Nanaimo council took a step back from its commitment to build a 36-unit social housing facility at 1406 Bowen Rd. Monday.
Councillors agreed to build on four other proposed sites first and develop the property as part of the Housing First strategy only if necessary.
Council went ahead and adopted the rezoning bylaw that would allow the low-barrier housing complex to go ahead, but a motion by Coun. Bill Holdom, which passed 7-2, put the brakes on any immediate development.
“We need some breathing room to see how these projects work,” said Holdom. “And there is also a need to find common ground on this issue. There were a large number of thoughtful and thought-provoking arguments put forward by residents during the four public hearings and it is our responsibility to listen.”
Couns. Bill Bestwick and Loyd Sherry voted against the amendment and the rezoning, saying there was enough public opposition to the project that it should be scrapped entirely and other options should be sought.
“Why delay the inevitable?” said Bestwick “This tactic is dishonest at worst, deceitful at best.”
According to Sherry’s records, 77 residents spoke against the Bowen Road facility while 14 spoke in favour during the public hearing process. He said the move to delay the build could “open the door for legal challenges” by residents.
While virtually everyone involved in the debate is in favour of providing housing for the city’s homeless, addicted and mentally ill, the project’s proximity to a pub, elementary school and other similar facilities, as well as effects on property values, were at the heart of the often emotionally charged and tumultuous discussions.
Other facilities will be built on Townsite Road (behind the Chinese Cemetery), Tenth Street, Wesley Street and a location yet to be determined in the city’s north end. If it is determined the Bowen Road property is not required, council gave itself the option of selling it at market value.
When Housing First was first introduced in 2008, it was determined Nanaimo required 160 units to house the city’s homeless. The program provides shelter and access to programs for those in need, but it also allows residents to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol while staying there, though drugs and alcohol are not allowed on the premises.
Almost all councillors expressed disappointment in the lack of involvement in the process by the partners in the Housing First strategy, which includes the province and Vancouver Island Health Authority, despite a signed memorandum of understanding.
“I felt profound disappointment in the province and its lack of participation,” said Coun. Fred Pattje.
JoAnn Lawson, a resident of White Street, an area that backs onto the Bowen Road property, said the amendment doesn’t make life any easier for her or other neighbours.
“The decision that was on and what we all came and fought against was the bylaw for it not to go in and the decision should have been made on that,” said Lawson. “I’m not happy about the outcome and I’m not happy about this delay. It kind of prolongs the agony for us. We want to sell our house, but we’ve been told nobody is interested in this area until a definite decision has been made on that property.”
Lawson also expressed concern that councillors seemed to have discussed the issue between themselves, disregarding the Local Government Act that disallows further conversation in the time between the official closing of public hearings on the topic and council’s vote.
“I was quite shocked,” said Lawson. “It feels like it was a total setup. It was obvious council members had discussed it and knew what Coun. Holdom was going to do.”
Holdom said the process was made more difficult because the province did not allow the north end location to be announced during the public hearings, creating distrust between the hospital area residents and council. It has not yet been determined when that location will be confirmed.