BC Housing Plan at 1909 Prosser Rd. Subject to Community Debate

BC Housing Plan at 1909 Prosser Rd. Subject to Community Debate

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EPISODE SUMMARY

A plan for social housing at 1909 Prosser Road in Central Saanich is being met with strong public opinions as community consultation continues. We speak to  Mayor Ryan Windsor about the response.

EPISODE NOTES

A plan for social housing at 1909 Prosser Road in Central Saanich is being met with strong public opinions as community consultation continues. We speak to  Mayor Ryan Windsor about the response.  

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Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jackie: My name is Jackie Lamport. Today is Monday, May 3rd. Welcome to the Capital Daily podcast. The BC Housing development in Central Saanich for folks experiencing homelessness is raising concerns in the community. We speak to Mayor Ryan Windsor about whether the concerns are valid or just nimbyism.

Jackie: Mayor Windsor, thank you so much for joining us today.

Mayor Windsor: Oh, well, thank you for having me.

Jackie: What can you tell us about the development at 1909 Prosser Road?

Mayor Windsor: Sure, there are a number of details around this proposal by BC Housing that actually predate BC Housing’s involvement. A couple of years ago, the district looked to this property. There was an application to rezone the property, which is inside of our urban containment boundary, less than a kilometre from the village core of Saanichton. The proposal at that time was for 50 units of market rental housing and 40 units with Great Victoria Housing Society at the time proposed as a partner for below market-style housing. That was very similar in nature to a proposal done in Brentwood Bay a couple of years prior to that, which is now operating as the Parsons building and available in perpetuity at below-market rent. So that’s where the project began, and then I guess the proponents of the day were not able to see the project through. And we, through the evolution of time, found ourselves with the provincial government increasing its interest in housing, taking a look at this. Of course, they are primarily responsible for housing. We do zoning, but they do housing. They have expressed a strong interest in that in a number of communities, including ours, and so they have acquired the proposal. The Capital Regional District is likely also involved, although they’re on the other 50 units, and the details are still emerging about that as well.

Jackie: What role does the municipality play in the planning for this?

Mayor Windsor: So I think there’s a lot of perception out there about where the municipality should be involved. But the municipality doesn’t really have any authority beyond issuing building permits, and the like of a lot of that is administrative. The zoning question, of course, was already answered a few years ago; there were no changes. I don’t know of any municipality that defines, say, supportive housing. So I think that would be unwise for a municipality to get into that because then they’re making an I’ll characterize it sort of as best I can. They’re making judgment calls about who should live where. And I don’t know that a municipality would stand up to that kind of scrutiny because we have no authority to do so. Or be that it would be wise indeed, to get into that. And dare I be a little bit bold here, history is full of examples where we did try to say who could live where, and anyone who needs more examples of that can pick up a history book.

Jackie: There are some concerns from people in the area that the housing is going to be meant for people who aren’t necessarily from Central Saanich but people experiencing homelessness in Victoria, do you think that there’s been any confusion on messaging?

Mayor Windsor: I think the provincial government, and I think they’ve acknowledged this, to some extent already needs to provide more information to the community. The community has a lot of questions and is speculating about possible outcomes and types of individuals that may be in this housing. It’s beyond our ability other than to receive that information through our official means. If somebody wants to write a letter to mayor and council, we’ve said they’re more than welcome to do so. When council gets together, it can see if there are questions that we also need to be asking BC Housing but we do so in a way that is factual. In the absence of facts, we say we need to gather more information before we can address what-ifs.

Jackie: There’s also been some complaints about people who feel like they haven’t been able to express their concern to the extent that they would like to. There’s a direct example from the community meetings, which are virtual. Do you think that part of that is due to the learning curve of having community meetings virtually?

Mayor Windsor: Yes, and no. At the end of the day, there is a limitation on the virtual meetings. If I were going to be critical of something at the moment, and I have expressed this to BC Housing, directly limiting the number of participants in a virtual meeting wouldn’t be a choice I would make. Certainly, at our council meetings, we don’t limit those who can at very least observe. Obviously, you take as many speakers as you possibly can in our environment when the time is made available. So I understand BC Housing making the choice to have a certain number of speakers, but then to limit observers is maybe a little problematic. That’s certainly something I have heard and has been voiced to me, and I’ve relayed those concerns to BC Housing, who are conducting the process.

Jackie: Similar to that, there’s also been some feedback saying that the consultation for this has come a bit late. Do you think that there was an opportunity earlier on to bring the community’s thoughts into this?

Mayor Windsor: Again, the zoning pre-existed a couple of years ago and what it said was really all the municipality had the authority to say was that 40 units should be at below-market rents. If all 90 wind up being at below-market rents, then they’ve more than satisfied the legal conditions that the municipality had the authority to put in place in the first place. In terms of our public process, the municipality really has no authority. I’ve delved into this and tried to see if there was anything we could do or should do, and the answer is no. In terms of our process, other than to receive letters to mayor and council, I’ve been out there on social media saying, you know, “if you have any thoughts on this, you’re wildly in favour, or you’re wildly opposed, you’re welcome to write to us.” We can perhaps formulate a response based on information that we receive through the place where we derive our authority, which is the council table. But that is very limited, and there is no authority for the municipality to overturn the zoning. For example, I’ve explained that to many of our residents who have reached out to me. In terms of the consultation with BC Housing, I would say that I recognize that many in the community are saying this was a surprise. I’m not going to say to people how they should characterize it; that’s on them. As I’ve said, I think BC Housing needs to do more than provide information. I can deal with where we are and what we can do from here, and we certainly are taking that very seriously.

Jackie: Aside from the criticism over maybe logistically involving the community, there’s also been specific concerns about the housing itself. There’s a specific Facebook group where some of the people in the community are concerned about the potential drug use of people who may qualify for this type of housing. What would you say to people who have that concern?

Mayor Windsor: So the issue of substance use is not unique to this proposal. I certainly had conversations with people around the community. We have had individual members of our community living in, for example, a detached house, succumb to poisoned drugs and that kind of substance use. So, it exists here. It’s a concern, and our police have had to respond to that. We’ve had to respond to those high acuity people. I guess the concern for some people, as it’s been characterized to me, is concentration. We don’t yet know because we’re still gathering information on who the operator will be and, ultimately, who the residents of this will be. There is a lot of speculation in the community, and I’m aware of that Facebook group. The reality of the world we live in is that social media exists and where there is a vacuum of information or a lack of information. People will speculate, people will start private groups. I will not be joining any Facebook groups, especially private ones, and I would caution against that. I certainly can’t tell people what they should or shouldn’t do, but I question the merit of a private group and what kind of activity might be taking place in that group. We, as I have said, how council table, the members of council of which I am the lead. But, one member of seven can receive and have a very public-facing way of engaging with council receiving information, getting information from our staff, understanding where our authority ends, which I have spent a lot of time doing in my role over the last eight years. I understand this role very well. Although, you know, when questions emerge, we ask our staff to get information for us and present us with that information about our authority, if there is any question. Then, we can formulate a response at our council meetings. Again, that’s where we derive our power from. The province derives its power and has power over housing. It does so from the BC legislature. I would suggest to the public that this government was very clear that they were going to work more on housing. They may not have said we’re going to put proposals here or here during an election, but government often makes decisions based on its priorities. Further, I’ve been asked to weigh in on a value statement. I’ve been contacted by people in this community who have a wide array of perspectives, some of whom are vehemently opposed, others who are very much in favour. Given my role and where we exist, I don’t think it would be wise to make value statements because it assumes that everyone in this community is of one mind, which I know not to be the case.

Jackie: There are people who would prefer the building itself to be used specifically for families and not just adults who are struggling with addictions. Do you think that that is exclusionary?

I would be cautious about myself because I am the mayor, and I speak on behalf of the district and council. It’s ultimately on BC Housing to make the decision about that, and not us. That is what I’m trying to help the public understand. They genuinely believe that the municipality possesses some authority to perhaps make statements or try to re legislate this around what might be, in your words, exclusionary. To my knowledge, we possess no such authority, and therefore it would be inappropriate in my view to make that statement.

Jackie: Okay, I’ll push you a little bit further and then move on. Would you at all call this nimbyism?

Mayor Windsor: Nimbyism is a catch-all term. Certainly, what it really relates to is the idea that within the immediate neighbourhood, there are strong opinions often, as is the case of the acronym “not in my backyard,” that they’re opposed. In this case, oftentimes, we do hear disproportionally, if not exclusively, from the immediate neighbourhood. This certainly has provoked a response and phone calls and emails to us from the wider community. Again, both for those who are seeking more information, those who appear to be supportive, as well as those who are expressing concerns. So yeah, again, that would be a value statement at this point. I appreciate the question, but I don’t think it’s actually helpful to try and characterize people who have concerns. I do observe closely how people present their opposition and whether or not they have sufficient information. I will push back against anybody who appears to have information that is speculative in nature and there is probably a lot out there right now because there’s a gap in information. BC Housing isn’t also done at their sessions and there are people who are filling in the blanks and who are making some pretty bold pronouncements. Ultimately, we’re all responsible for what we say, including myself. I just happened to be elevated to the point of being the head of council, but I also speak on behalf of council. If council passes a resolution asking BC Housing for more information, I am empowered to act on that.

Jackie: There was a similar situation like this, as are many, but specifically in Victoria a few years ago with Mount Edwards Court. There was a lot of backlash at the beginning, but as time went on, the project seems to have worked well. Do you think that sometimes the community just has to experience the situation before concerns settle?

Mayor Windsor: There is a process that we’re going through, and invariably, it is the process that has been put in front of us. Again, I would go gently into the idea that there are things about this process that could be improved, and more information could be provided. I do believe more information will be provided. Whether or not that ultimately allays the concerns of the neighbourhood or the wider community, for that matter, remains to be seen. It’s somewhat challenging in life to deal with what-ifs other than to say we can be prepared for possible outcomes. If there’s a response that the community needs to push on now, and in the future, with the province, we certainly will. We’re not afraid to do that, but you can’t, in advance of something, say that we’re going to do this now in case that happens. Because if you are wrong, you have expanded resources prematurely. And you may, in fact, need a different type of resource or a different type of approach. So that might be too limiting for some who want us to take a strong position now. I would suggest that council will take a good approach, as well as the community through our district staff, as we develop. Our next council meeting is in just over a week, and we are receiving letters so we could at that meeting or a future meeting respond.

Jackie: I want to get the opportunity to clear some things up because you said that there is some misinformation or speculation that’s going on. Is there anything about the project in the process that you think would be important for community members to know?

Mayor Windsor: As I’ve said all along, I think regardless of the public engagement sessions; you need to write to the province. To BC Housing, to Minister Eby, to his constituency office, to our local MLA and us, make us aware. I think some people are unclear because they’re not experts in the field of who is exactly responsible for what, that’s probably why there’s some pressure on us and then to try and get answers and to provide guidance. Some of the groups are saying, “Hey, we would like to see no substance use in this building.” Again, the municipality, no more can say, “Hey, don’t use alcohol substances in your home,” then they can say in this building, which are in fact homes. These are residential units no different from any other residential apartment in the way that they are fundamentally a house for a person.

Jackie: Thank you so much for taking some time on a Saturday for me.

Mayor Windsor: No worries.  

Jackie: If you want to read more about the story, Josh Kozelj will be publishing a more in-depth piece on this development and the comparison to the Victoria Mount Edwards Court development. Watch out for that at capitaldaily.ca in the coming days.

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Thank you for spending your Monday with us. If you enjoyed the podcast, please leave a rating and review share so that your friends can also find us. And subscribe so that you don’t miss any episodes going forward. We post new shows every Monday to Friday. My name is Jackie Lamport. This is the Capital Daily podcast. We’ll talk to you tomorrow.