Opinion: Victoria’s community associations need to evolve

Community associations are stacked with 'single-family home truthers,' yet wield great power over decision making, says Jeremy Caradonna

By Jeremy Caradonna
June 21, 2021

Opinion: Victoria’s community associations need to evolve

Community associations are stacked with 'single-family home truthers,' yet wield great power over decision making, says Jeremy Caradonna

James MacDonald / Capital Daily
James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Opinion: Victoria’s community associations need to evolve

Community associations are stacked with 'single-family home truthers,' yet wield great power over decision making, says Jeremy Caradonna

By Jeremy Caradonna
June 21, 2021
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Opinion: Victoria’s community associations need to evolve
James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Editor's Note: This opinion essay is the first time we have published writing of its type in Capital Daily. Opinion pieces will always be categorized under the "Capital Ideas" tag. We are hoping that by offering a platform for informed opinion writing we can spark conversations about this imperfect city, and we eagerly anticipate hearing from people and groups on all points of Victoria's political compass. Submissions can be sent to contact@capitaldaily.ca, and should be specifically about issues of governance, city planning, politics, and the future of Victoria.

I am a new board member of the Fernwood Community Association (FCA), one of a dozen community associations in Victoria with an official relationship with city hall, and I have been stunned and disappointed by my experience. The FCA is run by a coterie of longtime residents that routinely disregards its own bylaws—or applies them only selectively and self-servingly—reactively opposes change, and oversees a disorganized and mismanaged organization with little transparency or accountability. Newcomers are treated with suspicion and the organization is run much more like a private club than an accountable public organization.

The experience has led me to ask questions about the origins and role of community associations in Victoria more broadly.

Community associations and their CALUCs  (community association land-use committees) are the base of the municipal political structure. They receive direct funding from the city in the thousands of dollars, wield influence over development decisions, and enjoy direct access to city councillors—and yet, relatively few citizens know much about these organizations, or their history, and they tend to fly well below the radar.

So, where did Victoria’s community and neighbourhood associations come from? “Neighbourhood associations first formed in James Bay and Fernwood in the 1970s, largely in response to land-use and transportation issues and local area planning processes,” according to the 2017 official terms of reference. They were modelled on community associations in other cities that were formed in the post-war period, as cities began to grapple with urban change, population growth, diversity, land-use conflicts, and a host of other issues. The association movement grew in the 1980s, and mayor David Turner, in 1994, along with the city council at the time, formalized their relationship with the city. As part of this arrangement, official community associations received grant funding from the city on a per capita basis.

The associations were assigned designated city council liaisons, who still attend association board meetings and serve as a direct conduit to city hall. Finally, and most impactfully, the relationship between the associations and the CALUCs was established, and CALUCs have served ever since as the gatekeepers of development in residential areas. Typically, land-use meetings are attended only by the people who have the awareness, time, and interest to participate. Renters, newcomers, students, Indigenous people, young families with child-care considerations, and the working class are typically absent from these discussions, and their interests are poorly represented.

Indeed, the CALUCs are often dominated by single-family-home truthers who are vehemently opposed to missing middle development, public housing, affordability, renters, and change in general. In fact, I would argue that community associations in general, and CALUCs in particular, are partly to blame for Victoria’s ongoing affordability crisis. Although the FCA is technically neutral on matters of development, it is overwhelmingly run by people who oppose non-single-family home development, and it contributes demonstrably to the slow pace of affordable housing developments in Victoria.

As an example, the majority of the FCA voted to support a letter from VCAN (the meta-organization for community associations in Victoria) that vehemently opposes a proposal by city staff to bypass consultation at the CALUCs for a very specific class of developments: affordable housing developments that align with the OCP and are run by non-profit organizations, mainly BC Housing and the Capital Regional Housing Corporation. Board members of the FCA were also instrumental in opposing (unsuccessfully, in the end) the Capital Regional Housing Corporation’s proposed Caledonia development, that would pay for renovations to Vic High and house hundreds of lower-to-middle income residents.

I believe that locals citizens have every right to have a say in what’s occurring in their neighbourhood, but to block affordable public housing—again, not private developments run by for-profit developers—is an egregious slap in the face to the many people, young and old, who are struggling to find housing in this town, and at a moment when it remains nearly impossible to find any housing, let alone affordable housing.

It is an untenable situation that community associations and CALUCs receive so little scrutiny from the public, especially at a time when good governance, diversity, and inclusivity are more important than ever for local voters.

Interestingly, city staff and councillors are concerned about the ambiguous status of community associations and the CALUCs that they control. The city notes that there is a “‘fuzziness’ around the roles, responsibilities and expectations of CALUCs.” Elsewhere, the city writes of a “lack of clarity” about the role of these organizations. What exactly are CALUCs supposed to do? Are they meant to block or enable change? And what has their role been in slowing down affordable housing development in Victoria?

This “lack of clarity” and “fuzziness” has, for many years, been exploited by associations and CALUCs to block change that would bring more housing and housing affordability, while the associations have claimed a level of influence that was perhaps never originally intended. The upshot is that new housing has been slowed or blocked in many parts of the city. As a result, Victoria is edging towards what former Vancouver councillor Gordon Price calls the “grand bargain” that was struck between neighbourhood associations and city council in Vancouver many years ago.

The reason Vancouver has so many skyscrapers in its downtown, and virtually no density in other residential areas, is that several decades ago community associations blocked density in residential areas. The effect was essentially to corral development into former industrial lands in downtown, and to suburban, satellite downtowns in Burnaby and neighbouring jurisdictions. It’s debatable whether this has worked for Vancouver, but it most certainly would not work in Victoria. Victoria is a small city with urban villages that are ideally suited for three- to six-storey buildings. If residential areas don’t choose to tastefully densify around urban villages—the plainly stated goal of Victoria’s Official Community Plan (OCP)—then we will end up a miniature-sized Vancouver, with Starlight-sized developments, and the same big-city problems.

Of course, it is not a black-and-white issue. Since the 1970s, some of the community associations have evolved with the times. Even the early neighbourhood associations did some good work, and in Fernwood, Paul Phillips (the patron saint of Fernwood) and the FCA of the mid-1970s was instrumental in creating Fernwood Square, which was achieved by shutting to cars a small stretch of road that once acted as the terminus of the streetcar line that ran from downtown to the Belfry. Today, the Oaklands Association is a well-run organization, with daycare services, children’s programming, and an active community centre. North Park Neighbourhood Association is a model of progressive thought and open-mindedness, and the dedicated leaders of that organization have done so much to support marginalized populations and the unhoused during the pandemic and before. Many community associations have progressive, hard-working volunteers who are open to change and tasteful densification of residential areas. They tend to be the minority.

But many community associations, including my own, are stuck in post-war Canada. They view themselves as self-appointed gatekeepers of change, and are run overwhelmingly by established residents, longtime members, and homeowners. Little is done to attract newcomers or a diverse and inclusive set of voices at the table. There are relatively few young people, newcomers to Victoria, or renters in the associations, and the involvement of Indigenous people is practically nil, from what I’ve observed. The associations, for the most part, are set up to defend a certain conception of what residential Victoria is meant to be: white and middle class, with few renters, people of colour, or unwed mothers to bring down property values.

Returning to Fernwood, many of the members of the FCA have been on the board for decades, and one member has served since 1989. This is a problem for many reasons, not the least of which is that organizations—especially public organizations—should value and prioritize regular turnover on their boards, so as to avoid favouritism and empire building, but also to simply give others a chance to influence the neighbourhood. A younger generation desperate for affordable housing is not well represented on community association boards or CALUCs. More—much more—needs to be done to reach out to and involve young people, renters, low-income seniors, and other marginalized groups, as they are the ones most affected by the affordability crisis.

Further, the FCA often does not follow good governance practices and routinely flouts its own bylaws, often failing to post minutes or keep a reconciled and up-to-date membership list, while currently delaying its AGM for more than two years. Now, it is the case that many small organizations fudge the rules a bit, and understandably so, but this willful ignorance of bylaws is actually quite a big problem in an organization that is supposed to have public accountability. How many other community associations fail to uphold good governance practices and, in the process, systemically bar new voices from sitting at the table? I wonder.

It’s clear that community associations need to change. To support this goal, I have joined with more than a hundred Fernwoodians to launch a new campaign called Fernwood Forward, in an effort to bring positive change to the FCA and Fernwood as a whole.

To my knowledge, this is the first public campaign that has ever been run in Victoria to bring wholesale change to a community association, as we look ahead to the long-awaited (and strategically delayed) AGM. The goal is less than radical: to transform the FCA into a model of good governance, inclusivity, democratic practice, and open-mindedness; to elevate the diverse voices of Fernwood, which I believe is Victoria’s most dynamic neighbourhood; to increase membership and community activities; to make better use of the FCA’s assets, including its tragically underutilized public hall, for community and children’s programming; to partner with organizations looking to make positive change in Fernwood; to create much-needed term limits on the board and update the bylaws to encourage new voices and regular turnover; and finally, to end the practice of allowing people who don’t live in, own businesses in, or have children in school in Fernwood to serve on the board, which would be consistent with other community associations across BC.

To bring these goals to life, Fernwood Forward will undertake a large membership drive via a public campaign, and organize a series of visioning sessions so that everyone in the neighbourhood feels included in the decision-making process and the future of the community. The movement will culminate in the creation of a slate of diverse candidates who will, collectively, bring change to the FCA and the neighbourhood as a whole.

It’s well past time that a new generation of leaders steps up in community associations—young people, renters, BIPOC, newcomers—and takes back the power from the phalanx of “No.” Community associations belong to us, the people, and they should be run as accountable public organizations, not exclusive private clubs and dysfunctional miniature empires. We demand fairness, inclusivity, and good governance at city hall. Why would we not demand the same from community associations and CALUCs?

Dr. Jeremy Caradonna is an Adjunct Professor of Environmental Studies at UVic and works for the Province of BC. He lives in Fernwood with his wife and two kids and is active in local politics, podcasting, beekeeping, and gardening. He can be reached at jeremycaradonnayyj@gmail.com. Fernwood Forward can be reached at FernwoodForward@gmail.com or on Facebook.

Update: Members of the Fernwood Community Association have responded to this essay with two opinion submissions of their own.

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