Tents set up on Nanaimo City Hall grounds on Wallace Street and on the south downtown waterfront at 1 Port Drive. Both properties were long-listed for supportive housing in 2018 and both went on to house tent cities that same year. (News Bulletin file photos)

City of Nanaimo long-listed 38 possible sites for supportive housing

Recently released in-camera information shows city-owned properties that were looked at in 2018

The City of Nanaimo considered more than three dozen properties as potential sites for supportive housing, including city hall land and 1 Port Drive, before ultimately rejecting millions in provincial funding, recently released in-camera documents show.

In January 2018, B.C.’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing announced $7.25 million in funding toward a proposed 44-unit modular supportive housing complex at 1425 Cranberry Ave., located near Chase River Elementary School and the Chase River Boys and Girls Club.

The project was intended to be a partnership between B.C. Housing, Pacifica Housing and the city and would have provided living space as well as 24-hour supportive services to people who were either homeless or at risk of homelessness.

The Cranberry Avenue property was chosen because of its location in the south end and its “proximity to amenities and transit, connection to community service” and potential employment areas and was supposed to be operational by October 2018, according to the city’s website.

But less than a month after the province’s announcement, council of the day asked staff to find alternate locations for the housing project. Then a few weeks later, council voted to withdraw from the partnership because of concerns around safety and the lack of public consultation. The province reacted by pulling the $7.25 million in funding and the project was never built.

RELATED: Supportive housing project won’t go ahead at Cranberry Road site

According to recently released in-camera information, on the day council voted to withdraw from the partnership they received a staff report detailing potential locations for the project.

Six city-owned properties – 1425 Cranberry Ave., 1 Port Dr., 5290 Rutherford Rd., 611 Nottingham Dr., 640 Fourth St. and 295-299 Selby St. – were listed as possible locations for the supportive housing site, the report shows.

The inclusion of the Port Drive property is noteworthy because it later became the site of an illegal tent city known as Discontent City, which at its peak was home to more than 300 people.

Of the six properties, only 1425 Cranberry Ave., 295-299 Selby St. and 640 Fourth St. met staff’s criteria, which focused on property size, condition, servicing, zoning, location and existing site plans.

Staff, however, never recommended an alternate location, the report shows. Although 295-299 Selby St. and 640 Fourth St. were considered as the next best locations, staff didn’t recommend those sites either because they failed to meet the “dispersal model” of affordable housing.

The report also shows that 19 city-owned properties and 19 privately owned properties were initially considered, but staff narrowed their choices down based on their criteria. It’s unclear which privately owned properties were originally considered by the city because addresses were redacted from the report, which noted that those properties failed to meet staff’s criteria.

However, among the 19 city-owned properties originally considered were 2020 Labieux Rd. and 467 Wallace St. The Labieux property is now the site of temporary supportive housing built by the provincial government in direct response to the shutdown of Discontent City. Ironically, 467 Wallace St., the garden and part of the grassy area located out front of city hall, became the site of a staged protest and homeless camp-out in response to council’s decision not to proceed with the supportive housing project.

RELATED: Chase River residents oppose supportive housing proposal

Speaking to the News Bulletin, Bill Corsan, the city’s director of community development, said the Cranberry Avenue site was recommended because it best met the criteria and was ready for the type of housing that was being funded by the province. He said also the property at 295-299 Selby St. wasn’t recommended as an alternative because of its size.

“It’s got an odd angle configuration, so it is not as easy to work with,” Corsan said, adding that the prefabricated homes B.C. Housing was planning on using would have been a “challenge” to fit on the property.

When it came to 640 Fourth St., Corsan said even though it was second on the list, its location wasn’t ideal for supportive housing because of its proximity to Vancouver Island University and Nanaimo District Secondary School.

“There is student housing nearby,” he said. “So, it didn’t really seem like the best place to introduce supportive housing, especially since it is also close to the high school and the university.”

The 19 city-owned properties originally listed by the city weren’t seriously considered because they didn’t meet staff’s criteria according to Corsan.

“We wanted to show that we had been exhaustive and that we weren’t excluding properties and that everything had been looked at,” Corsan said.

He also said it is “unlikely” the six city-owned properties that were listed as sites matching most of the city’s criteria will be used for supportive housing going forward because they are either unavailable or no longer owned by the city.

Asked whether the city is in communication with the provincial government about funding for a supportive housing complex in the south end, Corsan the city is “always in conversations with B.C. Housing, but nothing to report yet.”

Meanwhile, Coun. Ian Thorpe, who voted against proceeding with supportive housing at 1425 Cranberry Ave., said council hasn’t specifically explored supportive or low-income housing options for the Chase River neighbourhood since that decision. He said the way the situation was handled by the province wasn’t exactly fair for residents.

Councillors, in the beginning, weren’t entirely clear about what type of housing the province wanted to put in place, according to Thorpe.

“It was a bit of frustration in dealing with the province if I’m being honest with you; as far as what the clientele would be for that facility…” he said. “We did not know that the intent was to be supportive housing. The province really sort of sprang that on us and it sprang it on the community and the community was upset and rightfully so.”

The Cranberry Avenue location was merely the best site that met the city’s and province’s expectations, according to Thorpe, who said had private land been available that wouldn’t have required re-zoning and met the city’s criteria, council would have seriously considered it. He also said the Chase River neighbourhood might not have opposed other types of social housing.

“I’m going out on a limb here, but I think the Chase River community probably would’ve been much more supportive and I would’ve been much more supportive if it had been used for low-income families or seniors who were in need of low-income housing,” he said.

At the end of the day, Thorpe said he has no regrets with his decision to vote against the project.

“It was a controversial decision and we took some heat for it. But, I’m still OK with it,” he said. “Unfortunately, I think it set back our relations with B.C. Housing and the province and we’ve been trying hard since to rebuild that.”

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