t afford to live there anymore. … I was able to find a nonprofit building in the Fraser Valley. It’s been absolutely life changing for me.”

Jill Atkey, CEO of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association: “The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples holds that governments should take effective and special measures to advance the economic and social conditions of Indigenous Peoples. This project offers the city a way of doing just that through a by-Indigenous for-Indigenous solution. “

David Black: “I appreciate that there are some people, some neighbours, who don’t want this in their back yard. …Those are real concerns. Those are legitimate concerns. However, when you weight those concerns, those legitimate concerns, against the Overwhelming need for this type of housing at this time, at a location like this, at the affordability that this offers, I think the decision is clear.”

Irina Bobovski: “Next year is the election year. Many residents will have a great memory of how this process goes.”

Lana Bordignon:  “It is just going to create a traffic nightmare in the area.”

Donatella Clignon: “I am not a racist as the proponents of the development continue to propagate. That said, I do not support the development as currently proposed. The reason is simple logistics. It is safety.”

Mark Fox: “Shouldn’t everyone have access to affordable housing?”

Don Hauka: “You have to decide whether or not this policy of social housing actually outweighs all the (OCP) decision-making we took part in 2017, and longer; whether that is more important than the consultative process and the official community plan. And moreover, the practical safety and traffic concerns raised by the overwhelming majority of area and Glenbrook North residents.”

Lynn Hoskins: “I have multiple concerns about what the size of the project would do to the neighbourhood. Put simply: the proposed project is big and doesn’t blend in.”

Alex Johnson: “If this proposed development was only three storeys, I certainly wouldn’t be here speaking in opposition to this project.”

Kathy McLellan: “The project is … only under consideration because it is for affordable housing to provide homes for members of the Indigenous and Swahili communities. If this was a proposal for any other use, we would not be here discussing it tonight. The special circumstance attached to the proposal makes it very difficult, and perhaps emotional, for members of council.”

Lily Nichol:  “Housing is becoming less and less affordable. Affordable housing projects such as this are integral to our community. This project is an opportunity for meaningful action toward accessible and affordable housing, reconciliation, diversity, inclusion and in advancing the city’s environmental goals. We can talk about projects, bylaws and community plans all day long, but at the end of the day the thing to focus on is this: Neighbourhoods are meant to be flexible. They are meant to expand and change to ensure that housing is available.”

Gabe Pidcock: “I am an Indigenous person. I identify as Métis. I am a resident of Glenbrook North. I enthusiastically support the proposed development. It’s in line with the OCP. It’s in line with our values of reconciliation and decolonization.”

Elliot Rossiter: “The most recent homeless count in Metro Vancouver shows that those who  identify as Indigenous and those who identify as Black are significantly over-represented in groups that face homelessness and housing insecurity, relative to their share of the general population. Indeed, the wait list for Lu'ma Native Housing Society, one of the partners of this project, has over 5,000 individuals.”

Deanna Tan: “It’s not a question of whether or not the city should support affordable housing, but where. This block of Sixth Street is absolutely the right location for these homes.”

Katey Wright: “I would be overjoyed to welcome my new neighbours. I want the city to shed its colonial skin and be a modern, curious, embracing, compassionate, humanistic and equitable 21st century city that it can be, a city that I can be proud of.”

Follow Theresa McManus on Twitter @TheresaMcManus
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