Nanaimo council approves housing for urban aboriginals

NANAIMO – Affordable housing strategy to get underway as the city helps make case to the province for new housing project.

New affordable housing for aboriginal students hinges on dollars once promised to Nanaimo’s housing strategy for the homeless and mentally ill.

The non-profit Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre has won political support to build a three-storey apartment complex on city-owned property to house aboriginal university students and their families, as well as those at risk of homelessness.

The Bowen Road site was supposed to be the home of a supportive housing complex for the city’s homeless and one of five agreed to in a memorandum of understanding with the province. It was put on hold, however, in 2011 after residents expressed concern in public hearings.

Now the province claims money once set aside for a project at 1406 Bowen Rd. has been reallocated and is no longer available, a city report says, and B.C. Housing notes that it doesn’t typically pay for the development of student housing.

The new use for the land, agreed to along with the need for a new affordable housing strategy by council, isn’t tied to the Nanaimo Response to Homelessness Action Plan, nor addresses the fact that two supportive housing complexes for the homeless are now full with wait lists.

But Chris Beaton, executive director for the Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre, says it meets a critical need for urban aboriginal housing. Of 2,100 aboriginal students enrolled at Vancouver Island University, 54 per cent indicated affordable housing was a challenge to find.

Beaton is seeking a 60-year lease from the city at a nominal fee, property tax exemption and contributions for development cost charges, as well as help from the city to pursue money once promised for the site in a 2008 MOU with the B.C. government.

The project has the ability to be self-sustaining but hinges on  provincial dollars to construct the facility. The cost to build is estimated at $5.6 million.

“The city lived up to its commitment and invested dollars onto that site, to purchase the site, to service the site, to provide an access lane and now the province is saying ‘well, we’ve reallocated funds,” he said. “My point I made to council [Monday] night … was let’s go in partnership and say no, you’ve made a commitment in this MOU, this active MOU, we want to move forward.”

Nanaimo city council agreed Monday after receiving the project’s feasibility report  to make Bowen Road available and prepare an affordable housing strategy at the same time.

The strategy would look at the housing needs of vulnerable populations, including lone parents and elderly renters, and possible locations for affordable housing.

The last time the city did a study like this it spurred the supportive-housing project, according to John Horn, the city’s social planner.

Work on the strategy is expected to get underway this September.