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.”