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B.C. circumvents legal action to push build of controversial Arbutus housing project

Cheryl Grant of Kitsilano Coalition: “It is unprecedented, and every citizen in B.C. should be concerned about this.”
A rendering of a proposed 13-storey tower containing 129 social housing units for a city-owned site that runs between Seventh and Eighth avenues at Arbutus Street.

The B.C. government announced Tuesday that it will introduce legislative amendments via the Municipalities Enabling and Validating Act to ensure a controversial Vancouver housing project geared to a mix of homeless people and low-income residents will get built despite pending legal action.

In July 2022, Vancouver council voted 8-3 to approve a 13-storey, 129-unit social housing tower on a piece of city property in Kitsilano that will cost $64 million to build. BC Housing is paying for construction and operating costs.

Four months after the council vote, the Kitsilano Coalition said it was seeking a judicial review of council's decision. The coalition's argument targeted the public hearing process, restrictions on questions during the hearing, and concerns that the city did not release enough information regarding the project.

The request for a judicial review delayed adoption of the rezoning bylaw for the project to proceed.

'Approve homes for people without delay'

In a news release Tuesday, Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon said the government was taking legislative action to avoid further delays "for the creation of much-needed homes in this province," with construction anticipated to begin on the Kitsilano project in early 2024.

"Too many people are sheltering outside," Kahlon said. "We know it is not safe, and we are helping to create badly needed supportive housing in Vancouver. These amendments, if passed, will ensure the City of Vancouver can approve homes for people without delay."

Cheryl Grant, a spokesperson for the Kitsilano Coalition, said she was shocked when she heard the news Tuesday. Grant said she learned of the government's decision via media.

"It is unprecedented, and every citizen in B.C. should be concerned about this," Grant told Glacier Media, noting the widespread opposition to the housing project, which included a retired judge and university professor. "[Premier] David Eby and the NDP are overstepping here. What they're doing is they're shutting down the voice of the community."

Whether the coalition has any legal recourse was unclear Tuesday. Grant said she still hadn't reached the coalition's lawyer.

City of Vancouver requested 'legislative intervention'

The government release said it was making changes to the Municipalities Enabling and Validating Act as a direct response to a request from the City of Vancouver for "legislative intervention."

The release included a comment from Mayor Ken Sim, who supports the move, saying he was "thankful for the ongoing support from senior government partners to expedite the delivery of much-needed affordable housing in the city."

"This project will deliver 129 studio homes and make a huge difference in the lives of people in the community," Sim said. "We look forward to continuing conversations and working with the community via the neighbourhood community advisory committee as the project progresses."

Kennedy Stewart was mayor at the time of the decision. Sim and his ABC Vancouver team now hold eight of the 11 seats on council, including one held by Sarah Kirby-Yung, who opposed the Kitsilano project.

Sim was vocal during his campaign, at news conferences and while delivering speeches as mayor to business audiences that Vancouver wasn't building housing fast enough and that he and his council would look to avoid what he described as unnecessary delays.

Close to 300 people registered to speak to council

Close to 300 people registered to speak to council over several days and nights of the hearing for the Kitsilano project. Then-Coun. Colleen Hardwick estimated at the time that 75 per cent were opposed to the housing, which will be built on a vacant site between Seventh and Eighth Avenues at Arbutus Street.

The 129 studio apartments are supposed to go to a combination of people without homes, at risk of homelessness or those displaced from low-income housing, as well as citizens who may be working and earning low incomes.

Indigenous peoples — who have long been overrepresented in homeless counts in Vancouver — will get priority.

Approximately half the units will be operated as supportive housing with on-site support services. The remaining half will be affordable rental housing for residents who are ready and able to live more independently.

Supportive housing means tenants who need it will have access to mental health care, substance use services that could include a safe consumption room, education, life-skills training, help accessing income assistance, disability benefits and pensions.

Coalition favoured smaller project

During the hearing, Grant spoke to council and included a video complete with a three-dimensional alternative proposal to the project that would support a mix of people, including women, children, seniors and people living with a disability.

"This model also integrates the system of bringing in people who are experiencing homelessness, but it's on a smaller percentage," Grant said of the smaller five-storey design. "So that's really what we're focused on is how do you build housing that makes sense for the community."

Council's vote in July 2022 came after BC Housing's then-CEO Shayne Ramsay made a rare appearance at city hall to urge the 11 politicians to approve the project.

Eby, B.C.'s Environment Minister George Heyman, the Aboriginal Housing Management Association and the nonprofit Women Transforming Cities all supported the project at the time.

"This is unprecedented on so many levels," said Grant, referring to Ramsay's appearance coupled with support from NDP MLAs and now legislative intervention. "Why is it that the BC government and David Eby are trying to silence the voices of citizens?"

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