Two housing developments and bylaws aimed at allowing the city to be nimble and quickly respond to crises are heading to public hearing in December.
New Westminster is bundling together a series of actions aimed at providing a quick response to emergencies or crises:
* A 52-unit supportive housing project at 60 to 68 Sixth St. BC Housing has purchased the site and is proposing to build a four-storey modular housing building that is staffed 24/7 and includes supports for adults who are at-risk of or experiencing homelessness, such as meals programs, life skills training, employment skill training, access to health supports and referrals to other community services. It requires a rezoning and an amendment to the official community plan.
* A 58-unit long-term affordable housing project on city-owned land at 350 to 366 Fenton St. in Queensborough. In partnership with the Vancouver Native Housing Society, the city is working on a non-market affordable housing project for Indigenous individuals. This project would require a rezoning and an amendment to the official community plan. (A grant submission of about $32 million has been made, which would cover 100% of the project’s capital costs.)
* Bylaw amendments 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 these emergency situations.
On Nov. 15, council gave second reading to several bylaws as part of these initiatives, including zoning amendment bylaws and official community plan amendment bylaws. The city will hold a public hearing on all of these items on Dec. 6.
What’s the rush?
A Nov. 15 report to council stated there are “several imminent funding opportunities” by senior levels of government that would contribute to the affordable and supportive housing projects on Fenton Street in Queensborough and on Sixth Street in downtown.
“The tight timelines associated with these grant applications and resulting condensed public engagement phase by the city on these three projects, reflect the understanding by all levels of government that the homelessness and affordable housing crises have been exacerbated by the global pandemic,” said the report. “Should the projects receive funding, it would be significant investment into New Westminster in support of affordable housing for some of our vulnerable populations.”
According to the report, future projects that meet all of the criteria wouldn’t need to go through a rezoning, but they would still be subject to other city approvals.
Emilie Adin, the city’s director of climate action, planning and development, recently provided council with an overview of the crisis response bylaw amendments that have been bundled together with goal of fast-tracking the city’s review processes.
Adin said the last two years have been “quite extraordinary” and have included major fires in the city, a global pandemic, a number of extreme weather events brought on by climate change, a worsening of the homelessness crisis and the opioid overdose emergency.
According to Adin, New Westminster’s zoning and official community plan bylaws don’t allow the city to quickly respond to some needs, such as allowing a cooling centre (due to a heat wave) or an air centre (due to extreme wildfire smoke) to set up in a commercial building where institutional uses aren’t permitted. They also don’t allow a rapid testing or vaccination clinic or emergency care beds to operate temporarily in a repurposed industrial warehouse.
“There are a number of federal and provincial funding opportunities that have been emerging recently,” she added. “That is another key issue in our consideration. We have seen, for example, tight timelines for things like the rapid housing initiative.”
The crisis response bylaw amendments being proposed in New Westminster 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 decoration, or be a crisis affecting the Metro Vancouver region that’s publicly recognized by multiple municipalities, including New West.
Crisis amendment bylaws
Staff first presented the crisis amendment bylaw proposal to council for its consideration on Sept. 15. A Nov. 15 report to council summarized the public feedback the city has received about the “separate but closely related projects” that are being bundled together.
On the issue of creating city-wide crisis response bylaws, the city received feedback from some people who support the ability for the city to better respond to future emergency or time-sensitive needs.
“Strongly support potential city wide bylaw amendments to allow more rapid response on projects meeting specific criteria and addressing an identified emergency or crisis,” read one response.
Others expressed concern about the bundling of projects, saying that the citywide bylaws were overshadowed by the individual projects in Queensborough and downtown.
“This not required. This is political power grab, leave the process as is,” read another comment.
Sixth Street housing
The prosomal for supportive housing at 60 to 68 Sixth St. garnered a variety of comments, including some who supported the development, saying it would respond to the region’s housing crisis and would help address the need for affordable housing in New West.
“I am strongly in favour of this project. Supportive housing is one of the best ways of helping people in our community. Doing this downtown, close to services and transportation options is ideal,” said one comment. “I’m not sure how much more needs to be said, but supportive housing for people is a way better use of this space than an empty lot. Let’s help our under-housed neighbours by providing this necessary supportive housing! The only thing I would change about this is its size – if you can make it bigger to help more people find housing, that would be ideal.”
The city also heard from community members voicing a variety of concerns about the project, such as: tenant behaviours (inside and outside the building); and placement of the housing in an area that’s close to a cannabis store, liquor stores, daycares, schools and existing shelters and transition housing.
“Concerns were raised that this development would be an unfair burden on those who live in close proximity to the development with respect to litter and crime,” said the report. “Comments were made that the downtown neighbourhood already has a high concentration of services and housing for vulnerable populations, and this project would exacerbate nuisance activities.”
Fenton Street housing
While the Sixth Street project is a new opportunity for the city, Adin said council supported the Fenton Street project in-principle in October 2019.
“We are now looking at a slightly larger site,” she noted. “There is an opportunity for a 58-unit Indigenous housing project in partnership with the Vancouver Native Housing Society. That is four or five city-owned lots that we would be looking at, and looking at CMHC funding.”
Some community members indicated they’re “fully supportive” of the project and would welcome it with open arms.
Other community members, however, expressed concern about potential impacts that a three-storey building would have on the single-family neighbourhood, property values and pedestrian safety.
Others questioned the city’s plan for covering the ditches, providing sidewalks and improving street lighting on Fenton Street. Staff said the proposed project would complete adjacent sidewalks, road paving, ditch infill and electrical servicing (including lighting).
Staff first brought the crisis response bylaw amendments to council for its consideration on Sept. 13, the same night it approved the development of a new homelessness strategy.
At the time, Mayor Jonathan Cote said the city needs to take its time doing “thoughtful public policy work” such as a homelessness strategy, but it also needs to be able to react quickly to crises.
“There are emergencies hitting us left, right and centre right now, and we need to be able to be nimble and flexible and to work as a local government to address emerging issues,” he said.
Coun. Jaimie McEvoy said the global pandemic has demonstrated the need to be able to move quickly and effectively to respond to people’s needs.
“What a time: fires; wildfires; smoke; climate emergency; deadly heat wave; overdose crisis; global pandemic; homelessness. And every one of those problems builds on the other problems, and they interact with each other,” he said. “I don’t think there is anybody who doesn’t think that we need to look at enhancing our preparedness and our ability to respond to a crisis.”
With Record files