“Community Making” Requires Housing of All Sorts – Three Big Ideas

Last Thursday, at a public hearing for a proposed new condo building on Rockland Ave near Cook Street, a neighbour spoke to Council in favour of the new housing. He listed all the types of housing in the area: he lives in a townhouse; this new condo building is proposed on the lot next door; Council recently approved a five story rental building nearby on Cook Street; and just this past week the Province announced a new supportive housing building nearby on Meares Street. The neighbour said he supports all of these housing types in his neighbourhood because a diversity of housing is key to good “community making.”

Council voted in favour of the proposal. And, earlier in the evening, Council also supported 34 new townhouses in the Burnside Gorge neighbourhood on Washington Street. The townhouses are two, three and four bedroom and are designed to provide homes for families. The past week also saw the Province announce close to 300 new supportive housing units in the region, including 192 in the City of Victoria.

It was a good week for housing in the city – from much-needed missing middle housing like townhouses, to small condos that enable young people to enter the housing market, to housing for people exiting homelessness. But is it enough? And what about the process?

New provincial legislation adopted in 2018 requires that each local government undertake a “Housing Needs Survey” every five years to identify gaps in the housing ecosystem. Victoria’s assessment completed in late 2020 reveals a stark housing shortage and great housing need.

In 2019, the average price for a single family home was $939,066. For a townhouse, $686,849. And for a condo, $501,352. Based on these prices, the average single-detached home and townhouse is unaffordable to any household in Victoria earning the median income. Only condos are affordable for couples with children and other families earning the median income. A household requires an annual income of approximately $105,000 for a condo to be affordable (e.g. spending less than 30% of before-tax household income), and $145,000 annual income for a townhouse.

The median rent in 2019 was $1,150, which would require an annual income of approximately $50,520 to be affordable. Renter households relying on a single income are likely struggle to find affordable and suitable housing in Victoria. Renter households led by lone parents or households with at least one senior are the households most likely to be in core housing need. Being in core housing need means that people are living in housing that is inadequate, unsuitable, and/or currently unaffordable, and that they are unable to afford the median rent of alternative local housing.

The number of units the City’s needs assessment said were needed to meet demand between 2016 and 2020 was 2116. The actual number of building permits issued between 2015 and 2019 was 4516. Ninety-four point six per cent of these were for apartments and condos, 2.9% single family dwellings, 1.5% townhouses and 0.9% duplexes.

So … we doubled the number of units that were projected to be needed, yet here we are in 2021 with a rental vacancy rate hovering around 2 per cent, the cost of rent still increasing, house prices continuing to rise, and three bedroom units – from rentals, to condos to townhouses – suitable for families, almost impossible to come by.

We have a housing supply problem. If we don’t radically increase housing supply in the city in the near term, the results are going to be catastrophic. Some of the people at the public hearing Thursday who spoke in favour of the Washington Street townhouses said they wanted to stay in Victoria, not move out to Langford, but would never be able to afford a single family home here.

When people flee cities for suburban sprawl, the negative side effects include more time stuck in traffic and less time with family, a decrease in overall health outcomes, higher transportation costs, an increase in transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, and biodiversity loss, as forests are cleared for new housing.

And, we also have a process problem. I’ve sat at the Council table for close to ten years and have become increasingly frustrated with how much time it takes to get a development through the process, and by the length of public hearings. The 20-unit Rhodo townhouse project on Fairfield Road took two and a half years to get approved and then a lawsuit to follow challenging the process. Thursday night, we sat in over four hours of public hearings to approve a mere 56 new homes. Our meeting ended at 1:11am. A few weeks ago, it took a three hour public hearing to approve one new small lot home. This is unnecessary process when we have a massive housing shortage on our hands.

Here are three big ideas to avoid catastrophe and make sure that there are enough homes in Victoria for people who want to live and work in Victoria.

  1. Amend the City’s Official Community Plan and rezone the whole city so that any currently-zoned-single-family lot can have up to four units as of right (without a rezoning) and six units as of right if two are below market in perpetuity. The fourplexes and sixplexes would need to adhere to design guidelines that fit with existing neighbourhood contexts. Kelowna has done something similar on a pilot basis through their Infill Challenge and RU7 Zoning.
  2. Get rid of parking minimums so that there are no parking requirements tied to the building of homes. As it stands right now, most city planning polices in North America require a certain number of parking spots to accompany most new residential buildings. Requiring parking adds expense to projects, locks in an unsustainable mode of transportation as the norm, and mandates the use of valuable city land for the storage of cars rather than for the housing of people. Last summer, Edmonton became the first major city in Canada to do this. Victoria should follow.
  3. Change provincial legislation so that any project that fits within a community’s Official Community Plan and respective design guidelines does not require a public hearing. What this means is that there will be an opportunity for public input on Official Community Plan amendments but not on anything that fits within the Official Community Plan. At the same time the Province should create a mechanism to ensure that local governments are still able to receive public amenities in exchange for extra density. I hope that our bright, exceedingly competent, and keen Minister of Municipal Affairs and Minister of Housing will put their heads together and work with local governments to make this necessary legislative change as soon as possible.

These three ideas taken together will drastically increase the supply of housing in our city, help to make housing more affordable by increasing supply (although supply alone will not solve the affordability crisis for those living in poverty), and help to avoid the high costs of suburban sprawl. Implementing these ideas will also lead to better community making as the young man who spoke at the public hearing so eloquently put it.

Victoria Council’s Recent Decisions: A Glimpse Of Post-Pandemic Life In Cities

Proposed “Telus Ocean” office building at Humboldt and Douglas.

I’ve spent the past eight months writing blog posts in response to emails, primarily about homelessness. Each week we’ve received an average of 100 to 150 emails on this topic, many from the same people who write regularly. Of course I love to hear from the public, and to be responsive.

But this past week, another perspective came to light. I realize that I’ve been sucked into a bit of a negative bubble with respect to homelessness. I was almost in tears at Thursday’s public hearing for the Tiny Home village, when we learned that 570 people donated over $500,000 in just over two months to help create homes for their neighbours; I was struck once again by the generosity and goodwill of Victorians. This tells a different story than some of the emails I’ve been receiving, and letters to the editor in the Times Colonist about how Victorians feel towards their fellow community members who are living without homes.

This doesn’t mean that we bury our heads in the sand or ignore the many challenges we need to face. This excellent commentary in the Times Colonist this past week by UVic professor of Canadian history Lynne Marks makes the important point that there is more work to do with regard to discrimination against the poor, and racism, in Victoria. And we still have much work to do on housing with supports for those who are vulnerable.

I also realized that I’ve been continuously in response mode to homelessness in my Sunday blog posts rather than also focusing on all the other issues that Council is working on and initiatives that are happening in the community. So today I’m pivoting to address other issues and will continue to do so in the coming weeks. I do appreciate hearing from you so keep the emails coming! mayor@victoria.ca is the best way to reach me.

Council’s Recent Decisions A Glimpse of Post-Pandemic Life
In a panel discussion earlier this year on creating “15-minute neighbourhoods,” the speakers were asked to predict what post-COVID cities would look like. Two of the panelists made their predictions. A third, leading Canadian urbanist Jennifer Keesmaat, said that we shouldn’t try to predict what post-COVID cities would look like; we should create the cities we know we need and want for an inclusive, prosperous and sustainable future.

Victoria Council made a number of decisions last week that provide a glimpse of what life in cities will look like post-COVID.

People Will Go Back to the Office
There has been much speculation in many circles – from real estate professionals, to commercial property owners, to city planners – about whether the work-from-home culture created by COVID is here to stay. Some elements will certainly remain – more options for remote work and flexible work arrangements. Yet this past week, Council advanced a proposed project at Douglas Street and Humboldt called Telus Ocean to a public hearing. The proposed building would keep the 250 existing Telus jobs downtown and create space for 200 more people.

The fact that a major Canadian company is proposing to invest $100 million in downtown Victoria to build a new, state of the art office building is a strong indication that the physical office is here to stay. And that downtown will continue to be the economic heart of the region.

Telus Ocean still has many hurdles to clear before it ends up at a Thursday evening public hearing. And there are strong feelings about the proposed building, from those who can’t wait to see it built as part of the story of who Victoria is in the 21st century, to those who think the building should fit better into its heritage context and be more subservient to the Empress Hotel.

As required by Provincial legislation, I’ll reserve judgement and wait to see the final proposal at a public hearing. However, in the middle of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression when a project comes forward proposing to keep and create jobs downtown, philosophically, I felt it was important to move it forward to a public hearing rather than send it back to staff. This Times Colonist article does a good job of capturing Council’s discussion.

Arts, Culture and Live Events Will Thrive
Many of us who love the big-city arts and culture scene that Victoria offers – despite being a mid-sized city – have missed attending live performances, festivals, and art openings this past year. Artists and the arts organizations that support them pivoted creatively to bring us online content, too varied and extensive to begin to list here!

But arts can’t live only online. Post-pandemic Victoria will experience what one of my friends called, “a pent up demand for real life.” This past week, Victoria Council voted for the City to contribute $40,000 this year and $20,000 per year for the next five years as a founding supporter of a new arts hub at 851 Johnson Street in downtown Victoria. This will be operated by Theatre Skam for the benefit of a wide array of artists and performers.

The plan is for a shared performance hub, managed by artists, for artists. The centrepiece of the space will be a versatile black box performance theatre. A smaller second studio will be used for rehearsals, smaller performances, teaching, and small-scale visual art shows. They envision six offices available to rent by performance companies at below market rates. They’ll have hot desks for artists who need a space to work in an encouraging environment. Other ideas emerging include: a script library, visual artist painting room for rent by the hour, and storage of shared theatre equipment. This hub will help fuel the downtown creative economy.

Council voted unanimously to support this proposal. This sends a strong signal that arts and culture will play a leading role in post-pandemic Victoria. An arts and culture hub is a key action item from Create Victoria, our arts and culture master plan. Having the hub come to life now – out of the embers of the pandemic – will be an important part of feeding our spirits as well as our economic recovery.

More Public Spaces for More People
Near the beginning of the pandemic, when physical distancing was mandated, we watched cities around the world leap into action to make more space for people in public rights of way. In Victoria we created additional pedestrian space in village centres and we began Build Back Victoria, which enabled businesses to expand into city streets.

A year later, we’re seeing some business owners wanting these changes to become permanent. This past week Councillor Loveday and I brought forward a motion responding to petitions from businesses in the 1100 block of Broad Street to permanently close their block to car traffic. Take a look at what the block turned into last summer, you can see why they’d want to do this!

On April 15th, city staff will be bringing a report to Council with further recommendations for Build Back Victoria. I think we can expect to see what worked really well in summer 2020 – with patios and flex spaces popping up around the city, and main streets like Government prioritizing pedestrians – as featured elements of post-COVID life in Victoria, and in cities around the world. There will be more public spaces in cities turned over from the exclusive use of cars to more varied uses for a wider range of people.

Pedestrian priority Government Street in summer 2021.

2021: Here’s to Hope … and Hard Work

In December staff installed the city’s first six on-street electric charging stations on Broad Street.

As we awoke on January 1 2020, COVID-19 was a world away. Our economy was one of the strongest in the country; our downtown was thriving. Few of us could have anticipated the toll the pandemic would take on our seniors, health care workers, small businesses, people without homes, governments, on each and every one of us. Most of us have been looking forward to turning the calendar and leaving 2020 behind, hoping for the best in 2021.

Hope is important. But it is not enough to dig us out of the challenging circumstances we’re in. Hope will not get our small businesses through January to March which are likely going to be the most difficult months yet. Hope is not going to create new jobs for those who lost theirs, nor the skills needed to find work in what is quickly becoming a digital and knowledge-based economy. Hope is not going to keep our greenhouse gas emissions in check to mitigate a warming planet. And hope is certainly not going to get everyone who is sheltering in parks inside by the end of March.

Hope is not enough. Hard work is required. And I know that we can work hard as a community because I witnessed it all through 2020. In the early days of the pandemic, I did a Facebook live every day. At the end of each broadcast we reported on some amazing community initiatives. We did over 50 episodes and never ran out of examples.

Early in the pandemic, members of our community created the Rapid Relief Fund and raised $6 million to support those most hard hit. Tech sector businesses quickly offered support to retail and restaurant businesses to digitize as fast as possible. Arts organizations created online content so people had access to arts and culture for their mental health and wellbeing. And many more people leapt into action in big and often small ways, supporting their neighbours, pulling together as a community.

City staff made sure that there was no interruption to essential services like garbage pickup and running water. They also worked at a rapid pace to create Build Back Victoria so local businesses could have patios and more outdoor space for retailing. And they installed electric charging stations, new zero waste bins, more space for pedestrians near village centres and a lot of other small projects to make life better.

Nurses and doctors, transit drivers, grocery store clerks, people working on the front lines in parks and shelters all worked hard, went above and beyond. And they still are.

2020 showed us that we’ve got what it takes to pull through as a community. And that’s a good thing because there’s much work to do in 2021. We need to implement the regional Reboot strategy as well as Victoria 3.0 so those hardest hit economically have an opportunity for a better future and so that our economy is more diverse and resilient to withstand future shocks.

The pandemic has also revealed some of the weaknesses in our social fabric. Another thing that’s going to take hard work and purposeful effort in 2021 is to ensure that as we recover as a community we leave no one behind.

This piece was originally published in the VicNews here.

Zero Waste Victoria: A City Where Nothing Is Wasted

Download and read Zero Waste Victoria to learn what you can do you in your own life to reduce waste, create or seize economic opportunities and be a steward of the products you buy and use.

This piece was originally published in the Times Colonist here.

Discussions about garbage have taken up a lot of space in the Times Colonist Comments section in the past months. Trevor Hancock and Jon O’Riordan outlined the importance of reducing consumption and taking a zero-waste approach. CRD General Manager of Environmental Services, Larisa Hutchinson, laid out some of the very real challenges and limitations the CRD is up against in managing the region’s waste.

While we’re debating waste reduction in our daily paper, our landfill continues to fill up. Despite a 2015 regional ban on food scraps going to landfill, we’re still not adequately sorting compostable food waste from garbage. More than 25,000 tonnes of food waste from around the region still ends up there each year.

And in Victoria alone, pre-pandemic, city workers collected 25,000 single use items like coffee cups and take out containers from public trash cans, every day. And, each year, city workers dump 5.4 million single use items from our home garbage bins. I shudder to think about how this number has increased during COVID-19.

One of the mantras of pandemic recovery is that we have to “build back better.” This also holds true for how we manage our waste. That’s why Victoria Council recently adopted Zero Waste Victoria, a plan written by City staff in consultation with 57 industry and community organizations.

The goal of Zero Waste Victoria is to reduce the amount of waste going to the landfill by 50% by 2040 and to put the city on a trajectory to achieve a fully circular economy by 2050.

And the plan sets a clear path to get us there – with 40 actions to tackle single use materials, construction waste, food waste, and durables like our old cellphones or mattresses.

But Zero Waste Victoria – the first municipal plan of its kind in the region – is about much more than garbage. It’s an inspiring vision for a new approach to our economy, our life as a community, and our role as stewards of the products that we buy and use.

We’re all familiar with the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” waste reduction hierarchy. Zero Waste Victoria refines this to “Avoid, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Refurbish, Recycle, Recover, Dispose.”

Zero Waste Victoria is a clear path to creating a city where nothing is wasted. Where reducing, reusing and repurposing materials is the norm and helps our community thrive. Where a circular economy allows innovators to succeed and businesses to flourish. Our community’s culture of sharing and repairing helps us connect with our neighbours. Our homes and places of work are constructed using salvaged and recycled materials, putting less pressure on our valuable natural resources.

In Zero Waste Victoria, no food goes to waste and any scraps are converted into energy and nutrient rich soil. The convenience of take-out doesn’t require disposable single-use products. And celebrations and gifts include meaningful experiences that support local businesses.

If this sounds aspirational, it’s because it is. But at the same time, it’s also possible, practical and fiscally prudent. Adam Corneil is the CEO of Unbuilders, a Vancouver-based business that deconstructs houses and resells the materials. He says that, “There is a huge loss of invaluable old growth lumber, building materials and history when we demolish buildings and treat these materials as waste instead of resources.”

Love Food Hate Waste Canada reports that an average Canadian household throws away $1,100 of edible food each year. That adds up to almost 2.2 million tonnes of edible food wasted each year in Canada, at a cost of more than $17 billion, while also contributing to Canada’s GHG emissions. We are literally throwing money in the garbage.

Think making these changes is impossible? It’s not. We just need to bring our habits in line with the values of our community. Until the late-1950s we put all our garbage on a barge and dumped it into the ocean. But then the garbage started to wash up on local beaches and the community noticed. So we don’t do that anymore.

Now if we all don’t change our ways, we’ll need to clear 73 more acres of forest land at Hartland to store our garbage. No one wants this, and the good news is that Zero Waste Victoria outlines a new path forward.

Access to Housing, Central Park, Your ideas, and Everything Else – Mayor’s Sunday Email – November 29 2020

I received a few thank you cards this week. This is one of them. More in the “About Everything Else and Gratitude” section below.

Hello everyone,

Thanks for taking the time to write to me this past week about sheltering in parks and related concerns. To ensure everyone gets a timely answer, I’m responding to you all at once as well as creating a blog post so others have this information as well. If you’d like to stay up to date on sheltering, housing and more, you’re welcome to sign up here.

As always, your emails cover a range of topics. I do my best to address them here in a clear and direct way. I use sub-headings, so you can skip to the section that is of interest to you.

Showers and Community Care Tent
There are those of you who wrote to me this week who think that the City should have left the care tent and the showers in Meegan/Beacon Hill Park intact. And there are others who think we waited too long to remove them. Last weekend, I wrote about this difficult situation. So as not to repeat myself, please take the time to read last week’s post here. I also shared last week that Council recognizes that people need access to showers, hygiene and other social services. That’s why we created an emergency $100,000 grant program to ensure that people’s basic needs are met until everyone moves inside by the end of March. On Thursday Council extended the grant deadline to Tuesday December 1st at 4:30pm. You can find out more here.

Access to Housing
A mother wrote this week letting me know that her son is currently living in Meegan/Beacon Hill Park and asked how he can get housing. Anyone who knows someone living in Meegan/Beacon Hill Park or any other park in the city, please let them know the way to get housing is to fill out a BC Housing application. There are outreach workers in the parks every day connecting people with services but most importantly, making sure that everyone living outside has filled out a housing application so that no one is left behind. Flag down a worker. Or go to one of the weekly circles that are held at Meegan/Beacon Hill Park and Central Park.

Access to housing is facilitated by the Coordinated Assessment and Access (CAA) process run by BC Housing, Island Health and the CRD. As vacancies become available, the CAA meets and decides who is the best fit for which housing opportunity based on the needs people living outdoors or in shelters have identified in their applications. There are many people who have been living in 24/7 shelters like My Place or Rock Bay Landing for years. As part of the “positive flow” process from parks to shelter to supportive housing to market housing, some of the people living in My Place, Rock Bay and other shelters will be moving into permanent housing, freeing up these transitional housing spaces for people who are living outside.

Some of you have asked about people coming from outside of our region to get housing, as, for example, the temperatures in Winnipeg begin to drop. While we can’t – and wouldn’t want to – limit people’s constitutional rights of freedom of movement, we have made very clear that our intentional focus between now and the end of March is to take care of people who are currently here. The CAA process is prioritizing people who have been homeless for a long period of time and/or who are vulnerable, and/or who have been living long-term in local shelters. We are also prioritizing Indigenous people who make up 35% of the population of people who are homeless in our region, even though they only make up 3-4% of the general population.

I also received a few angry emails this week from people who are simply tired of having people living in parks. Someone wrote that we should buy one way bus tickets and send people home. This is precisely the issue: in every major city across this country there are people living outside in parks who have no home. I understand everyone’s frustration and anger. I’m frustrated too. We should all be frustrated that in a country as prosperous as Canada, some people are left to live outside in the middle of a global health pandemic when we’re told over and over that the best prevention is to stay at home.

Central Park
Some of you have written this past week about the new fencing in Central Park: Why is it there? How long will the fences be up? What does this mean for people who are sheltering in the park and for others in the neighbourhood?

Staff closed the sports fields in Central Park for maintenance to get them ready for community recreation and play as part of the scheduled re-opening of the Crystal Pool and Fitness Centre in 2021. Sports fields are bookable by the community and we need time to get them ready for community use. As we have all along during the pandemic, we’re working to balance the needs of those sheltering with the needs of others for outdoor recreation.

It will take several months to remediate the sports fields so they can be used for community recreation and play next spring; the fences will remain in place for that time. Sports fields are already designated as no-shelter areas by the Parks Regulation Bylaw. While 24/7 camping is in place until the end of March, Council created a new four-metre setback around playing fields to keep them clear for recreational activities and maintenance. 

New signage has recently been added to parks where sheltering is permitted, including Central Park, to remind everyone of the rules and where sheltering is allowed. Bylaw officers continue to work closely with people sheltering in parks to remind them of the areas they are allowed to shelter in, and make them aware of services available in the community.

Your Ideas
Some of you have written this week to share your ideas; thanks for doing that. One of you suggested that the Province call in the military to set up barracks in Beacon Hill Park as they did during World War One. Someone else suggested that there are probably hundreds of thousands of travel trailers and older motor homes not in use and of little value and that “this form of housing would be a huge improvement to people with just a tarp over them…imagine heated space with no wind and rain!” Someone else suggested setting up a tiny home village.

My hope is, that the City working together with the Capital Regional District (they hold the purse strings for the federal Reaching Home funding), the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, and shelter organizers we’ll be able to create temporary solutions for people over the winter that are better than living in tents. If this sounds vague, it’s because all the details are still being worked out. I’ll share more when I can. In the meantime, keep your good suggestions coming our way; mayor@victoria.ca is my direct line.

About Everything Else and Gratitude
Last week near the end of the email, I talked about the “everything else” we are working on in addition to ending 24/7 sheltering in parks and getting people inside by the end of March 2021. I thought that each week I’d feature a sample of that work. And, since we’re in the worst economic situation since the Great Depression, I thought I’d start with the work we’re doing on economic recovery and creating an economy for the future.

Victoria 3.0Recovery Reinvention Resilience – 2020-2041 is a long-term plan and vision for a sustainable, influential city that will build a strong innovation ecosystem and create a strong and resilient economy now and for the future. The priorities are to support our small businesses through recovery and also to build a more diverse and inclusive economy so that we will be able to withstand future economic shocks better than we have this one. It’s a really exciting plan and if you’d like some holiday reading to learn more about our wonderful city and its future, you can download the PDF here.

In addition to the City’s recovery plan, I’ve been working to help with regional economic recovery as part of the South Island Prosperity Partnership’s Rising Economy Task Force. We recently released Reboot: Greater Victoria’s Economic Recovery Plan 2020-2022. It’s also an exciting plan that will help people who have lost their jobs to ‘upskill” and get ready for the next economy which we’re seeing emerging through the pandemic – more digital and more knowledge based. The plan was created by over 120 people working hard together since April to help and support all those who make southern Vancouver Island such an amazing place – from farmers, to retailers, to tech workers, to Indigenous communities and more.

I’d also like to tell you about the Ocean Futures Innovation Hub. Creating this Hub is a recommendation coming out of both Victoria 3.0 and the Reboot strategy. I’ve been leading a small group working to develop a business case for the Hub so we can get federal and provincial recovery funding to get it off the ground in early 2021. The Ocean Futures Innovation Hub is a response to input from our region’s marine sector.  The Hub, will be a centre for solving tough challenges and innovation needs faced by our marine industry and will allow companies in Greater Victoria and Pacific Canada to pursue major opportunities in the global ocean and marine space. The vision for the Ocean Futures Innovation Hub is ocean industry transformation for the 22nd century – low-carbon and good jobs.

Finally, the gratitude. Some of you have been receiving and reading my Sunday emails for months now. Some of you have started more recently. I wanted to say thank you. Thanks for reading. Thanks for sharing. And thank you also for taking the time to say thank you. I’ve received a few cards in the mail this past week – yes real cards in the real mail! – thanking me for my work and especially for these emails. One card – signed by a whole family – said they enjoyed reading the Sunday emails each week and that they want to invite me and my family over after I’m finished being mayor to say thank you. These acts of generosity and thoughtfulness touch me deeply and keep me going, especially on the most difficult and stressful days.

With gratitude,

Lisa/Mayor Helps

Camping in Parks Update, Mourning, For Now not Forever – Mayor’s Sunday email – September 13

Two new Regional Housing First buildings opening in Langford and View Royal this fall, with rents starting at $375 per month. This is part of the “positive flow” process that will help move people out of parks and inside to safe, secure affordable housing. More below.

Good morning everyone,

Thanks so much for taking the time to write to me over this past week, and the past few weeks. I’ve read all of your emails and I’ve received a lot! So as I have on previous Sundays, I’m taking the opportunity to write back to all of you together. As I’ve said in earlier emails, what follows is meant to be an honest and open-hearted approach. Just me, Lisa, reflecting and sharing with you on a Sunday morning. No “key messages” or talking points etc. For those of you who haven’t read my emails from the past two weeks, you can find them here.

I so appreciate the thoughtful and constructive tone of so many of the emails I’ve received. Many of you are sharing your stories about the impacts you’re feeling from having people living in our parks – from feelings of fear, to having things stolen from your yards, to seeing the kinds of behaviours that frighten you and/or your children, to the impacts on your businesses. Some of you have shared stories about conversations you’ve had with your unhoused neighbours over the past few weeks and have contacted me to share what some individuals need. Thank you; this allows us to help direct the organizations providing outreach to the right places.

Many of you are also expressing compassion for people who find themselves homeless and living in a park in an unprecedented global health pandemic; you realize the complexity of the situation and that there are no easy solutions. Many of you have also made suggestions such as better access to treatment – noting that some of the people you’ve encountered need more than just housing but support for their mental health and addictions challenges. Or building tiny homes. Or moving people out of town into one large area and providing the supports they need there. All of you have said that there are no good places in the city for people to live outside. Some of you think that the City of Victoria, or me personally has created this situation and should just clean it up. And a few of you thought that the language I used in my email last Sunday was stigmatizing and creating more ill will towards people who are living in our community without homes.

While I may not speak to your individual concerns precisely in this email, I do want to give an update on some of the things that we’re working on. I agree wholeheartedly that there are no good places for people to be living outside in a country as prosperous as Canada. It’s wrong, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s having negative impacts on everyone, housed and unhoused.

Before I get into the steps we’re taking to move people inside over the next four to six months, I want to address another theme that came through in many of your emails. A sense of loss and mourning. And a sense that the situation we find ourselves in is somehow permanent, that this is the new Victoria rather than a moment of crisis.

I share your sense of mourning. I feel terrible that some people feel afraid to use the parks. And I feel terrible that some people have nowhere to live inside and nowhere to go during the day and that they are living in parks. It is a source of grief and heartbreak. The other thing that feels so difficult for me is to watch our community divided over this issue. I know compassion is so very difficult to muster when you’ve had your window smashed, or your golf clubs stolen, or when your kids feel afraid. It’s really hard. And it’s not my place to tell people to be more compassionate. That always backfires and creates a sense of defensiveness. So what I will say, to quote our beloved provincial public health officer Dr. Henry, is that this is for now, it is not forever. We are in a crisis situation, we are still living under a Provincial State of Emergency. We are not “back to normal” whatever that means. People will get housed. People will have their parks back for more recreational uses. The Provincial State of Emergency will be lifted at some point.

This is for now, it’s not forever. The current moment we find ourselves in is not indicative of Victoria’s future; Victoria has a bright future. And one of the reasons I’m a wee bit weary these days is that I’m working so hard to address the crisis of homelessness on our doorsteps and in our parks (with completely inadequate resources), at the same time as working just as hard on the City’s future through the implementation of Victoria 3.0 to make sure that Victorians in the coming decades have a strong inclusive economy, good jobs and a bright future. Here’s a good recent article from Douglas Magazine that shares some of that work. We will get through this. And we’ll come out stronger if, and this is a big if, we can work hard together to change the tone of the conversations we’re having about our beloved city right now, and if we can find a way to have our shared fears, our shared vulnerabilities – housed and unhoused people alike – bring us closer together rather than drive us further apart.

Community Wellness Alliance and Coordinated Assessment and Access
As I’ve said in the past two Sunday emails, I co-chair a Community Wellness Alliance with Island Health. This group existed pre-COVID but has pivoted now to help address the camping in parks issue. We’ve formed a Decampment Working Group that meets weekly to move people from outside to inside. Over the next four months there are a substantial number of indoor spaces that will be available, not enough to take care of everyone living outside at this point, but a significant number.

There are 60 units opening in November in Langford and View Royal as part of the Regional Housing First Program (RHFP.) These units rent at $375 per month. Our thinking is that people currently living in motels, shelters or supportive housing can move into these units and then 60 people can move from outside into the spaces vacated. There are also 24 units for treatment available at Our Place’s Therapeutic Recovery Community in View Royal. These are for men who are ready to access treatment. It is their home and community for up to two years. In addition, BC Housing and Island Health are providing some “rent supplements”. This is a top-up provided to the income assistance rate which makes it possible for people to move from supportive housing into market rental units. And then, as with the Regional Housing First units, people can move from parks into the supportive housing units that are vacated. The announcement about the number of rent supplements available is not mine to make, but I will say that it’s not an insignificant number.

This whole “positive flow” process – from supportive housing to RHFP or market unit and then from parks to supportive housing – is coordinated by the BC Housing, Island Health and the CRD. As vacancies become available, the CAA placement table meets and decides who is moving where based on the needs that they have identified in their housing application. Part of the key work of the Decampment Working Group in the next couple of weeks is ensuring that everyone living outside has a housing application filled out; many currently do and are in line for housing.

The CAA policy group (a separate group from the placement table) sets the priorities on an annual basis for who gets housed. There has been a lot of debate about whether people who are living in our parks are from here or not. While we respect the freedom of movement of people in Canada, Council passed a motion that I brought forward asking the CAA policy group to prioritize housing people who have lived in the region for a year or more. The CAA policy table will make this decision on September 23rd.

I  know this is a lot of detail. But many of you have written to me asking me to do something! And I just wanted to assure you all that we are; the Community Wellness Alliance and the CAA process and all the amazing folks out there on the front lines in the parks, connecting with people and doing outreach, are aiming to move as many of the 275 people who are currently living outside as possible into safe, secure indoor places over the next four months. It is slow, hard work.

Parks Bylaw Changes, Centennial Square and Policing
On Thursday, Council finalized changes to the parks bylaw that will help us to better manage the current situation. The changes include a limit to the amount of space each sheltering area can occupy (3m x 3m), a 4m space between shelters, an 8m requirement between shelters and playgrounds and 50m from shelters to school grounds. The portion of the bylaw that allows daytime camping will expire 30 days after the Province lifts the State of Emergency. The effect of these changes is that it will limit the number of people camping in any one park. This does mean that unless help comes soon from the federal or provincial governments, we will see people moving from some parks (eg Central Park has over 80 tents; the new rules mean there is room for about 20 tents there) to other parks around the city. The Coalition to End Homelessness is working to coordinate outreach and to ensure that there is outreach available to where people will be moving to. Many of you have of said in your emails that moving people around from one park to another does not solve the problem. I agree.

Council also decided this past week to continue to allow camping in Centennial Square. Camping is not currently possible there as staff are remediating the grounds from the encampment that just left. When and if people choose to return there, the new bylaws and spacing requirements will restrict the number of tents to somewhere between 4 and 6.  I respect Council’s decision, but I disagree with it. As I said, moving people from park to park doesn’t make sense. And there are no good outdoor spaces for camping in the city for people who are vulnerable and need to be inside. But I think that Centennial Square and the downtown need to be treated as a special case.

Downtown is the economic engine of the region. Our downtown businesses are already struggling as a result of COVID-19. I think that as a city government we need to do everything in our power to support them right now. Some of the people who work in these businesses are relatively low-wage service workers who may themselves be teetering precariously on the brink of homelessness if they lose their jobs because of a business closure, and can’t pay their rent. I realize that advocating for no camping downtown puts pressure on neighbourhood parks. But as mayor I need think about all angles and considerations. The economic health of our downtown benefits all of us. Businesses pay more than three times the amount of taxes as residential property owners do; these business taxes help pay for the amenities and quality of life that we all enjoy as Victorians. Council did decide to ask staff to come back in a month’s time with some sort of analysis on the impacts of not allowing camping in the downtown. So that conversation will continue.

Council also decided on Thursday to allocate close to an additional $100,000 for policing for the remainder of 2020 to help ensure safety and security around the areas where people are camping. Police aren’t the answer to solving or even managing homelessness. But between approving funding for the Coalition to End Homelessness to work with people in encampments, to changes to the parks bylaws, to additional policing, we are taking as comprehensive and systemic an approach possible to manage what is a very difficult situation for everyone.

The Federal Government
Last week I asked people to write to the federal government to request that they support the Province to acquire more housing for people who are currently living outside. I hope that many of you did. One resident shared their email with me, and I wanted to say thanks and to share this email with all of you for inspiration in case you also wish to write.

Subject: Homeless crisis solution for Victoria requires federal support asap.
To: adam.vaughan@parl.gc.ca <adam.vaughan@parl.gc.ca>, ahmed.hussen@parl.gc.ca <ahmed.hussen@parl.gc.ca>, laurel.collins@parl.gc.ca <laurel.collins@parl.gc.ca>

Dear MPs: I write regarding the ongoing social and health crisis here in Victoria due to a severe lack of supportive housing for several hundred homeless citizens currently encamped in parks throughout the city. As you may be aware, both the civic administration and the provincial government have deployed millions of dollars to acquire and repurpose hotel and motel facilities in the city  but have still fallen short of the target, leaving approximately 254 homeless without any option other than continued tenting in public parks, where criminal activities and vandalism have provoked a serious backlash from residents and business owners. 

With a concurrent opioid crisis, mental health crisis and the likelihood of a second wave of Covid19 this fall, it is absolutely vital that this problem be solved asap. But it is clear this will not happen unless the federal government agrees to join the battle and shoulder its share of the load. I needn’t remind you that Ottawa created a $46billion fund in 2018 to support affordable housing projects across the country, but to date has approved less than one percent, or $7.3 million for two projects in BC while Ontario has received $1.39 billion for 12 projects. Surely it is obvious that Victoria’s problem, while significant, could be resolved for far less than that, especially when the province’s contribution is added. I urge you to consider this issue and press the government to respond soon. I look forward to your response. 

Regards,

There are some glimmers of hope coming out of Ottawa in terms of a substantial housing acquisition fund. We’ll keep working with our colleagues at the federal government to ensure that once this fund is announced that the money gets out as quickly as possible.

I know this has been a lot of information to share all at once. I’ve been sitting here typing for the last hour and a half and it’s probably time to get up, refill my coffee and then tackle all of the other non-homelessness related “action items” coming out of various meetings this past week.

With gratitude for you taking the time to read this email and for your ongoing shared love of our city and our community.

Lisa / Mayor Helps

“It may be the end of the world as we know it, but other worlds are possible.” –  Anab Jain, Calling for a More-Than-Human-Politics 

Council balances 2020 budget and leaves additional $17.6 million in reserve funds

Facebook live update August 7 2020. We’ll be back on Friday September 4th at 1pm to update on City’s continued COVID-19 initiatives and Council decisions more generally.

I opened my remarks on Friday with gratitude to front line city staff. Over the past months of the ongoing global health pandemic, our bylaw team, our public works team, our parks staff and many more have been on the front lines doing their jobs in extremely challenging circumstances. On behalf of myself and Council, I want our staff to know how much we appreciate them. If you see a city worker out there, please stop and give them your thanks. It really makes a big difference.

On Thursday, Council revisited the 2020 budget items postponed in April due to decreased revenue and the economic uncertainty as a result of the pandemic. Because of COVID-19, revenues are down most notably in parking, the Victoria Conference Centre and revenue from the City’s commercial tenants.

After a long day and night of debate and discussion, Council made some important decisions:

  • We agreed to use the approximately $3 million in COVID-19 related savings from 2020 towards the expected operating budget revenue shortfall and additional pandemic related costs.
  • With a few exceptions, we postponed a significant number of capital projects, strategic plan action items and a number of proposed new staff positions.
  • The Hillside-Quadra neighbourhood has been eagerly anticipating improvements to Topaz Park. I’m happy to report that Council will be making a $3.7 million investment in the long-awaited bike skills and skate park. Design will begin in 2020 with construction anticipated in 2021. We know that infrastructure investments are key for governments to make during a recession. These investments support the private sector to keep local people working and support local supply chains through procurement of goods and services.
  • Council also allocated funding to install a new public washroom downtown at the south end of Douglas Street.
  • And finally, the City will be establishing an Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, which will be staffed by an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Officer and an Accessibility Coordinator. This will provide resources to carry out a number of Council’s strategic plan projects and priorities.

What this all means is that Council has eliminated the projected deficit for 2020 and we’re leaving an additional $17.6 million in reserves. This will keep our reserves healthy as we don’t know how long this pandemic is going to last. Like other governments and private sector businesses, we are making tough budget decisions right now. I believe we’ve landed on a smart, prudent way forward.

Council also held three public hearings on Thursday night on land use for new developments in Victoria. Public hearings look a little different these days – everything’s done online or via phone. I’m so happy we’ve been able to forge ahead with important projects while still allowing residents the chance to participate in land use decisions.

Thursday night Council approved 151 new rental units and the heritage revitalization of the Scott Building at Douglas and Hillside. This will give a much-needed boost to the rental stock in the city and it’s also a key project that will enhance the Burnside Gorge neighbourhood.

The City is continuing to see strong uptake on our Build Back Victoria program that allows for free expanded patio and flex space for businesses. We have received 97 applications and 72 permits have been issued. Staff are working fast on the others.

Another weekend is here, and I hope that everyone is out visiting some of those patios, exploring the city and supporting our local businesses. Without many of the three million tourists we see each year, our visitor economy is hurting. We can all do our part to help.

In addition to staying local and shopping local, myself and the mayors across the region have written a joint letter to Minister Joly, Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages, in Ottawa this week asking for more support for the tourism industry in Victoria. Conferences, sports tourism, cruise, the Clipper, and Coho are all on hold and shut down this year. The closures are for good reason, but they do come with consequences. Our visitor economy will recover once medical advances to combat COVID-19 are available, but it needs help to survive to get through the winter and into next spring.  It was great to work with all the regional Mayors on this to show support for our local industry.

It was also great to see tourism in our downtown featured on the front page of the Times Colonist on Tuesday. It’s wonderful to see people visiting Victoria from across Canada and enjoying everything that our city and region have to offer. I want everyone to know that they are welcome here.

I closed my Facebook live on Friday with a thank you to Mary who has been signing for us for the past few months. Friday was Mary’s last day with us as she is now retiring. She has been a sign language interpreter since 1985 working in both Ottawa and for the past 26 years here on the island. She’s been a respected colleague and mentor to many interpreters in the field and has provided interpreting services to ensure inclusive and accessible communication with hundreds of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals over the years. We have so appreciated Mary’s work with us over the last several months, and I’d like to wish Mary a very happy retirement.

On behalf of myself and Council, I hope that everyone is having a safe summer, keeping those safe distances and keeping circles and gatherings small. We’re hopefully through the worst of the pandemic at this point, and on a solid pathway towards economic and social recovery. To make this so and to stay on this pathway takes all of us, working together.

Council will be taking a break until September 3rd and I’ll be taking a short holiday, of sorts. With so much to do, including ongoing support needed for our businesses to recover and continuing to work hard with the Province to find indoor sheltering solutions for people camping in parks throughout the city, it won’t be a regular summer holiday this year. I do intend to do some writing and reflection as well, which I will post here on this blog. Please feel free to share this site with others and encourage them to follow if interested in receiving regular updates.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mayor Helps – New Podcast Created by Victoria Business Owner

It was the middle of pandemic, and Dave Hatt, owner of the WetCleaner – Victoria’s only non-toxic dry cleaner – saw a steady drop in business. As people began to work from home, they were more likely to be wearing sweats than suits. He saw his fellow small business owners also struggling. Rather than just sit around waiting for customers (who are thankfully now starting to return), he started a new venture, the Tunderin Podcast Network @TunderinMedia

He’s go a series of podcasts focused on small business, including TheMayorHelps. At first I wasn’t sure why he’d want to create a podcast featuring a mayor. But I said yes anyway! And I’m so glad I did. Each week we bring on local business people who pop into zoom, tell us a little bit about their businesses and then ask me a question. We also have a longer segment featuring change makers from across the country. And a state of the city where Dave grills me on current events in Victoria.

The flexibility of the show, and the fact that it happens weekly allows us to invite guests on to address issues of emerging concern in our community and across the country.

I’ve featured two episodes here. Just below, a great conversation with Ruth Mojeed in Victoria with the Inclusion Project. And above, a recent conversation with Brent Toderian, 21st century urbanist and former Head Planner at the City of Vancouver. You can find all the episodes here. Watch. Enjoy. Subscribe. And share!

Taking a Break from Twitter: The Stories We Tell About Our City Matter

Screenshot 2020-07-19 10.00.27

On Friday we announced the first step in the creation of the Ocean Futures Innovation Hub. This is one of the first actions in Victoria’s new economic plan, Victoria 3.0. The City is working together with the South Island Prosperity Partnership, the Association of British Columbia Marine Industries, Ocean Networks Canada, and companies large and small to create a future focused innovation hub in the downtown.

This is an exciting project! It will create jobs and a more resilient diverse economy coming out of the pandemic. It’s industry led and City supported. It’s a really good news story for our city and our region.

And, we got pretty good media coverage from a wide variety of media outlets in the region after we sent out the press release on Friday. Happy to see the results of our collective efforts so well received and positively profiled, I pinned one of the news stories to my Twitter profile.

As soon as I had posted, a whole bunch of comments about homelessness and tenting came into the feed. And comments on my performance as mayor.

On Saturday morning, I posted this picture to Twitter with thanks to the folks at Aryze who – using a tactical urbanism and placemaking approach – created this beautiful and functional piece of installation art in the Gorge Waterway. They installed it near the much-loved community swimming hole off of Banfield Park in Victoria West. IMG_6863.jpeg

And again, the same response. People jumping into the Twitter feed with comments that were negative and focused on homelessness and tenting and me, and not at all related to the great community effort underway.

I can take criticism. You don’t sign up for a job like this if you can’t. But the reason I’ve deactivated my Twitter account, is that the stories we tell about our city matter. And the mayor’s Twitter feed tells a story.

I use Twitter to support business-led efforts to recover from the pandemic and look to the future, like the Ocean Futures Innovation Hub. I post to support citizen-led efforts to spruce up the harbour and create a sense of joy and place. I post to support Destination Greater Victoria and the Downtown Victoria Business Association whose member businesses are working so hard right now, some just to survive. And to profile all the amazing arts and culture events that are happening, despite the pandemic. And to support our local non-profit sector which is working so hard to support members of our community who may be struggling right now.

And when I post these things and people immediately pile on with negativity and comments that are irrelevant to the matter in the post, it does a real disservice to these business-led and citizen-led efforts. It creates an ongoing negative story about our city. And this shouldn’t be the only story, when so many people are working so hard every day to stay positive and to create positivity during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

There is a homelessness crisis right now, in the city and across the province and country, and its made worse by the pandemic. It’s having a negative effect on so many people, those who are homeless and those who are housed. We’re working hard every day to  manage the crisis and we’re working with the wonderful ministers and staff at the Province to resolve it, to get people housed with the supports they need.

But there is more to Victoria’s story. A recent article in Western Investor highlighted Victoria 3.0, which they called “an ambitious blueprint for sustained post-pandemic recovery.” The vision is that “Victoria is a future-ready, globally fluent influencer and innovator. We will use our status as a small powerhouse to create a strong and resilient economy that meets our needs now and anticipates the future.” After quoting our vision they wrote, “We are betting this is more than posturing: Victoria is for real and should be a leading light out of the pandemic darkness.”

And there’s Build Back Victoria, a program that has seen a surge in patios in the downtown and in village centres. It’s made-in-Victoria vibrancy that is business-led and City supported and is helping businesses to recover and hire back staff.

And there’s all the amazing stuff happening in the local arts and culture sector – another key element of Victoria’s story. Throughout the pandemic our Arts, Culture and Events team at the City have been working hard with the arts and culture community so they can continue to do the great work they do. We need arts, culture and everyday creativity more than ever. There’s an inspiring array of events and activities here.

So I’m taking a break from Twitter to give all these community efforts the opportunity to shine, without detraction on my Twitter feed. I’ll be back at some point when the time feels right. To those who are still on social media, I’d like to encourage you to use it to make someone’s day, to share joy and kindness because goodness knows, this is what the world needs right now.

For those who need me, there are still lots of ways to say in touch! You can email mayor@victoria.ca, phone or text at 250-661-2708, speak with Council directly, or come to one of my Community Drop Ins, which have gone virtual during the pandemic.

 

 

 

Participatory Budgeting and Everyday Creativity Grants Help Residents #buildbackbetter

Update on City’s COVID-19 response and recovery. Video from Friday, June 26 2020.

The Province has announced Phase 3 of its ReStart Plan, which allows for “safe and smart travel” within BC and the re-opening of more hotels and resorts. Destination Greater Victoria is also promoting wide open spaces and places in Victoria, and ideas for what visitors from other parts of the province can do when visiting the Capital City. For more information, visit them here.

This is really good news for Victoria as tourism is a key element of our economy, particularly during the summer months. Destination Greater Victoria is doing some amazing work in re-thinking what tourism looks like in Victoria and I encourage everyone to be a tourist in our own home town – to check out some of the things you haven’t yet checked out and explore places you haven’t yet explored.

The federal and provincial governments recently committed $20 million to match the Capital Regional District’s contribution of $10 million for the Regional Housing First Program which is on track to have more than 1,800 affordable housing units completed or under construction in Greater Victoria by the end of 2022. The units will be a mixture of shelter-rate, affordable rental, and near-market rental – all of which are needed in the region.

We’re grateful to the provincial and federal governments and the Capital Regional District for their investments in the Regional Housing First program. This unprecedented program was made possible by all municipalities participating and is exactly the kind of cooperation we need to address housing affordability and homelessness across the region.

At last week’s Committee of the Whole meeting, based on public health advice, Council voted to allow people without homes to keep their tents up in permitted sheltering areas in the city until further advice is received by Dr. Bonnie Henry.

This is a temporary measure due to COVID-19. Services and shelters have been severely reduced and people without homes literally have nowhere to go during the day. I’d like to ask for patience and understanding, recognizing that we are still in the middle of a global health pandemic. Victoria is not alone. We need to work together and advocate to the provincial and particularly the federal government for more housing solutions.

Last Thursday, Council approved the Everyday Creativity Grant, a new, one-time grant aimed at increasing access for everyone to be creative through the arts and improve mental and physical health. Non-profit organizations or people partnering with non-profits are invited to submit ideas for engaging people to be creative and participate in the arts. Projects with an emphasis on learning, creative expression and broad public participation are eligible and grants range from $500 to $5,000. Information on how to apply will be available next week.

The City’s Participatory Budgeting Steering Committee is seeking proposals for the 2020 Participatory Budgeting initiative, which will see $50,000 invested in projects benefiting new immigrants and refugees in Victoria. Anyone with an idea for a project or activity that will enhance or enrich the lives of newcomers in the  community is invited to apply online at here by 4 p.m. on July 31, 2020.

If you have an idea or are curious about the participatory budgeting process and want to know more, two virtual open houses will be held on July 7 and 11 where you can learn all about it.  I’m curious to see which projects our residents think are important.

To date, under the Build Back Victoria initiative, the City has received 55 applications for new patios or flex spaces, 28 of which have been approved and 16 are in progress. Build Back Victoria initiatives support local businesses during their re-opening and recovery from the pandemic by providing public spaces for private use. Spaces on sidewalks, on streets, in parking spaces, and in plazas and parks are temporarily being made available for businesses to expand their footprint to safely conduct commercial activities.

These applications are coming from all over the city – downtown, James Bay, Fernwood, Hillside-Quadra. It’s great to see more space being created for businesses. We really need to do what we can to help businesses through this very challenging time. And it’s great for us, their loyal customers.

The community is invited to watch Victoria’s Canada Day, a virtual celebration on July 1 at 7 p.m. on CHEK for an impressive line-up of diverse, multicultural performances and community content. The one-hour, commercial free broadcast will also be streamed on canadadayvictoria.ca and the City’s YouTube channel.

Hosted by CHEK’s Joe Perkins and Stacy Ross, Victoria’s Canada Day will feature musical performances from an exciting local line-up, with a special performance by the Lekwungen Traditional Dancers.

What it means to live in Canada very much depends on your personal experience, whether you’re Indigenous, a newcomer, or have lived here for much or all of your life. We need to respect that for many, Canada Day is not an occasion for celebration. We need to acknowledge together our past wrongs and continue to work together with respect, cooperation and in partnership towards reconciliation.

Even though we can’t physically be together on the Legislature Lawn as we usually do, we can still come together virtually to mark Canada’s strengths and its diversity.