Affordable housing: North Cowichan puts people before parking


Parking or the public good. North Cowichan opted for the public good. At the Feb.21 public hearing, with an overflow crowd, we heard the most heartfelt comments as to why the area needs new affordable housing projects. After hours of listening, council voted to change the zoning from commercial recreational to mixed use residential and public use, paving the way to future approval of the projects (82 units total on Sherman Rd and Willow Street in Chemainus).

Bravo to council for such a creative response to an urgent need. Coun. Rob Douglas said it best. “We could transform people’s lives with this one vote here tonight.” He was a diligent supporter, working with staff to develop the agreement with Community Land Trust Foundation of BC. The CLTF will lease the land, handle construction and run the buildings.

The proposal checked all the boxes on North Cowichan’s wish list: the Sherman Road project is near schools and shopping and transit. The Willow Street building is intended for seniors (although that could change). There will be units set aside for women and families leaving abusive relationships.

Community land trusts are being considered to address the uncertain rental housing situation in cities such as New York and now Vancouver, says urban journalist Frances Bula in her blog.

Despite a feasibility study, needs assessment and statistics that show North Cowichan is one of the most unaffordable municipalities in Canada (most local renter households spend more than 30 per cent of their income on rent), the project hasn’t been an easy sell for some residents.

Interestingly, most of the opponents to the project (with most objections aimed at the Sherman Road site) began their remarks by saying that they weren’t against affordable housing. Then the mistrust began with remarks about undesirable neighbours, drug use and social housing ghettos followed by other arguments about increased traffic and parking problems (even though low-income renters likely won’t own cars) at the adjacent curling club.

In fact, the co-operative housing model creates a diverse community, with stable affordable housing for a range of income levels, says Tiffany Duzita, director of development for CLTF.

It’s been a generation since government money was set aside for rental, non-profit housing. In the 2016 budget, the federal government created the Affordable Rental Housing Innovation Fund, to support construction of thousands of affordable units, all part of a $2.3 billion initiative. Also in 2016, the BC government announced over $500 million in funding for affordable housing, supporting 18 projects on Vancouver Island alresady. It is the ideal time to jump and try to secure some funding for local projects.

The perfect timing and access to partners and potential funding is the reason council pushed this through now. Another site, a municipally owned gravel pit near Tansor School could be developed for this purpose, said Coun. Joyce Behnsen (who was the only councilor voting against the Sherman Road rezoning). Others agreed it could be a possible longterm plan, but it isn’t shovel ready.

“Let’s not prioritize parking over people,” said Keith Simmonds, minister at Duncan United Church. Every day someone comes to see him about hydro being disconnected or how to make it through the month on a limited income, he said, recognizing the desperate need for safe, affordable, clean housing.

Increased density may look different to people used to acreages, long driveways and distant neighbours. But if we don’t want to swallow up farms with sprawl, then it makes sense to place the multifamily buildings in the core, close to a major road. It’s all about context, said Coun. Maeve Maguire, as she described seeing high-density Seoul during long-ago world travels.

Councilors emphasized the urgency of the vote to take advantage of the opportunity and argued for compassion. Coun. Kate Marsh said that North Cowichan should “care for children and families as equally as we care for dogs and cats that are strays. We make sure we find homes for them. Do we do that for children? We don’t,” she said. “This window of funding is going to close in April. If we’re nimble enough to get that funding, I don’t think I will ever be prouder of my community.”



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  2. In my 68 years living on the planet and 40 years here in BC I have never witnessed such a lack of affordable living. Never seen so many homeless and so many living in their cars or homeless 6 months a year because they have a couple of part time jobs that pay minimum wage and rent would take 80% of their income…

    I rented an apt in Duncan and paid around 600 to 650 per month for a one bedroom.. My wages with two on call jobs over the last ten years made my income around 1000 to 1100 per month.. After hydro and internet and transportation most of my monthly income disappeared…

    It is nice to see some ground being covered with some ray of hope for those citizens who are doing their best given such challenging odds… I have met good folks who live in their cars 8 months a year and use the community pool and wash facilities before they go to work…
    And why is it that so many places complain that they are short of staff but folks are jobless…
    Yes I agree most low income people including seniors will not be driving , as the disabled and seniors will be using walkers, wheelchairs and shooters.. And single mothers with children will be attending training programs and school so they can secure future work… And lets not forget the refugees who will be streaming into Canada and most likely in this region as well…
    Stop fearing those who are struggling financially and muster the courage it takes to build an inclusive community with creativity and trust… Money in the pockets of basic income people will always flow back to the community…

    • Paul M Lazenby on

      What I heard at the Mt Prevost meeting re the curling club site was not at all about parking vs affordable housing. The major concerns were about designing a separate low income cluster on a single access site onto a busy thoroughfare that is already hazardous for the community that uses it. Yes there was push back when the site was continuously referred to as “surplus” land. Yes there were major concerns about the safety of those living there with only a narrow egress in an emergency and yes there were questions about North Cowichan’s glib responses to the community’s current traffic and parking issues (did you know that Sherman is classified as a four lane thoroughfare?).
      Low income housing is a necessity in any vibrant community, as a part of that community, and should not be considered as a destination. It does not go over very well when people are told, ‘we’ will put ‘them’ ‘there’ in housing of ‘our’ design. The real anger was expressed when it was suggested that if parking becomes an issue, “we could just take back some of the community’s designated playground space”. Municipal Councillors came with a chip on their shoulder and rather than building on the general feelings that low income housing is a good thing but this is a bad design, they chose to attack people’s concerns, stated that it HAD to be as presented because ‘that’s what the Land Trust needs’ and when questioned if they had even left enough room at the rear of the curling club to provide access to effect repairs if needed, councilman Douglas gleefully suggested that if it couldn’t be fixed, they’d tear it down and build another apartment building.
      The comment that “low income renters likely won’t own cars” is arrogant drivel that further alienates a community that depends on its roads for safe access for themselves, their family, their friends, their support workers and emergency responders.
      Lets continue to look at ways to support low income earners within our community and stop marginalizing them further by creating multistorey landmarks to glorify our politicians’ greatness.

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