On Monday, the City of Victoria is lowering the Xe xe Smun eem-Victoria Orange Shirt Day flag and the Canadian flag to half-mast to honour the 215 children who died at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, and whose bodies were recently found in an unmarked grave. We acknowledge the deep grief of families from the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation and families from the other Nations whose children attended the school and who never returned home.
The flags will remain lowered from May 31 to June 8 for a total of 215 hours, one hour for each of the children who died. Council will also observe a moment of silence at the beginning of our meeting on Thursday.
The discovery of the children’s bodies is a reminder to non-Indigenous Canadians that the grief and trauma of colonization is anything but in the past. These children’s bodies surfaced in the present and are a painful reminder to all residential school survivors and intergenerational survivors of their own pain, trauma, and need for healing.
Taking meaningful action to address the ongoing, harmful legacy of colonialism requires more than symbolic gestures like the lowering of flags. It requires all non-Indigenous people and all levels of government to take action to recognize and honour Indigenous sovereignty, Indigenous laws, and Indigenous ways of knowing. The discovery of the children’s bodies should move us all to redouble our reconciliation efforts in real and meaningful ways.
To close with the words of Eddy Charlie, residential school survivor and founder of Xe Xe Smun‘ Eem-Orange Shirt Day in Victoria in a text to me today, “We all have work. Our old ones used to say, never think a path is perfect. The challenge is to stay standing together on that path. That goodness is all we need.”
For the past few years, Council has been hearing from many residents about the impact of the housing affordability crisis in Victoria. Seniors who live on fixed incomes have a hard time affording housing; students who pay high tuition costs and then high student loan payments are in a similar boat. And many women-led single-parent families and people working in low-income jobs can’t afford to pay current market rents in this city. All of these groups are vulnerable if they lose their current housing.
Last June, in response to the evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic was deepening an already dire housing crisis, Council directed staff to report back with ideas to expedite affordable housing. We already fast track affordable housing projects and move them to the front of the line, but it still takes too long.
Let’s take Cool Aid’s Crosstown Project, pictured above, as an example. This is how it is described on their website:
“The project combines affordable rental units for working families, seniors and singles with a mix of incomes – a range of rental housing supply our city desperately needs – with other uses, including daycare services, office space, and retail space (including a café). The development is close to shopping, transit and other services, and is just a couple of kilometres from the downtown core, making it an ideal location for singles and families.”
This is exactly what the City’s Official Community Plan wants for this site. And it’s what the community desperately needs. So why does it currently take well over two years to get such a project to construction?
Here’s some background: Victoria’s Official Community Plan (OCP) lays out the land use plan for the city, to accommodate the anticipated population growth between 2012 (when the plan was adopted) out to 2041. The OCP was developed through a two-and-a-half year public consultation process. Over 6000 people gave their input to shape the vision for the city’s future and the land use plan that will help bring this vision to life.
Yet even with this overarching document, most land use changes (development proposals) still need to go through a public consultation and rezoning process – even if they fit with the OCP guidelines. This week, City staff are putting forward a bold proposal to change this when it comes to affordable housing.
The proposed changes will create certainty so that if non-profit housing providers or the Capital Regional Housing Corporation (CRHC) buy a piece of property and plan to use it in the way the OCP envisions, they will be able to do so without going through a political process. This will make it easier for non-profit housing developers and the CRHC to secure funding for projects from the provincial and federal governments, which like to fund less risky projects. The proposed changes will also shave significant time off the approvals process, bringing affordable housing to completion more quickly. This is important given the substantially increasing construction costs.
Specifically, what staff are proposing is that Council:
Delegate the authority to the Director of Sustainable Planning and Community Development to issue all Development Permits, with or without variances, offering affordable non-market housing secured by legal agreement.
Allow the maximum density contemplated in the Official Community Plan to be the maximum density permitted for a specific site, where an affordable non-market housing development is proposed and affordable dwelling units are secured with a legal agreement.
This amounts to waving a regulatory magic wand to make affordable housing possible on any site in the city, as long as the proposal fits with the OCP and the design guidelines for the neighbourhood. This means that there would be no public or political process for affordable housing developments.
I know there are some people who may be unhappy with this approach, as it cuts out public consultation on a site by site basis. We got significant public input on land use during the development of the OCP. And from a housing affordability point of view, we got lots of input through the development of the Victoria Housing Strategy, the Housing Summit, and the thousands of emails Council has received over the years from working people who can’t afford to live in our city, asking us to take bold action.
The housing affordability crisis is also regional. The Capital Regional District Housing Affordability Strategy identifies that over the next 17 years as a region , we need at a minimum 17,107 units for people from very low to moderate incomes. The regulatory change that Victoria city staff are proposing is just as possible for all other local governments in the region. My hope is that our colleagues across the CRD will also embrace this approach, making our whole region affordable for a range of people and families at every phase and stage of life.
And finally, while this is a good step for the City to take with respect to affordable housing, as I noted in my “Three Big Ideas” blog post, we need the Province to step in with big, bold action too. If we want to comprehensively address the housing crisis – including the lack of missing middle housing for families – we need a change to provincial legislation so that any project that fits within a community’s OCP and respective design guidelines does not require a political process. As part of this, the Province needs to ensure that local governments are still able to receive public amenities in exchange for extra density, and secure statutory rights of way for widening sidewalks or adding bike lanes. Right now these are only possible to secure through a rezoning process.
To read the staff report, “Options to Support Rapid Deployment of Affordable Housing through Regulatory and Process Changes,” head here (item G2). To read the Times Colonist coverage from Saturday head here.
The first year anniversary of George Floyd’s death is coming up at the end of this month. His murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer sparked international outrage. It brought the Black Lives Matter movement and the existence of systemic racism – everywhere, not only in policing – squarely into the mainstream as an issue that could no longer be ignored.
Creating a Welcoming City Strategy to address systemic inequities and make Victoria more welcoming is an action in both Council’s 2019-2022 Strategic Plan and the City’s economic action plan, Victoria 3.0. When the pandemic hit last spring – like much else that wasn’t part of core operations – Council put this project on hold. After George’s Floyd’s death and the response to it in Victoria and around the world, we felt the need to take urgent action.
For background and context, here is an excerpt from the June 9 2020 Committee of the Whole Report from Councillor Dubow and I:
“At the Council meeting on April 9, 2020, Council decided to put on hold a range of initiatives due to budget constraints from COVID-19 and revisit these on August 6th. The Welcoming City Task Force was one of these initiatives.
“Given the recent events in the United States and Canada as well as the well-organized and thoughtful responses of Victorians against racism in all forms and the desire to create a welcoming city for everyone, it is recommended that we proceed immediately with the Welcoming City Task Force. This will enable Council to harness the energy, creativity, passion and commitment currently evident in our community to make Victoria a welcoming and safe city for everyone.
“The original proposed funding amount for this initiative was $50,000. This included engaging a consultant, in person meeting costs and stipends for Indigenous members of the Task Force as per the City’s protocol and compensation policy. Given that the meetings will all be held online, it is possible to reduce the budget.
“There is approximately $42,800 remaining in the Mayor and Council travel budget for this year, most of which will not be used given travel restrictions and lack of in person conferences. It is recommended that $40,000 be re-allocated to the Welcoming City Initiative.”
Council accepted our recommendation unanimously and a task force was struck.
The Welcoming City Task Force is co-chaired by myself and Councillor Dubow and is made up of people who reflect Victoria’s increasing diverse population. The members have been working hard with consultants and city staff for many months in preparation to launch an extensive public engagement process, which begins this week.
What is a Welcoming City? The Welcoming Cities program began in the United States in 2009 as a deliberate way to create relationships between long-established residents and newcomers and to help develop a sense of belonging, connection, and community cohesion. Since then, it has grown into a global movement with the founding of Welcoming International and the development of the Welcoming Standard (pictured above). The Standard lays out the keys areas of civic life that need concerted attention and action in order to create inclusive communities:
Not all the categories in the Welcoming Standard are within the jurisdiction of local governments. This is why Victoria’s Welcoming City Task Force includes representatives from other organizations like the Greater Victoria Public Library, newcomer serving agencies and Parent Advisory Council reps. The idea is to co-develop and co-deliver the Welcoming City Strategy together with the community.
Why Welcoming Victoria and How to Get Involved Victoria is a culturally diverse place. According to the 2016 Census, close to 20 percent of Victoria’s population are newcomers, or people who are new immigrants or refugees to Canada who have settled in Victoria. They face significant social and economic barriers to integration into the local community and into Canadian society.
Creating a Welcoming City Strategy means foregrounding the lived experiences of newcomers, people of colour, Black people and Indigeneous people to help inform the development of the strategy, so it reflects their needs and desires. We know that even on their own homelands, Victoria can be an unwelcoming place to Indigenous people. This needs to change. Important as well are the voices of long-established Victorians who have a role to play in helping to make Victoria welcoming, inclusive and resilient because of our diversity.
Phase one of the engagement begins this week with small workshops for people to share their experiences and needs in each of the Welcoming Standard areas cited above. At the same time, everyone is invited to share their stories between now and May 30th on the City’s Have Your Say platform. Do you feel a sense of welcome and belonging? What would help to make you feel like you belong and are able to flourish in Victoria? The Welcoming City engagement will be up Tuesday so if you go there as soon as you read this post on Sunday evening, you won’t see it yet – please check back later in the week!
The information gleaned in the workshops and on the story portal will be used to generate a community survey that will go live in early June. Whether you’re a newcomer or a long-time resident, please take the time to fill out the survey. You’ll also find it on the City’s Have Your Say platform in June.
The input from public engagement will help to inform the development of a Welcoming City Strategy that will be presented to Council in the fall. Once adopted, the implementation of the Welcoming City Strategy will be led by the City’s newly formed Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.
The success of the strategy will be in the quality of the inputs we get during the public engagement period. For those who are new to Victoria and/or racialized minorities who don’t feel welcome here, who experience racism, who need us to do better as a community, thanks in advance for the courage to tell your stories and share your experiences. We can and must do better. For those of us who are non-people of colour, non-Black and non-Indigenous, we have work to do to unpack our privilege and examine our shared role in making Victoria more welcoming.
I thank the hard-working, courageous, and delightful task force for their work to date, and I look forward to the next steps in this important and necessary process.
This Friday, I’m speaking on the opening plenary of a conference in Montreal (virtually of course!) called Policies for Better Lives. It’s an international conference of researchers focused on well being and policy development. Most of the conversations about measuring well-being are focused at the provincial and national level. It seems I’m being brought in as a local voice to remind the research community that their questions and research agendas also need to focus on cities.
Every year cities spend millions of dollars on programs and services; how do we know whether our spending is enhancing or detracting from residents well-being? How do we know whose lives are getting better by the investments we’re making? These are important questions to answer in our annual budgeting process, particularly coming out the other side of a global health pandemic where already vulnerable people have been made even more vulnerable and the pandemic revealed cracks in our social safety net. I’m honoured to help set this international research agenda, and in the coming years to see Victoria’s budget measured by how investments enhance well-being and equity in our community.
In the meantime, in the City’s recently adopted 2021 budget, Council has made an effort to focus investments on enhancing the well-being of Victoria residents and helping our beloved local businesses recover from the pandemic. I’ve pulled out some of the key highlights to share. Additional background information and the detailed five-year financial plan and background can be found here.
Infrastructure and Economic Recovery Timely investments in the maintenance, repair and improvement of City infrastructure support community safety, avoid the need for more expensive costs for taxpayers in the future, and attract businesses and industry as they look for locations to invest. Infrastructure investments also create jobs. Some of the city’s key projects – like the bike network– are undertaken by private sector contractors which employ local people.
In 2021, the City will invest $24.5 million to improve city streets, fill potholes, upgrade crosswalks and sidewalks, and undertake traffic calming projects to make the city more walkable and safer for people walking and cycling. An investment of $33.7 million will continue the renewal of essential underground infrastructure including aging water mains, sanitary sewers and storm drains.
Economic recovery and resiliency are also key in this year’s budget. The Build Back Victoria initiative is a cornerstone of the City’s COVID-19 response and recovery plan to support businesses in every neighbourhood. Within weeks of launching last spring, dozens of patios and retail “flex spaces” had sprung up across the city, yoga and fitness studios had moved classes outside in parks. We know we’ll see even more creative use of public space this summer.
The South Island Prosperity Partnership will receive close to $220,000 to support their work collaborating with government, First Nations and private sector partners to accelerate recovery and build a resilient, diversified economy on the South Island.
For the first time in anyone’s memory, we’ve also lowered business taxes. For every $1 homeowners pay in property taxes, businesses contribute $3.32. Businesses – particularly local retailers, restaurants, arts and culture and tourism related businesses – continue to struggle with the fall out of the pandemic. If Council had adhered to its tax policy, this would have meant that this year businesses would pay and increased $3.59 for every $1 that residences pay. To support businesses during this unprecedented year, Council decreased business taxes.
Health and Well-Being Providing outdoor spaces for people to enjoy and stay active, but apart, has never been more important. Parks, recreation and facilities will see more than $24 million in 2021 to maintain and enhance the city’s 137 parks and open spaces, gardens, community centres and other facilities.
In addition to the $3.8 million funded last year to design and build a new bike and skate park in Topaz Park, the City is investing $4.5 million to replace the artificial turf field at Topaz Park this year. Further improvements include $600,000 to replace the playground equipment at Stadacona Park and $85,000 will fund preliminary design work to install new lighting at Vic West Skate Park. An investment of $2.8 million will substantially improve and expand the waterfront Songhees Park on the west side of the Johnson Street Bridge.
This year will also see the design for the new sč̓əmaθən Peter Pollen Waterfront Park, improvements to Pemberton Park, and expansion of the Banfield Park dock for public swimming this summer.
Victoria’s neighbourhood associations, community associations and seniors centres will receive $1.5 million in funding to deliver important services and programs to residents and help make the community healthier and age-friendly for seniors.
To make Victoria more accessible and inclusive, the City is investing up to $40,000 for the development of a Welcoming City Strategy, as well as allocating funding to establish a new Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion with three full-time staff. Having a staff position in both community planning and recreation services divisions will embed equity in policies, programs and services, advance the removal of systemic barriers and help to make City Hall, city services and the community as a whole more welcoming and inclusive for the increasing diversity of residents that call Victoria home.
Also, in line with Victoria’s Strategic Plan, the City will continue to seek deeper and more engagement with the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations, including with both hereditary and elected chiefs. The City Family will continue to guide the City’s reconciliation work. As part of this work, $37,500 has been allocated to scope out potential future positions to advance a new Indigenous Relations and Elders in Residence Function in 2022. The Victoria Reconciliation Dialogues series will continue once large-scale public events can be held again and the City will support and help with the organization of Orange Shirt Day this September.
Affordable Housing As we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, there is much more work to be done on affordable housing. While cities aren’t responsible for housing, the City of Victoria does what it can as a junior partner to the federal and provincial governments to assist with housing creation. This year we are allocating $660,000 to the Housing Reserve Fund which helps to leverage investment in affordable housing from the provincial and federal governments.
We are also continuing to accelerate the implementation of the Victoria Housing Strategy to increase housing choice and affordability for families. This includes non-market housing, affordable rentals, market rental housing and affordable or entry-level home ownership.
In response to the housing crisis in Victoria, the City has created an expanded set of housing targets to meet growing demand and catch up to the already existing need. Supported in part by the Victoria Housing Reserve Fund of more than $3.9 million, the plan is to partner with senior government and non-profit housing providers to create approximately 1,450 new affordable non-market homes over the next six years, as part of a total of 3,900 new homes across all housing types. This is an ambitious goal and it’s going to take Council saying “yes” more often than “no” to housing of all sorts in all neighbourhoods.
Climate Leadership and Zero Waste Having declared a climate emergency in 2019, the City of Victoria is committed to taking serious climate action to reduce carbon pollution by 80 per cent and transition to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050.
Through its Climate Leadership Plan, the City will invest up to an additional $350,000 in 2021 to top up the CleanBC’s Better Homes and Home Renovation Rebate Program, encouraging homeowners to transition from oil and gas to electric heat pump. If you are heating your home with oil or natural gas and want a substantial rebate to convert to a heat pump, now is the time. Details are here.
Climate action will also include the continued transitioning of the City’s fleet to electric vehicles, in addition to $175,000 for public EV charging stations. If you are interested in swapping in your gas guzzler for an electric vehicle, it’s also a good time to do that with substantial provincial and federal rebates totaling up to $14,000 . More details here.
Last year saw the introduction of new zero waste stations across the city. This year we will invest an additional $95,000 to install more stations in high pedestrian traffic areas like the new Dallas Road Waterfront Walkway.
Unrelated to Budget: Dose of Inspiration / Spot of Grace My Sunday blog posts get mixed reviews, particularly when I make attempts to call us together, recognize our common humanity, our shared purpose, etc. Some people write and say they’re moved to tears, others say that they don’t need all this philosophizing garbage from the mayor. This week, one of the latter asked me what my “Sunday sermon” was going to be about. I told her I was writing about the 2021 budget! But just before sitting down at my computer to work, I happened to re-read this from Rachel Naomi’ Remen’s Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal. It moved me, so I thought it would share it with you:
“Each person is born with an unencumbered spot, free of expectation and regret, free of ambition and embarrassment, free of fear and worry, an umbilical spot of grace where we were each first touched by God. It is this spot of grace that issues peace. Psychologists call this spot the Psyche, Theologists call it the Soul, Jung calls it The Seat of the Unconscious, Hindu masters call it Atman, Buddhists call it the Dharma, Rilke calls it Inwardness, Sufis call it Qualb, and Jesus calls it The Centre of Our Love.
“To know this sport of inwardness is to know who we are, not by surface markers of identity, not by where we work or what we wear or how we like to be addressed but by feeling our place in relation to the Infinite and by inhabiting it. This is a hard lifelong task, for the nature of becoming is a constant filming over of where we begin while the nature of being is a constant erosion of what is not essential. We each live in the midst of this ongoing tension, growing tarnished or covered over only to be worn back to that incorruptible spot of grace at our core.”
I left work on Friday feeling rather hopeless. There are so many challenges still on the horizon: Our small businesses, already struggling, facing more restrictions. The variants of concern impacting young people. More than a year into a global health pandemic people still living outside. And this past week, another tragedy: a 15-year-old child living in Beacon Hill Park was assaulted in their tent. How can we, as a city, province and country have failed so miserably to have 15-year-olds – or anyone – living in tents? It’s a collective failing. No one is to blame, and everyone is responsible.
I’m angry at the decades-long divestment in housing by former provincial and federal governments. I’m angry that when mental health institutions were closed years back, a community solution was promised but never delivered. I’m angry that a couple of weeks ago, there were events to mark the five year anniversary of the declaration of the opioid crisis as a public health emergency. What kind of society has a five year long emergency? Our does. No one is to blame, and everyone is responsible.
The federal and provincial budgets this past week continue to address these issues. The provincial budget has $500 million for mental health supports, including youth mental health. And the federal government allocated an additional $1.5 billion for a second round of the Rapid Housing Initiative to help end chronic homelessness. Round one saw 91 new homes here in our region, in Saanich and Central Saanich. There’s so much more to be done.
But it’s not just more money that’s needed. Part of the issue is how we as a community are dealing with the three concurrent health crises facing us: the housing crisis, the COVID-19 crisis and the opioid crisis. This has come to a head in my email inbox again this week with a wide variety of perspectives, some worded very strongly.
Let’s start with the positive. Responsibility means the ability to respond. I’ve witnessed some phenomenal responses to the three concurrent health crises. In just over two months, 570 people donated over $550,000 to build homes for their neighbours. The Tiny Home Village at 940 Caledonia Street is set to open in the next couple of weeks. Thirty people will move inside due to the generosity of their neighbours and the problem-solving spirit of Aryze Developments.
In Beacon Hill Park, Stadacona Park and perhaps other parks as well, there are housed residents who are getting to know their unhoused neighbours, supporting them while living outdoors and continuing to support them as they move inside. If you take nothing else from this blog post, please read this inspiring story in The Capital Daily about the Fairfield Gonzales Support for the Unhoused.
Their work shouldn’t be remarkable. Imagine if there were a ‘real’ disaster – an earthquake or a flood – and Victoria residents were forced to set up tents in city parks. How would we respond? We’d do what all communities do in a disaster, we’d pull together and we’d help each other out. So why is this particular disaster – the housing crisis combined with the COVID-19 crisis combined with the opioid crisis – dividing us as a community rather than bringing us together with a can-do helping spirit?
In part it’s because people who live in homes near parks where people are living have had front row seats to the ongoing tragedy and vulnerability of people living outside. You are witnessing others’ trauma on a daily basis. For some it’s a reflex to turn away, to get angry, to just want it to stop. Also, to witness another’s pain and trauma can’t help but bring us face to face with our own. I know there have also been very real impacts on your lives in big and small ways, as you’ve shared these with me by email. I’m sorry.
In part it’s because of the toxic cesspool of social media where anyone can say anything about any one in any way without taking responsibility for the damage and division their words are doing. The name calling and blame game has to stop.
It’s also that we haven’t done enough to name and address stigma and discrimination against people who are poor, or living without homes, or living with substance use issues. A Vic West resident created a very disturbing flyer about the proposed transitional housing in their neighbourhood. Another Vic West resident wrote to me that they were “deeply distressed by the tone and language” contained in the flyer and that “it is a gut-wrenching demonstration of the ‘othering’ and prejudice that people who are homeless face every single day of their lives.”
In part its because those living outside are so visible and vulnerable. You have nowhere else to go. Being this visible must be very difficult. At end of a long hard day, I can come home and close my door. For those of you living outside, this past year has probably felt like one long, hard day with no end in sight. I’m sorry. I get why anxiety is high, tempers are high, and trust is low.
But there is a an end in sight. Over the past many months, BC Housing has been working hard to secure indoor spaces as a pathway to permanent housing for those living in parks. 114 people have already moved inside and over the next few weeks the people remaining outdoors will be offered spaces to move into. The spaces aren’t permanent homes and they’re not perfect. But they are a pathway to permanent housing, some of which is already under construction and will be open by the end of the year.
To those of you living outside, please strongly consider taking the offers that you receive. I know that a transition to indoors can be really difficult. That’s why as much as possible, we’re trying to take a person-centred approach so as you move inside you get the supports you need and have the networks you need to settle in. I know there are strong communities that have formed in some of the parks, and as much as possible, BC Housing is trying to keep people together who want to stay together.
Once someone makes the decision to move inside, we want to do everything we can to support them in that transition and on their pathway to permanent housing. That’s why we’re taking a compassionate, tailored approach to bylaw enforcement until the new transitional homes are ready to move into. City staff have put together a thoughtful, graduated approach to bylaw enforcement that recognizes individual needs while ensuring that the bylaw prohibiting daytime sheltering is enforced. Council has supported this direction. You can read the report here (item E1a).
People who accept an offer and are preparing to move from parks will not be required to pack up daily. Bylaw officers will allow time for moving into the transitional housing locations and will assist with downsizing belongings. When indoor spaces are ready, Bylaw and outreach workers will assist people with packing their items in totes and helping people move. Effective May 1, people who do not accept an offer will be required to take down, pack up and remove their tent and belongings daily by 7 a.m.
Council has approved this enforcement strategy and authorized the City Manager and City Solicitor to proceed with a court injunction to enforce the Parks Regulation Bylaw should voluntary compliance not be achieved. This provides the City with flexibility to respond to evolving situations quickly and effectively.
To all Victorians, I know that everyone is exhausted more than a year into a global health pandemic from job losses, from keeping your small businesses afloat with yet more restrictions, from social isolation, from worries about the future. Despite our collective exhaustion, can we please find it in ourselves to come together over what will potentially be a difficult transition period for everyone as people move inside over the next few weeks and 24/7 sheltering ends.
How can we welcome people into their new neigbourhoods? How can we have patience as the final moves take a bit of time? Can we muster up the grace, kindness and generosity that will be needed? In strong, resilient communities, no one is to blame, and everyone is responsible.
In cities across the country, we’ve witnessed the devastating effects of housing insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic unfold on our streets and in our parks. In the early days last March, shelters closed or cut their numbers, and many people were forced into doorways or tents. Others lost their jobs and couldn’t pay rent, and – even with all the government supports available – fell into homelessness.
Many low-income people have managed to hold onto their housing but are paying even more of their monthly income for shelter than they were pre-pandemic; this leaves less money for other necessities like food, childcare, and transportation costs. Indigenous people, Black people, and people of colour have been disproportionately impacted by housing insecurity, housing loss, and by COVID-19 cases and deaths, often as a direct result of living in inadequate or crowded housing.
Next week’s federal budget is an opportunity for the government to write Canada’s future story and uphold its human rights commitments. We understand that there are many pressures on the public purse; we feel these every day locally, as we also have to make difficult choices.
But we can’t state strongly enough that unless Budget 2021 makes significant and immediate investments in housing that reach those in need, economic recovery will be slow and uneven. Cities across the country – which are the engines of innovation in an increasingly knowledge-based economy – will have to spend continued time, energy, and resources dealing with the issue of homelessness, rather than on broader recovery efforts, and residents will not benefit from a recovery plan if they do not have decent housing that is affordable to them.
By adopting a human rights-based approach to housing through the National Housing Strategy Act of 2019, the Federal government has committed to addressing homelessness on an urgent and priority basis. The $1 billion federal Rapid Housing Initiative that rolled out in September 2020 was a good start. This program will see the immediate creation of 4700 supportive housing units across the country, 1700 of which are due directly to the investment and contribution of provinces and cities. With over 200,000 Canadians sleeping outside each night, and 27,000 chronically homeless who have lived on our streets for years, there is more to do.
A report by Carleton Professor Steve Pomeroy commissioned by the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness shows that over the next 10 years, Canadian taxpayers will spend $70 billion to continue to manage homelessness. Ending it would cost just $52 billion – a savings of $18 billion. The $52 billion plan would prevent an additional 300,000 Canadians from falling into homelessness, and it would create 500,000 well-paying jobs in the construction sector. Not only does ending homelessness ensure compliance with the federal government’s human rights commitments, it makes good fiscal sense.
And, it’s the kind of bold, ambitious action that our cities and our most vulnerable residents require. As a start, in Budget 2021 we’d like to see a $7 billion expansion of the Rapid Housing Initiative. This will create at least 21,000 additional units of housing within a year for people facing homelessness. If the federal funds are leveraged further with investment from provinces and land from cities, even more housing will be built.
We know that building new housing isn’t enough. Between 2011 and 2016, the number of private rental units affordable to households earning less than $30,000 per year (rents below $750) declined by 322,600 units. This trend is continuing as older rental stock is purchased by Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) that significantly drive up rent levels and drive out tenants. The current National Housing Strategy proposes to build only 15,000 units per year over ten years. This means we’re currently losing far more affordable housing than we’re building.
Budget 2021 should create a significant fund for non-profit housing providers to acquire older market rental housing, renovate it as units turnover, and keep it affordable in perpetuity. This will protect the seniors in our communities who live on fixed incomes, students who pay high tuition costs, women-led single-parent families, and people working in low-income jobs who can’t afford to pay market rents in any city in this country. Budget 2021 should also include immediate rent relief measures for renters.
We are not alone in our call for a housing focus in Budget 2021. A poll conducted by Nanos Research in August 2020 shows that 84% of Canadians support or somewhat support affordable housing investment as part of pandemic recovery economic stimulus. And our residents in cities from coast to coast to coast call and email us every day asking us to do something about the housing crisis.
As cities, our roles and resources are limited. But we’re here as partners nonetheless. We pledge to work together with the federal, provincial, and territorial governments to create a future story for our country where every person has their right to housing met. Doing so makes common sense, fiscal sense, and will help ensure a speedy, inclusive, and lasting recovery.
Trigger warning: This post contains discussions of rape, sexual assault, and violence against women.
For those who haven’t been following social media over the past week in Victoria, this post will come as a bit of a surprise and maybe a shock. In the past few months on an Instagram account @survivorstoriesproject, women working in the restaurant industry have been reporting sexual assaults. More recently, on the same account, women reported sexual violence by a number of Victoria real estate agents.
In response, on social media last Saturday, Victoria Councillor Stephen Andrew posted the following tweet:
He has since apologized, acknowledged the existence of rape culture, and made a motion for Victoria Council to create a task force to address sexual abuse. More on the motion below.*
Some may wonder how anyone could claim that rape culture doesn’t exist. There’s an easy answer: It’s the very misogynistic and patriarchal organization of western society that perpetuates rape culture, that makes it possible to claim that rape culture doesn’t exist. In other words, it is male privilege to be able to be blind to the existence of rape culture.
Rape Culture Rape culture is defined as “an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.”
So many women have written to me this past week outraged, thoughtful and courageous. They’ve outlined, once again, how patriarchy and misogyny work. Many put it so eloquently. Here is what one woman wrote:
“We are fearful walking home after dark, we go for runs without headphones, we avoid booking male massage therapists and other practitioners that place us in a vulnerable position without prior recommendation and vetting from friends, we are uneasy taking public transportation in certain areas or times of day, we can’t leave our drinks unattended, we smile and we laugh in uncomfortable situations until we can politely escape for fear of making the situation worse. The list goes on, and on, and on, and on, and on. I have done all of these things. I know hundreds of women who do these things daily. I would say that this is representative of a culture and society that demands women make unreasonable sacrifices to avoid sexual assault, wouldn’t you?”
In this culture, women, transgender and non-binary people face sexual violence. Over the last 10 years, sexual assault is the only violent crime on the increase in British Columbia and across Canada. Statistics Canada states that less than 5% of victims of sexual violence report to police. This number is likely lower because when these studies are done, rarely do teens and young adults – those at greatest risk of being sexually assaulted – answer the phone and respond to surveys. Of the less than 5% who report, few ever result in charges and only 1.8% (of the 5%) result in convictions. We need to collectively work to change these conditions and make it easier and safer for survivors to speak out and to receive justice.
As noted above, rape culture is also perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language. Brace yourselves for the text I received yesterday afternoon:
“Notice the bottle neck you created on the Tillicum bridge. More traffic congestion more pollution. Well done you dumb CUNT! Article 16 on your blog post on Clover Point you point out what cities like Oakland are doing if that’s what you want do what the majority of Victorians want you to do, fuck off and go there before you do anymore damage to our city. You dumb CUNT!”
I felt sick to my stomach. And shamed. I’m not sure if it’s the capitalization of the word that’s most upsetting, or the fact that the writer needed to say it twice, or the fact that the “Tillicum bridge” isn’t even in Victoria and it’s just easy and convenient to use violent language to blame me – a female politician. It turns out the writer is referring to a wonderful pedestrian improvement project spearheaded jointly by Esquimalt Council and Saanich Council on the Gorge Road Bridge.
I just finished reading a compelling book by Indigenous author Alicia Elliott, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. Last weekend, as the social media firestorm was unfolding, I happened to be reading the chapter called “On Forbidden Rooms and Intentional Forgetting,” where she talks about her experience of being raped.
She writes, “Arguing that a woman deserves to police the boundaries of her own body – boundaries that are continually, sometimes violently broken by men who have been taught to disregard women’s active, informed consent – is a task similar to Sisyphus rolling a boulder up hill, waiting for it to roll back down and crush him. It’s contrary to all that we’ve been taught about women and men. It questions the very legitimacy of Western misogyny, and thus, Western society. In other words, it’s blasphemy.”
Her words are so strong and powerful, just like all of the survivors who have the courage to speak up. And all the wonderful staff at the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre and the @survivorstoriesproject followers who support them. Keep raising your voices. The world needs to hear us. For men who want to help, thank you. Please donate to the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre here. Examine your privilege, work to address it, don’t be complicit. We need you.
*Re: Councillor Andrew’s motion cited above: Council postponed consideration of the motion on Thursday until we receive a report from staff on work already underway based on an earlier motion made by Councillors Potts and Loveday to address sexual harassment in the restaurant industry. The staff report will outline what jurisdiction, if any, the City has to directly address sexual violence. We won’t set up a task force that gives hope to survivors, only to have the system fail them once again if there’s nothing the City within its jurisdiction can do. Of course we will continue to advocate. And, the City has been funding the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre Clinic – the first of it’s kind in British Columbia – since it opened.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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! firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
I wanted to started this email / post with the op-ed I wrote for the Times Colonist on Thursday, which marked one year of the global health pandemic. The crafty headline writers at the paper gave it the title, “Can-do spirit of past year will help position city for the future.” I’m sharing it with all of you as a tribute to what we’ve all been through. If you wrote specifically about Clover Point or about homelessness and concerns with respect to parks sheltering and the plans to move people indoors, feel free to skip the op-ed and go right down to those headings. If you’d like to receive weekly updates, you can sign up here (top right hand side).
Can Do Spirit of Past Year Today marks one year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global health pandemic. The flag at City Hall is flying at half-mast to recognize and mourn the lives that have been lost.
Today is also a moment for reflection: how we came together to fight COVID-19; how our lives have changed; what we’ve lost and what we’ve gained. It’s also a time to look forward, towards recovery and to what kind of economy we build for the future.
Each of us probably remembers where we were the moment life changed. I was at the Victoria airport on March 11, 2020. I’d checked in and was waiting for my flight to Ottawa for a conference and minister meetings. My phone rang and it was staff at City Hall suggesting I reconsider travelling.
I remember telling the woman at the Air Canada boarding gate that I wouldn’t be on the flight. “You and almost everyone else,” she said. Recognizing me as the mayor she said, “Good luck to you … good luck to all of us,” with a real sense of foreboding.
It’s much more than luck that has carried us through the last year. It’s the skill, courage and sheer fortitude of those working in our health care system. They risked their lives to keep us all safe. They showed up for shifts in the early days of the pandemic when so much about the disease was unknown. They tended to the sick and the dying. They are COVID-19 heroes.
So too the bus drivers who kept transit running so people could get to work. The grocery store cashiers and clerks. The teachers who got kids back to school in uncertain conditions. The City workers who kept providing the services we depend on like garbage pick-up, street cleaning, running water.
When the world shut down and we were told to stay at home, to work from home, those who couldn’t and didn’t – for the benefit of us all – deserve our deepest thanks.
We did thank them early on, banging pots at 7 p.m. On front porches and in backyards throughout the region, every evening the loud clanging clatter of thanks. That simple act brought us together, lifted our spirits. But then it stopped, our spirits fizzled, and COVID-19 fatigue began to set in.
Our bubbles started to feel small. We couldn’t go for dinner with a friend, take a trip, enjoy a symphony concert or a play. Sing in our choirs. Attend church in person. Many have lost jobs or had their work hours cut. The pandemic widened existing cracks in the social safety net, leaving our most vulnerable neighbours in desperate need of housing and support. Our kids’ mental health worries us, and maybe our own mental health does too. Our small businesses are struggling.
There have been some silver linings. The region’s generosity was evident in the early months of the pandemic when the Times Colonist, Victoria Foundation and Jawl Family Foundation launched the Rapid Relief Fund with the aim of raising $1 million. In less than two months, contributions small and large totalled $6 million, all of which went directly to non-profits providing services to people hit hard by the pandemic.
The Build Back Victoria initiative last summer showed how quickly Council can act and how agile City Hall can be. Within weeks, dozens of patios and retail “flex spaces” sprung up across the city to create more space for businesses to serve customers. I’ve had a number of business owners tell me that Build Back Victoria is the reason they’re still open. And I’ve had residents say to me that they’ve never spent as much time or money on Government Street as they did last summer.
In all sectors, women, youth, Indigenous people, people of colour, and low-wage service workers have been disproportionately impacted. According to the South Island Prosperity Partnership’s Rebootrecovery vision, “we must collectively take bold steps to nurture a more inclusive and diversified economy.”
This has been one of the most difficult years in Victoria’s history. And we’ve made it through. In the coming months, let’s continue to use what we’ve learned during the pandemic – agility, deep collaboration, a can-do spirit – to position our city and our region for the future.
Clover Point Decision Recap Please see blog posts from February 28th and March 7th (head to Clover Point section in each post) for a more comprehensive explanation of the approach we’ve taken to Clover Point. In response to further emails this week, I’m sharing some information on the precise decision for those who may not have these details, and a link to the February 25th staff report. At the February 25 Committee of the Whole meeting, staff presented three options for the interim design of Clover Point Park. Council approved the below motion and we ratified it at our daytime Council meeting on March 4.
Interim Design Options for Parking and Pedestrian Space in Clover Point Park That Council direct staff to proceed with Option 2 for Clover Point Park:
Complete modifications to increase the pedestrian priority space in Clover Point Park, as illustrated in Attachment B, with an allocation of up to $275,000 in the 2021 Financial Plan, to be funded from the Buildings and Infrastructure Reserve.
That the painting budget be restricted to delineating pedestrian trails and bike trails versus passive space.
That a location be found downtown for the “follow the pod” public art feature.
That staff be in consultation with immigrants and immigrant associations, ethno-cultural groups and the seniors’ advisory committee, youth council and City of Victoria youth council, Fairfield Gonzales Community Association, Accessibility Advisory Committee, Active Transportation Advisory Committee, and that their views are considered.
That food trucks must use sustainable practices and must submit these practices to staff.
That the budget for furniture be reduced to $50,000.
You can find the staff report and Council’s discussion from February 25 here.
Update on Parks Sheltering and Moves Indoors(and what the City spends money on) Some of you who have written this week have asked us to ends parks sheltering immediately. Others have asked us to extend it indefinitely, or to the end of the pandemic. My hope is that Council sticks to our commitment, which is the middle ground between these two positions.
In November, Council passed a motion indicating that we would change the parks bylaw to end 24/7 sheltering once everyone currently living in parks has been offered an indoor sheltering space as a pathway to permanent housing. We had set a goal of March 31st. The Province and BC Housing accepted this goal and everyone has been working towards it. Parks are not homes. And Beacon Hill Park is not a campground. Parks have been used as emergency shelters in an emergency situation. A huge shout out to our parks staff who are working so hard to maintain Beacon Hill Park even in these very difficult circumstances. Please thank them when you see them.
As of this week the Province announced that it has secured a sufficient number of indoor spaces to support moving people inside. Because two of the sites secured this month require significant additional retrofitting to prepare them for use as emergency shelters, the process will continue until the end of April 2021, rather than the end of March as originally planned. Announcement of the final site list will be done in partnership with the city in the coming weeks once all of the agreements between BC Housing and the property owners have closed.
Following through on its commitment, at our evening Council meeting last Thursday, Council gave three readings to a parks bylaw amendment that would see the end of 24/7 sheltering as of May 1st. Council will consider adoption of the bylaw this Thursday.
All the indoor sheltering locations will be fully operational, with non-profit service providers identified, by April 30, 2021. At these locations, staff will be on site 24/7 to provide wraparound supports, including meal programs, life skills training, and health and wellness support services.
Fifty-seven people have moved inside since the beginning of March and moves will continue this coming week. People have moved inside from Ellis Street in Rock Bay, Cecelia Ravine Park, and 940 Caledonia. This site will be closed as of March 19th to make way for a Tiny Home development, subject to the outcome of an opportunity for the public to comment on the project at Council Thursday evening.
We expect a minimum of 52 moves this coming week into Capital City Centre and other sites. BC Housing is prioritizing people over 50 (down from 55), those at risk of COVID-19, those who are long-time homeless, and Indigenous people.
Here are four questions that one person has asked; they reflect questions from others of you as well. I have answered them a number of times – in some form – since August when I began weekly updates. Please read previous posts if you require further or more detailed information. You can find them here.
1. Why did you allow 24/7 camping in parks in the first place, given that this was not a requirement of the BC Ministry of Health? A global pandemic was declared. Shelters closed. Couch-surfing ended. Bubbles got small. And people had nowhere to go. The City allowed people who had nowhere to go when everyone was told to stay at home to shelter in place. Dr. Henry advised on June 8th 2020 in a memo to all mayors in British Columbia that encampments should not be cleared unless there were safe indoor spaces for people to go. At this time, she has not rescinded her advice or sent any further memos. That’s why we’ve been working hard with the Province to secure safe indoor spaces so that we can move people inside and end encampments.
2. Why didn’t you admit the mistake and reverse course when it quickly became clear that 24/7 camping was a disastrous decision? While there have been many difficulties with this situation for everyone involved, I don’t believe it is a mistake. I think there would have been a greater risk of the spread of COVID-19 had 200 to 400 people had to take down their tents every morning and move throughout the city. Plus, there was literally nowhere for people to go. Even Our Place and the library closed, two places where people without homes can spend time during the day.
3. Why are you intending to allow 7pm – 7am camping in parks after all campers have been offered accommodation? The BC Supreme Court decision does not require cities to allow camping in urban parks except when there is no sheltering alternative. I agree. The goal is to have no camping in city parks and to have adequate indoor sheltering space for everyone who needs it. The goal is to achieve what is called “functional zero” when it comes to homelessness. What this means is that if someone becomes homeless, there is room in the emergency shelter and housing system to catch them immediately and to meet their needs, however complex, before their situation becomes chronic.
The 2009 BC Supreme Court decision ruled that people who have no homes have the right to erect shelters overnight. The decision uses words like “adequate sheltering alternative” or something like this. So it’s not just as simple as the number of shelter beds that may be available on a given night. If for example, someone is in recovery from drug or alcohol use and the only shelter beds available are ones where drug use and/or alcohol consumption is permitted, that may not be considered an “adequate” shelter for that person. The Supreme Court decision is not a simple numbers game.
4. Why do you refuse to acknowledge the extent to which the homeless population in Victoria consists of people from outside the region? We will never get ahead of the problem of housing so many people when there is a large and steady influx from other provinces. What the bi-annual Point In Time Count shows is that the majority of people who are homeless in Victoria are from British Columbia. And, Council unanimously voted last August to ask the Coordinated Assessment and Access (CAA) table to prioritize people for housing who have lived in the CRD for at least a year. Council does not make decisions about who gets housed. You can read the August 6th recommendation to Council from myself and Councillors Thornton-Joe, Loveday and Alto here. (See item J3.)
There seems to be a narrative emerging in some of the emails we’ve received, and probably also on social media, that instead of “wasting” money on bike lanes and Clover Point, the City should be spending money instead on housing, mental health and addictions. At then there is also a narrative that Council focuses on issues that are beyond our scope and that we should stay focused on what is properly within a municipal mandate.
Health care and housing are clearly – and constitutionally – the responsibilities of the federal and provincial governments. The City can and does partner with both levels of government; we sometimes provide land for housing. And we have a housing reserve fund in which we deposit $650,000 per year to help fund the creation of non-market housing by non-profit housing providers. But we are not responsible for housing, health care, mental health and addictions supports and we don’t have the revenue raising capacity or tools to fund these important services.
But cities are supposed to spend money on parks and improvements to transportation infrastructure. And, contrary to what seems like popular belief, most of the bike infrastructure in Victoria is not funded through property taxes. It is funded through gas tax funding which is remitted to local governments from the federal government each year and can only be used to fund sustainable projects. The City of Victoria is not alone in developing a high-quality bike network. This article, “Europe doubles down on cycling in post-COVID recovery plans,” celebrates the explosion of cycling infrastructure across Europe.
And just one more thing in this regard, because it gets raised so often: we spend millions every year paving roads and filling potholes. At the same time as we are building bike lanes and improving parks – to deliver on the City’s 20-year paving and road maintenance plan – we are increasing the paving budget up to a steady state of $7.9 million per year by 2023.
Road Paving – Major and Local Streets
Year Budget 2018 $2.8 million 2019 $2.6 million 2020 $5.5 million 2021 $5.2 million 2022 (proposed) $6.3 million 2023 (proposed) $7.9 million
“So, as the proud mother of a son who is both chronically disabled and homeless due to serious mental illness and has managed to survive on the streets of Victoria for many years: may I say that just LOOKING at the ‘Shelter Referral Card’ does some kind of deep healing to my heart. I don’t even know that my son is ever going to receive one of these, but just knowing that people like him are is deeply, deeply encouraging to me.
I know that you and certain other concerned councillors are receiving a LOT of flack for these efforts from people who have no personal interest in really trying to understand the complex issue of homelessness. Please know that there are MANY more mothers and brothers and sisters and grandparents out there who are BLESSING YOUR SOUL for this work, every single day.”
She shared this article with me from The Capital Daily, where parents of homeless Victorians speak. To all the parents, grandparents and siblings of people who are homeless out there in our city or across the province or country, we know it’s not their fault, and it’s not your fault either. The health and housing system fails those with the most chronic needs, over and over again. This is why we are working together with the Province and the federal government to make sure that the housing and health care systems work better together, and work for everyone.