These are my closing comments from the public hearing for Fire Hall #1 and Affordable Housing.

Something really remarkable happened at our City Council meeting last week. Or rather, it’s what didn’t happen that is remarkable and it gives me hope for the future of affordable housing developments in our city.

Last Thursday we held a public hearing for a new fire hall, 130 units of affordable housing for people living on very low, low, and moderate incomes to be run by Pacifica Housing and three additional market condo buildings. The proposed development borders Yates, Johnson and Cook.

Harris Green project photo
New Fire Hall #1, commercial space and 130 units of affordable housing on Johnson up from Cook.

The Council Chambers were packed. For some, it was a controversial development proposal because of the substantial amount of new density and height proposed on what is now a parking lot and one-story car dealership.

But the remarkable thing is that it wasn’t controversial because of the proposed affordable housing. In fact, it was quite the opposite. From Pacifica tenants, to business people, to students, to neighbours, person after person came up to the microphone and talked about how much needed this affordable housing is and how Council should support it.

It was only about halfway through the hearing that I realized something really special was happening. At every other public hearing we’ve held on new proposed affordable housing developments, there are people who come out and express their opposition precisely because of the affordable housing.

“We don’t need more housing of that kind in this neighbourhood.” “The crime in the neighbourhood is going to go up.” “This is a family neighbourhood.” And once, someone came and insinuated that all poor people are pedophiles and that there shouldn’t be affordable housing overlooking an elementary school. It’s gotten pretty nasty.

But last Thursday there was no discrimination expressed towards low-income people who need housing. Why was it different this time?

It could be because we’re starting to realize as a community that it’s good for everyone if people have the housing they need. There are at least 300 people sleeping outside in our city every night. And this is even with some of the seasonal shelters starting to open.

When people live outside they are vulnerable, get sick more easily, die younger, and have a terrible quality of life – not to mention the stigma and ill-will they face as people walk past them taking down their tents in the morning, or sitting with all their belongings on the sidewalk with nowhere to go. It’s good for all of us if people get the housing they need.

The other thing that was different, as was pointed out by one of the speakers, is the unique three-way partnership between a private sector developer, BC Housing, and Pacifica Housing. The developer is building the building. BC Housing is buying it. And Pacifica will own and operate it. So maybe the fact that all the parties are delivering the project together, based on their own unique expertise makes this different than a non-profit housing provider going it alone.

It was a watershed moment. And I hope we turned a page as a community that evening in terms of how we think about and talk about affordable housing, because there’s a lot more affordable housing to come. The Regional Housing First Program still has 1100 more units to build. The City of Victoria is buying land to partner to build housing. And the provincial government will be rolling out more money for housing in the spring.

All this housing is a good thing. One of the most poignant presenters at the hearing on Thursday was the Housing Placement Coordinator at Pacifica Housing. She told us that there are over 300 people on her wait list, that every day she has to say no to someone, and it’s heartbreaking. “This building,” she said, “is 130 yeses to the people on my wait list.”

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