Residents around the downtown see problems with the way the city and province plan to redistribute supportive housing in Nanaimo.
The B.C. government and the City of Nanaimo announced earlier this week that the temporary supportive housing sites at Terminal Avenue and Labieux Road would be replaced by permanent supportive housing on Terminal as well as Prideaux Street and two sites on Nicol Street.
The same day the announcement was made, a new group had formed called the South End Concerned Citizens Coalition, created to oppose what spokesman Sandy McLellan calls an “over-concentration” of supportive services in that part of the city.
“We want a rethink on this,” McLellan said.
He said it’s been seen in other parts of the city that supportive housing “becomes a real trial on the neighbourhood and business” and worries that Nanaimo’s south end will lose a pride of place it has been working hard to establish.
“We fought in the south end to sort of pull the south end out of that spiral a decade ago and we’ve been gradually [becoming] a mixed, diverse community and that now is at peril, all that work,” he said.
Sydney Robertson, chairperson of the South End Community Association, said residents there are “overwhelmingly” unhappy about the proposed locations of the supportive housing. She said there has been “very little” follow-through on politicians’ talk over the years about decentralizing social services.
“We support the need for housing, but our neighbourhood has already absorbed a lot…” she said. “We think it should go in every neighbourhood in Nanaimo.”
Over in the area around the Terminal Avenue temporary housing site – where a mix of permanent supportive housing and other affordable housing is proposed – the Newcastle Community Association held a virtual meeting Tuesday to discuss the announcement and formed a committee.
“Some people remained frustrated because they are facing on-the-ground issues on a daily basis, protecting their home, insulating their loved ones from the daily terrorization of this current climate,” said Karen Kuwica, association president. “But there was also hope that a permanent development and the association’s involvement in a proper development process could be beneficial.”
Unlike the temporary supportive housing that was sited under emergency measures, all four of the permanent supportive housing builds would require development and building permits. However, the Nicol properties and the Prideaux properties already have appropriate zoning, so only the Terminal property – which actually sits on multiple lots – may require rezoning and a public hearing.
Kuwica said it appears that the province’s priority for 250 Terminal Ave. will be to build the supportive housing component, with the affordable housing as a later phase.
“We’re very concerned that the focus will simply be on solving the homelessness problem in Nanaimo at the expense of what’s an appropriate development in our neighbourhood,” she said.
The province has said there will be virtual neighbourhood meetings on the projects this summer, but project timelines are to be determined. Dale Lindsay, the city’s general manager of development services, said his department is “working closely with B.C. Housing to make sure that we facilitate these in the most effective manner possible,” but said council has not provided direction around prioritizing the supportive housing ahead of other development projects around the city.
Sheila Malcolmson, Nanaimo MLA, said the memorandum of understanding between the city and B.C. Housing to build the four supportive housing projects and three affordable housing projects was actually finalized in 2019 but wasn’t announced until the province was far enough along with property acquisition.
She said the lack of such an understanding in the past led to the rejection of supportive housing in Chase River, which was a reason for the formation of tent city, which eventually created the need for emergency temporary housing.
“Because we didn’t know yet where the city wanted the more permanent supportive housing and the more permanent affordable housing, we ended up with people stuck at Labieux and Newcastle,” she said. “For [this] to be done with good process, we need to have that municipal framework. We’ve got that now.”
Asked about the concentration of the supportive housing locations, Malcolmson said people who need the most support from social services need to be within walking distance of those services.
“The Labieux emergency trailer housing was an example of excessive neighbourhood impacts because there wasn’t the appropriate social support and transportation infrastructure surrounding [it],” she said.
The Labieux and Terminal temporary supportive housing sites have a combined 170 units, so if any of the four projects on Terminal, Prideaux and Nicol – adding up to approximately 190 homes – don’t get built, it’s a net subtraction of supportive housing units. Malcolmson said she will be “happy to be seeing the end of that chapter” of trailer housing and said purpose-built accommodations will make “all the difference” in helping people stabilize their shelter and health needs.
“As long as we’ve got a range and a variety of stock, then people – the majority of them, we hope – will be able to return to living a full life in the community,” she said. “The housing-first model of getting a roof over the head of people that are homeless is intended to allow them to have their unmet health supports addressed so they will not become permanent residents of supportive housing.”
Neighbourhood associations worry that attention to the housing file could change depending on the government in power.
“They have a funding strategy for now, but we all know when governments change, funding changes and priorities change,” McLellan said. “We’re not guaranteed that it’s going to be run the way that it’s being presented.”
He wants to know how operators will mitigate effects of a concentration of supportive housing in the south end and Robertson said her association will be looking for assurances about staffing levels. She also wonders if the time might be right for revitalization work in the south end “in return” for accommodating supportive housing.
South-end residents were quick to organize following this week’s announcement, but they’re now mostly waiting for information about how the public processes will proceed.
“We are discussing what do we think is possible, what do we think is achievable,” Robertson said.