No Room for Bullying or Harassment at VicPD or Anywhere

The last few days have been difficult for me personally.

As Co-Chair of the Victoria Police Board with Mayor Barb Desjardins, I was legally required under the Police Act to oversee an internal investigation into the misconduct of Ex-Chief of Police Frank Elsner. Mayors are not legal experts, so we sought legal advice and hired an investigator, who the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner endorsed.

Two days ago, Police Complaint Commissioner, Stan Lowe, released a report on our efforts and the subsequent external investigation. This report contains an important recommendation for the Province to amend the Police Act, which I strongly support, but the report also unfairly calls into question my character and the character of Mayor Desjardins.

At this point, I would simply like to say three things:

  1. We followed the advice given by our legal counsel at each step along the way.
  2. We have serious concerns over the OPCC report as it relates to the process we followed and the board will be addressing these with the Solicitor General.
  3. Most importantly, the Victoria Police Board and Chief are committed to being proactive to ensure bullying and harassment are not tolerated and that there is always a safe reporting environment.

One of the most upsetting elements of this whole situation is the insinuation that I would protect a man engaged in bullying and harassment. I have been working on women’s issues and women’s rights since I was 15 years old. To suggest we were planning to ignore the allegations brought forward by female members of VicPD is simply untrue. It makes no sense. And to those who know me, it’s just not plausible.

In closing, this process has been difficult not just for the women and men at VicPD and myself and Mayor Desjardins, but it has also been difficult for all of Victoria and for police departments everywhere. When people in positions of power and authority abuse the trust of the public, it can take a long time for those affected to heal. That is my priority now as we move forward.

Lessons Learned and Looking Forward

A Victoria resident recently read my re-election website which begins with the sentence, “I have learned a lot over the past term.” He suggested that it would be a good idea to say a bit more: “What have you learned? And what would you do differently going forward.” I welcome the opportunity.

In The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama says, “There are many different angles. When you look at the same event from a wider perspective, your sense of worry and anxiety reduces, and you have a greater joy.”

The key lesson I’ve learned this past term is that we can have a more joyful politics and more joyful city if City Hall looked at the world from the perspective of citizens and businesses, not only from the perspective of City Hall.

This lesson was a real wake up call for me as I come from a neighbourhood background. I was that highly engaged neighbourhood person frustrated that City Hall was too slow, or not taking neighbourhoods seriously.

And now, seven years later, I better understand the complex challenges of striking a reasoned balance between the needs and wants of neighbourhoods and the overarching responsibility that City Hall has to ensure that broad community is prepared not only for today but also for the future. Direction-setting and decision-making in a democracy is difficult and important work. We are all in this together, and we all need to listen and learn from each other and be willing to adapt –  in our neighbourhoods and businesses and at City Hall.

Looking Back

Here are three stories.

Gonzales Neighbourhood Plan

Fairfield had been asking City Hall for a new Neighbourhood Plan for years. And so at the beginning of this term, when Council revised the timing of the neighbourhood planning process,  we listened. And then, because they are lumped together in the City’s planning process as “Fairfield-Gonzales” we began a planning process that involved both neighbourhoods.

We heard very early on at the beginning of the process from the neighbourhood that they wanted two separate planning processes led by two separate groups of neighbourhood residents – one for Gonzales and one for Fairfield. So we supported two separate groups of residents in coming together. But the big mistake we made right at the beginning was to assume that Gonzales also wanted a new neighbourhood plan.

We could have done a bit more exploration with the Gonzales neighbourhood, using the award winning 2002 planning process as a basis. We could have asked what elements of the 2002 plan were working and what needed updating. From the perspective of many neighbourhood residents, this would have been a much better place to begin the conversation than City Hall encouraging a new neighbourhood plan for Gonzales just because Fairfield was ready for one.

Fort Street Bike Lanes

When we built the Pandora bike lanes, after consultation with key stakeholders, there was general support from the businesses on the street. We engaged with the business on Pandora in a way that seemed to meet their needs – let them know about the lanes going in, asked for and responded to feedback on the detailed design – making changes as needed and adjusted the construction schedule around the businesses needs, particularly when it came to no construction during the holiday shopping season.

When we began consultation on Fort Street, we assumed that the same engagement process would work. We didn’t take into account the far higher density of businesses on Fort Street compared to Pandora, and we didn’t consider that businesses on Fort Street would have different needs than businesses on Pandora. And so, looking from the perspective of City Hall, we did the same engagement process on Fort that we did on Pandora and assumed it would be appropriate. But it wasn’t. These were different businesses with different ideas and our consultation process would have been greatly improved if we had recognized that earlier.

In the end, we adapted our approach. Our initial City Hall perspective was too narrow. Going forward, we’ve learned from our experience on Fort Street and have done detailed work with the businesses along Wharf and Humboldt Street, where the next two lanes are to be built.

Central Park

For the past two years, City Hall has been working with the community to design a new swimming pool and wellness centre to replace the Crystal Pool. We’ve been doing engagement all along the way – at the pool, in workshops, at community events and at detailed reporting out sessions that have been well-attended. We’ve been taking feedback and revising the design accordingly so that citizen input has literally shaped the facility.  At the detailed design stage, 80% of people surveyed support the design of the new pool.

Looking from the perspective of City Hall, we were singularly focused on the pool. I can see why. This was our first big project after the Johnson Street Bridge and we didn’t want a repeat performance. We wanted to get this project perfect. We wanted to be ready for the funding applications from senior levels of government, get our application in immediately and get the project built, as every month of not building escalates the cost by about $400,000 just because of the market conditions here. All good motivations.

But what we failed to do, is to look from the perspective of the community members that live around the pool and see that the pool is also in the park. It’s their neighbourhood park. Being singularly focused on the pool meant that we didn’t do engagement on the park. It’s always been planned for “after the pool project has reached detailed design”. But again, that’s from City Hall’s perspective. The pool is in the park. If we’d taken a broader perspective, we would have seen clearly that park engagement was important to do alongside pool engagement. We would have adapted our approach.

Looking Forward

Since January I’ve been working with a wide diversity of citizens and members of the business community to develop a 2018-2022 four year plan. The very premise of the plan is this lesson learned: we must look first and foremost from the perspective of the community. And we must draw on the energy, intelligence and goodwill of our citizens and our business community and create the city, all together.

We must do this in order to meet all the challenges and seize all the opportunities facing us. We must do this in order to ensure that even as Victoria grows and changes it remains recognizable as Victoria, as the city we all love. And, most importantly, we must do this in order to have a more joyful city, where through the projects we do together, we strengthen relationships, build trust and create a stronger social fabric.

Comprehensive Approach Needed to Public Safety, Mental Health, and Addictions

There are people living on the streets of Victoria who struggle with mental health and addictions. I’ve learned that these conditions are often a result of childhood trauma or brain injuries. Although we don’t have verifiable data, there seems to be an increasing number of people in this situation. Their challenges are highly visible and can show up unexpectedly. This can leave some members of the public feeling threatened which isn’t good for anyone – not for those seen as threatening or those feeling threatened.

Addressing homelessness, mental health, and addictions present complex challenges for everyone. This situation isn’t good for the people on the streets who need medical care and attention; if they had a broken arm they would be receiving treatment in a hospital. It isn’t good for other local residents. It isn’t good for business owners. And it’s putting a real strain on frontline workers and on our police officers.

Over the last four years, I’ve frequently spoken with people living on the streets, with residents of affected neighbourhoods, business owners, service providers, and police officers. I’ve listened to many perspectives.

When people struggling with mental health or addictions want to change their life – when they want to get off the street – there is almost nowhere for them to go. They can join a long waitlist for housing or enroll in 30-day treatment with no guarantee of stability or support afterward. Some end up in prison, but when they are released, they are released back onto the street. Some go to hospitals but, again, they are released right back onto the streets. It’s a cycle that’s very hard to break.

Some people in Victoria walk down Pandora or Johnson Streets on a regular basis or take their kids to the Victoria Conservatory of Music, and they feel nervous. It’s not because they think anyone is fundamentally bad but because the situation seems so dire. And also the behaviour they see is unfamiliar to them. They want to feel safe and they want their kids to feel safe.

Our local business community also has a great deal of compassion for people living on our streets; I hear this all the time. Many donate to community organizations. Some let people sleep in their doorways or outside their shops. But it’s also hard to run a business when there are needles, feces and other things that often need to be cleaned up in the mornings. Female staff sometimes don’t feel safe leaving work late at night. Business owners are really frustrated.

Frontline workers are out there working as hard as they can to address all the issues. They’ve witnessed way too many overdoses and deaths. Each time they administer Naloxone they save a life. But there seems like no end in sight to the problem and they are feeling really burnt out.

Our Vic PD officers are out on the streets 24-7. They know most of the people on the streets by name. The police are doing everything they can to help, which sometimes includes preventing a suicide or administering Naloxone. Some of the officers are part of the ACT Teams that work with health care professionals and others to try to help. They’re under-resourced most of the time, responding call to call with many stacked calls waiting. They need more officers and their members are feeling the stress and burnout of working in this really difficult situation.

This situation on our streets clearly isn’t good for anyone. The status quo is unsupportable, unaffordable, and ineffective. If the solutions were easy, the problem would be solved by now. Thankfully there are solutions underway and a more comprehensive approach to come.

Here’s what’s already underway:

  • The opening of the Therapeutic Recovery Centre in View Royal this fall will provide treatment and recovery to a cohort of 50 of the region’s most vulnerable residents. They’ll stay there for 18-24 months and work through the root causes of their addictions. When they come out they will have housing and employment and be on a strong recovery pathway. We know this model works because it has been operating for 40 years at San Patrignano in Italy. BC Housing recently purchased Woodwynn Farms in Central Saanich and plans to run a similar program there, with housing provided offsite.
  • Thanks to the leadership of Inspector Scott McGregor at VicPD, BC Housing, Pacifica, Island Health, and City Bylaw teamed up to create the Housing Action Response Team (HART). Based on a successful model from Seattle this team works with the most vulnerable people camped in public spaces to assist them in getting the help and shelter they need. In the first six months of HART over 20 people have been housed and received the supports they need to move towards recovery.
  • Starting in 2015 and reinvigorated this spring, I’ve lead the Pandora Task Force to address the situation on the 900-block of Pandora. Meeting monthly at the Victoria Conservatory of Music, I’ve facilitated a group of residents, business owners, service providers, city staff, the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network and VicPD. We will be bringing forward proposals based on best practices from elsewhere as part of the 2019 budgeting process to make the 900-block of Pandora safe and welcoming for all.
  • In 2018, the Victoria-Esquimalt Police Board requested six additional officers. I along with four of my colleagues at Victoria Council supported the addition of these officers – the first new officers proposed to be added since 2010. Esquimalt Council did not support the addition of the officers as they did not feel it fit the policing framework agreement between our two communities. The matter has been handed to the Province to make a ruling. We must resolve this issue because while new police officers on the street can’t solve any of the problems above on their own, they are part of the solution.

But what’s really needed is a comprehensive overhaul of the way mental health and addictions resources are spent in the Capital Region. Working together as a region in the past four years we’ve done this with housing. We have the Regional Affordability Strategy, the $90-million Regional Housing First Program, and a Community Plan created by the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness. We know how the money needs to be spent to most effectively to address chronic homelessness. And our approach here in the region has been recognized provincially and nationally. We must take the same comprehensive approach with mental health and addictions.

In the next term, working in partnership with the Province, we will ensure that money spent on addressing mental health and addictions in our region gets people the supports and services they need—at whatever stage or phase of their mental health or addiction—from prevention to recovery.

We’ll begin by co-convening a Regional Mayor’s Task Force on Mental Health and Addictions with one mayor from the Core, one mayor from the Westshore and one mayor from the Peninsula. It’s not only in the City of Victoria that people need access to treatment. That teenager in Colwood or the injured worker addicted to opioids on the Peninsula need help in their home communities before they end up on Pandora Avenue.

The task force will be co-chaired by the three mayors and comprised of staff from Island Health, staff from the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, service providers, members of the business community, police, bylaw, and people with lived experience of mental health and addictions. The scope of work for the task force will be to quantify the problem and the cost regionally and to develop a business case for solving it.

We will implement a new approach to mental health and addictions prevention and treatment in the region and regularly evaluate and share results, and continuously improve the approach based on feedback.

This will be good for the people living on the street who can’t get the help they need and it will be good for the people who will never have to end up on the street. It will take some of the pressure off frontline workers and police, and it will ensure that our streets are welcoming, inclusive places for everyone.

Overdose Awareness Day

Today, Victoria will recognize Overdose Awareness Day from 4:00 to 8:00 pm with a gathering in Centennial Square. Organized by the South Island Community Overdose Response Network (SICORN), this event will provide an opportunity for the community to come together and remember those we’ve lost, and to educate ourselves to prevent future loss of life.

Addiction is not something we can end for others. Anyone who has experienced addiction, or loved ones struggling with addiction, knows that the strength to beat it must come from within. What we can end is addiction stigma.

We can help others get the care and support they need, but only when we know they are struggling. As a society, we believe that addiction is always visible. In Victoria, where issues of homelessness, mental health, and addictions are frequently intertwined, this perception is especially true.

But there’s much more to addiction than what we can see around us. Addiction is different for every single person and it’s often invisible to everyone but the person struggling. The largest barrier to aid for people struggling with addiction is the stigma that makes them feel like they can’t tell anyone what they are going through.

Many are unable to seek help from their employers for fear of losing their job. Many are unable to speak to their friends for fear of being ostracized. And many are unable to even speak to their families—their parents, their children—for fear of disappointing those they love most.

We can’t expect to solve addiction. We can expect to solve stigma, and we can do it now.

Nearly 4,000 Canadians died from opioid-related deaths in 2017 and over a third of those deaths took place in B.C. These numbers will continue to climb if we don’t take action together.

Our task is simple but difficult to achieve: we have to change the way we think and talk about addiction because that will change the way we act. We simply cannot continue to criminalize people suffering from addiction. We have to treat addiction like any other medical condition, and that means providing access to care.

While we work together to redefine addiction—in our conversations, in our laws, and in our hearts—please join me today in Centennial Square to let everyone struggling with addiction know, “We see you. We are here for you. You don’t need to fight this battle alone anymore.”

Reconciliation is a learning process for us all

This article was first published in the Times Colonist August 29, 2018, 12:17 AM.

Reconciliation with Indigenous communities is an important undertaking in Canada today. What reconciliation looks like, and how we build trust in order to move forward to create a future of equal opportunity and respect, is an uncharted journey guided largely by respect and a willingness to listen, to learn and to try.

To take action on reconciliation,  city council created the city family, a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous members appointed in June 2017. The city family is a body of council and reports to council.

When city council voted to endorse the city family’s decision to relocate the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald from the steps of city hall and expressed a desire to work with the community to find a more appropriate public space for it, I knew that council had made the right decision. And I still think that today.

But now that I have had time to reflect on the process, I feel the need to explain some things that have weighed heavily on my mind.

As mayor of Victoria, I apologize for not recognizing that the city family’s process might make some people feel excluded from such an important decision. I didn’t recognize the great desire of Victoria residents to participate in reconciliation actions. The process going forward will enable this.

Reconciliation means following Indigenous leadership. It means listening carefully to how symbols and monuments that might be meaningful to many can create barriers for others. And it also means being in dialogue and creating opportunities for true learning and conversation among Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. But it is complex, and so we will make mistakes as we navigate and try to walk this road together.

I made a public commitment to bring the wishes of council and the public for a wider community conversation about reconciliation and a new location for the statue to the city family. I will do this. I have also arranged a meeting with the John A. Macdonald Society and invited the statue’s sculptor, John Dann. These conversations are also important steps in the reconciliation process.

I do not speak for the whole city family — I am but one member — but I can explain from my point of view why the statue needed to be removed from the steps of city hall even though we had not yet selected a site to publicly relocate it.

This action was not, as many news articles have suggested, a symbolic or empty gesture. The statue in its original location was a barrier to Indigenous communities’ engagement with city hall. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls upon all levels of government to engage with Indigenous Peoples on reconciliation action. Without relocating the statue, we were not able to invite First Nations to city hall in good faith and respect.

Reconciliation needs to take place in the real world, not just in our hearts.

Macdonald shaped one of the greatest nations and strongest democracies in the world. When we look around the world today, we have a lot to be thankful for. Moving the statue does not erase this history.

The statue’s relocation to a more appropriate public place — and all the conversations that have taken place and will continue to take place — only serve to broaden our understanding of Canadian history.

It’s time to move forward together.

As we work through the process of reconciliation as a community, with the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations on whose homeland the city was built, we have the opportunity to create a more welcoming, inclusive city for everyone. And this is something I’ve heard loud and clear that all Victorians value.

Reconciliation and Removal of John A. MacDonald Statue from Steps of City Hall

Screenshot 2018-08-08 07.45.13

In 2017 the City of Victoria began a formal process of reconciliation with the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations, the Lekwungen speaking peoples on whose homeland the City is founded. When the City first approached the Nations, it was in a very colonial way, asking them to sit on a “reconciliation task force.” Through conversation we learned that a more Indigenous-focused approach would be a better way to proceed if we were sincere in wanting to pursue truth and reconciliation. In response, we formed a City Family and began a Witness Reconciliation Program.

Council set this process in motion through approval of the Witness Reconciliation Program in June 2017. As part of this process, decision making with regards to reconciliation (other than budgetary allocations) are made by the City Family with the Songhees and Esquimalt Chief and Councils as witnesses. Witnesses, in Lekwungen tradition, listen to the story of the family and give their input and guidance to find a good way forward.

Part of the conceptual framework endorsed by Council in June 2017 included the following language:

“For the City to do more than talk about Reconciliation, we must be prepared to question convention, learn from Indigenous custom and tradition, and risk doing things differently than our usual routines and processes. Our comfortable reliance on terms of reference, timelines, work plans, benchmarks, checklists and other conventional assessments of success and progress will not add value or meaning to this work, move it forward, or demonstrate our readiness to face and embrace the challenges of Reconciliation.”

This language in the June 2017 report outlined what might be considered a decision-making process:

“After each Witness Ceremony is complete, and the advice of the Witnesses offered and heard, the City Family will facilitate the actions needed to realize the ideas endorsed by the Witnesses.”

The City Family has been gathering since the summer of 2017. We gather once a month in my office at City Hall and share food and conversation. One time, recently, I suggested to the family that perhaps we could “come to you” and meet at the Esquimalt Nation or the Songhees Nation. Hereditary Chief Ed Thomas gently pointed out, “You don’t need to come to us. You are always already on our territory.” This is just one example of the many humbling and generous truth-tellings that has been shared during the process.

After a year of discussion, deliberation, truth-sharing, and seeking counsel from the Songhees and Esquimalt Chiefs and Councils on multiple occasions, the family decided on the first concrete action we would like to take as we continue the path of truth and reconciliation. We will remove the statue of Sir John A. MacDonald from the front doors of city hall so that the family members and other Indigenous people do not need to walk past this painful reminder of colonial violence each time they enter the doors of their municipal government.

In addition to being the first Prime Minister of Canada, John A. MacDonald was a key architect of the Indian Residential School system. In 1879 he said, “When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

I am ashamed to say that I have an undergraduate degree in Canadian history, a master’s in Canadian history and a half-completed PhD in Canadian history. It is not until we began this Witness Reconciliation Program that I learned about the role that Canada’s first prime minister played in developing residential schools, the effects of which are well known to be still felt today both by school attendees and their children and grandchildren.

The statue will be removed and stored in a city facility until an appropriate way to recontextualize MacDonald is determined. We do not propose to erase history but rather to take the time through the process of truth-telling and reconciliation as part of the Witness Reconciliation Program to tell this complex and painful chapter of Canadian history in a thoughtful way.

Members of the City Family have worked together to craft this language that will go on a plaque where the current statue stands. The witnesses – the Chiefs and Councils of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations – have provided their input and approved the final wording:

In 2017, the City of Victoria began a journey of Truth and Reconciliation with the Lekwungen peoples, the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations, on whose territories the city stands. 

 The members of the City Family – part of the City’s Witness Reconciliation Program – have determined that to show progress on the path of reconciliation the City should remove the statue of Sir John A. MacDonald from the front doors of City Hall, while the City, the Nations and the wider community grapple with MacDonald’s complex history as both the first Prime Minister of Canada and a leader of violence against Indigenous Peoples.

 The statue is being stored safely in a city facility. We will keep the public informed as the Witness Reconciliation Program unfolds, and as we find a way to recontextualize MacDonald in an appropriate way.  For more information please visit www.victoria.ca/reconciliation

The statue will be removed on Saturday August 11th and the plaque installed immediately. After an appropriate amount of time has passed (as determined by Elders from the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations) a cleansing, blessing and healing ceremony will be held in the space where the statue formerly stood. In the longer term, as determined by motion of Council in late 2016, a piece of art representative of Lekwungen culture will likely go in this space.

For the full City Family Story and documents that will be presented to Committee of the Whole tomorrow please head here and see item I3.

We are all voting for Central Park

Parks-CentralPark

I was walking in my neighbourhood this evening and saw signs up that said, “We’re voting Central Park” and fears of loss of green space. There is nothing to fear! At a July 19th Committee of the Whole meeting I made a motion that Council passed unanimously directing staff to come up with a plan for the new Crystal Pool that will result in no net loss of green space. Staff are now working on this and will report back to Council and the public in September.

Just like we did recently with Topaz Park, to much community acclaim, we will do a detailed, and community-centred consultation on the future of Central Park beginning in early 2019. We understand the strong connection that residents have with the existing park amenities. Along with building Victoria’s new aquatic and wellness centre, we will also be renewing the park; this has been the plan all along. During construction we will work to preserve as many of the park features as we can.

The Crystal Pool and Fitness Center is an important piece of Victoria’s history. It is a community hub and one of Victoria’s oldest and most frequently used recreation facilities. Unfortunately it is now reaching the end of its life and requires significant investment to meet current building, seismic and accessibility standards. Council asked staff to do a feasibility study in 2016, reviewing three options: to upgrade, refurbish or replace the ageing facility. After extensive analysis of the existing service gaps and long-term needs of the community, in February 2017 Council unanimously approved the replacement of the existing building with a new, barrier-free recreation centre.

December 2016 Crystal Pool Feasibility Staff Report
February 2017 Crystal Pool Feasibility Study Staff Report Follow Up

Today, one in five residents can’t access the Crystal Pool due to the split-level design which limits access for persons with disabilities including mobility impairments. The new facility will welcome all ages and abilities through a design that removes barriers to participation. This universally-accessible recreation centre will feature a 50m pool, universal and inclusive change rooms, an expanded fitness area, better spaces for events and programs, a welcoming community space, and public washrooms for park users.

The new facility is anticipated to see an increase in annual visits by 35%. Over the past year and a half, we’ve been focused on engaging citizens, meeting stakeholder groups and working with technical experts and other partners to first design and then to refine the design of the facility. In June, we presented schematic designs for the facility to the community at public Open House sessions and the City received feedback from the community through an online survey; 80% of people who participated expressed support for the facility design.

Screenshot 2018-07-31 21.35.06

The investment required for the new facility is significant and the City has committed $10 million from its Building and Infrastructure Fund towards the $69.4 million budget and we have the ability to fund up to 33% of the project with city resources should this be necessary. We are also seeking funding from external sources including other levels of government. In February, the Union of B.C. Municipalities announced the award of $6 million from the Federal Gas Tax Fund, and applications will be submitted for two other large grant programs.

To stay in touch as the Crystal Pool and Central Park projects unfold, please look for  regular updates here.

 

Compact living doesn’t shrink quality of life

Photos from inside a new apartment building in downtown Victoria. This building was approved in 2012 – the first new rental building approved in the City in the last 30 years.

There have been questions from certain corners of our community on the need for rapid densification – why do we need so many new buildings? Should we pull up the metaphorical drawbridge and protect Victoria from newcomers because we think it’s the only way to preserve the quality of life for people who already live here? There are many good reasons to answer no. I’ll highlight two and outline how a growing city and its neighbourhoods can be places where quality of life and well-being are enhanced, for everyone. I love my neighbourhood too.

At a recent talk in Victoria, the Governor of the Bank of Canada highlighted Canada’s aging workforce; as a result, currently two thirds of labour force growth comes from immigration. By 2025, he said, all labour force growth will come from immigration. This couldn’t be more true than in Victoria where we have an aging population with many people moving out of the labour force in the coming decades. These people will want to stay in Victoria and enjoy the quality of life they have here.

So, like the rest of Canada, though perhaps more rapidly, Victoria’s labour force will grow through immigration both from other provinces and other countries. This growing labour force – necessary to support those who are retiring – need places to live. That is a key reason that all this new building is necessary.

A second reason is climate change. In early March I was invited by Mayor Iveson in Edmonton to an urgent weekend meeting of mayors from around the world. The 800 scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were meeting in Edmonton the following week and Mayor Iveson wanted us mayors to help shape the conversation.

The materials provided in advance of the gathering and the speakers at the opening plenary made it crystal clear: We have little time to take radical action with regard to climate change or we lose the battle. And, cities are both the cause and the solution to the problem.

The president of the University of Alberta cautioned, “Cities need to change quickly; the window is closing.” Aromar Revi, Director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements warned us that we are now 1 degree above the pre-industrial average and we have less than 15 years to stay below 1.5. Bill Solecki the Founding Director of the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities put it starkly. “We have all the knowledge we need,” he said, “but at our core, we can’t acknowledge that we have to fundamentally change the way we live in cities.”

Changing the way we live in Victoria in order to take bold climate action means more compact living and more people living in all our neighbourhoods. This can happen without changing their character too much through gentle density, houseplexes, tiny homes, townhouses and more. It means more people living within walking distance of goods and services available in village centres, resulting in less traffic and pollution. It also means inclusion, diversity, new neighbours and a denser web of social relationships.

On major corridors and downtown the changes we make to how we live in order to save the planet are more visible. There are more tall buildings. But what we can’t see from the outside is that almost all of these buildings are being built with vertical backyards: playgrounds on the third floor, lush, green community gathering spaces on the roof tops, one building even has an multiple birdhouses!

We don’t need to trade in quality of life even as our city grows to accommodate a changing labour force and a changing climate. What we do need is to have real dialogue rather than name calling and finger pointing. “NIMBY” is not a helpful term as it doesn’t take seriously the concerns and fears that people have – we all want to maintain the incredible neighbourhoods we’ve built together. Nor is it helpful to have a drawbridge mentality – this makes young renters and others feel unwelcome, and prevents us from adapting to changing times.

As our city grows and changes everyone will win because ultimately we all want the same thing – to be happy and healthy, to be prosperous, to feel safe, to breathe clean air, to feel that we belong to something greater than ourselves and to know that our children will have good futures.  We’re all in this together.

A version of this article first appeared in the Victoria News here.

What is affordable housing in Victoria?

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Pacifica Housing’s Wilson’s Walk mixed income housing in Victoria West.

Affordable housing is one of the biggest challenges in Victoria. We hear regularly from the business community that attracting workers is a challenge because of the housing shortage. We hear from people living in units that are being redeveloped, worried about not being able to find another place within their price range. And we know people on income assistance only get $375 per month for housing.

An even greater challenge is defining what affordable means. The word is tossed around by citizens, the development community and Council as if we’re all speaking a common language. Until we clearly define affordable housing and agree on how many units we need and at what rent we need them to address the problem, we’ll be aiming in the dark.

In order to find our way out of the dark, two important shifts in thinking are required. First, we must stop thinking of affordability only as housing affordability. Second, we must address the fact that increased supply alone won’t solve the problem for those living on the lowest incomes.

The accepted wisdom from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation and BC Housing is that no one should pay more than 30% of household income on housing. Yet the “Housing and Transportation Affordability Index” developed by Brookings Institute researchers demonstrates that it’s more complex than this.

This index is groundbreaking because, according to the researchers “it prices the trade-offs that households make between housing and transportation costs and the savings that derive from living in communities that are near shopping, schools, and work, and that boast a transit-rich environment.” As noted by Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, “A cheap house is not truly affordable if located in an isolated area with high transport costs, and households can rationally spend somewhat more than 30% of their budget for a house in an accessible location where their transportation costs are lower.”

Emerging from this research is a new affordability standard that no household should spend more than 45% of their household income on housing and transportation combined. What this means is that, for example, if you live in Fairfield and walk or bike downtown to work, you have less transportation costs and could potentially spend more on housing. Data gathered as part of the Smart South Island submission to the Federal Smart Cities challenge shows that people living in Sooke spend on average 14.5% of household income on transportation; Fairfield households spend on average 9.5%.

With much of the development happening in Victoria concentrated along major corridors, within walking or biking distance of major employment centres, and with a safe cycling network underway, we’re building a city where – in the not so distant future ­– transportation costs will be even further reduced.

Yet even with transportation savings factored in from living in smart compact communities like Victoria’s downtown and neighbourhoods, increased supply alone won’t provide housing for households in the city that make less than the median income.

According to 2016 census, the median after tax income for a household in the City of Victoria is $46,804. Approximately 21,905 households make less than this. For one person households the median after tax income is $31,570 and for two people, $68,325. There are 14,910 households that earn less than $35,000 per year and cannot afford to rent anything at current market rates.

How do we address this? Create, attract and retain household sustaining jobs to raise median household incomes. Ensure – through the $90 million Regional Housing First Program, other government funding and an inclusionary housing policy – that by 2026 in Victoria we have the units we need. This includes at least 800 new units for households who live on less than $30,000, with rents between approximately $500 to $875. It also includes at least 450 units for families that live on less than $50,000, with rents between approximately $875 and $1375. These are the clear targets laid out in the Victoria Housing Strategy. This is what we need to aim for.

It’s only in adjusting our thinking about affordability to include transportation and housing location, and finding creative ways to deliver the supply that the market can’t that we will build the city we all want: a Victoria where people live close to work, school, shopping and recreation and where people are free from the stress of housing insecurity.

This piece was originally printed in the Times Colonist here.

 

Neighbourhoods are for everyone

Screenshot 2018-06-01 23.15.30.pngAffordable Sustainable Housing (ASH) concept developed by Fairfield resident Gene Miller.

In the Gonzales neighbourhood, posters are popping up on poles with a picture of a single family home about to be demolished by an illustration of a bulldozer with a wrecking ball with the words, “City Planners” written on it.

The text of the poster goes like this: “Do you like the look of your neighbourhood? City planners are not happy with it! We have an award winning 2002 Neighbourhood Plan that is meeting the objectives of providing valuable housing opportunities and gentle densification. City Council wants to push through a number of aggressive densifying changes that will permanently change your neighbourhood’s character. Reclaim your power to plan the future of your neighbourhood. It has been taken away by city developers that supported your mayor’s campaign.”*

The “aggressive densifying changes” referred to in the poster are the addition of some three story buildings along Fairfield Road and the incorporation of townhouses into the Gonzales neighbourhood.

Above these posters another poster has been placed. It reads: “It’s easy to oppose densification from your single family dwelling. Got privilege? For every young family that doesn’t get to live here, one must live in Langford and commute. Let’s put an end to this NIMBYism.”

How do we resolve this conflict? In addition to townhouses, Fairfield resident Gene Miller has put forward one concept that might help. He calls it ASH – Affordable, Sustainable Housing. One ASH building is 2000 square feet and occupies about 40% site coverage on a standard city lot.  ASH is small-footprint living – ownership or rental – up to 12 suites, in a modest building that looks like a traditional two-and-a-half storey house with four units a floor (approximately 500sf one-bedrooms). With less units per floor, larger units could be incorporated to create homes for families.

ASH delivers up to 12 ‘front doors’ – 12 individual, private entrances distributed around the building.  This creates a sense of ‘arrival at home’ that lobby-and-corridor buildings of any size cannot provide. Each ASH building looks individual and distinctive, and the house-like scale and appearance go a long way to promoting neighbourliness and a sense of continuity and community on the street and within the ASH building.

Implementing the ASH concept and other forms of gentle density means there will be a significant increase in density in Gonzales. This will create new homes for families. At the same time, the look and feel of the neighbourhood can be retained. Here’s an idea Council might want to consider in the future: to save hundreds of rezonings, the City could create an ASH entitlement in the same way we have a garden suite entitlement – on any single family lot an ASH could be built, as long as there’s a mix of unit sizes and some form of clearly defined affordability in each building.

Victoria is growing. And as the single largest age demographic in the city according to the 2016 census – 25-29 year olds ­– start to have families, many of them will want to live in Victoria’s established neighbourhoods because they are amazing places. If we want a city that is inclusive and diverse, we must absolutely ensure that neighbourhood plans and neighbourhood residents make room for them.

*NB To put the statement in the poster in context, my 2014 campaign was funded 51% by corporate donations, 49% by individuals – the most even split of any candidate.

Originally published in the Victoria News here.