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New West hosting online sessions this week about crisis response bylaws

Housing projects in downtown and Queensborough among ideas being considered
BC Housing has purchased a vacant property at 68 Sixth St. with the hopes of building a supportive housing project to address homelessness in New West.

Time is of the essence when it comes to responding to provincial and regional crises – so the City of New Westminster wants to be nimble.

New Westminster is bundling together a series of actions aimed at providing a quick response to emergencies or crises. It’s holding virtual information sessions on Oct. 19, 20 and 21 to provide information about the proposed crisis response bylaw amendments and two housing projects.

*A 52-unit supportive housing project at 60 to 68 Sixth St. BC Housing has purchased the site and is proposing to build modular housing with supports for adults who are at-risk of or experiencing homelessness.

*A 58-unit long-term affordable housing project on city-owned land at 350 to 366 Fenton St. in Queensborough. In partnership with the Vancouver Native Housing Society, the city is working on a non-market affordable housing project for Indigenous individuals.

*Bylaw amendments that would allow the city to respond more rapidly on projects that address an identified emergency or crisis.

The Oct. 19 session will focus on the proposed supportive housing project on Sixth Street and the Oct. 20 session will focus on the Queensborough project, with both sessions running from 7 to 8 p.m. The Oct. 21 session, running from 7 to 8:30 p.m., will include a staff presentation and a Q&A session about all three projects – the two housing projects and the proposed bylaw amendments.

On the fast track

Emilie Adin, the city’s director of development services, recently provided council with an overview of the crisis response bylaw amendments that have been bundled with goal of fast-tracking the city’s review processes.

Adin said the last two years have been “quite extraordinary” and have included major fires in the city, a global pandemic, a number of extreme weather events brought on by climate change, a worsening of the homelessness crisis and the opioid overdose emergency.

According to Adin, New Westminster’s zoning and official community plan bylaws don’t allow the city to quickly respond to some needs, such as allowing a cooling centre (due to a heat wave) or an air centre (due to extreme wildfire smoke) to set up in a commercial building where institutional uses aren’t permitted. They also don’t allow a rapid testing or vaccination clinic or emergency care beds to operate temporarily in a repurposed industrial warehouse.

“There are a number of federal and provincial funding opportunities that have been emerging recently,” she added. “That is another key issue in our consideration. We have seen, for example, tight timelines for things like the rapid housing initiative.”

The crisis response bylaw amendments being proposed in New Westminster would be limited to the following criteria: the property or properties must be owned or under long-term lease by the city, BC Housing or another public agency; the projects must be funded by a government agency; and the projects must be operated by a non-profit society or a public agency. Additionally, the projects must address needs identified through a B.C. public health emergency declaration, a BC state of emergency decoration, or be a crisis affecting the Metro Vancouver region that’s publicly recognized by multiple municipalities, including New West.

According to a staff report, the District of Squamish adopted a zoning amendment in 2018 that permits several crisis response land uses, including emergency shelters and supportive housing, in all zones. Earlier this year, Victoria city council directed its staff to prepare amendments to the zoning bylaw to allow affordable housing in all residential zones in the city, without the need for site-specific rezoning processes.

In addition to directing staff to draft crisis response bylaws, council has directed staff to propose a “high-level, multi-year public policy and engagement project related to social-benefit land uses” as part of the 2022 budget process.

Need to be nimble

Coun. Mary Trentadue said it’s important that the public is made aware of the difference between responding to an emergency and responding to a crisis.

“When you think of maybe a cooling centre, that could be very temporary in nature, whereas housing is not,” she said. “I think that would be an important distinction for the community to understand, that we are not talking about temporary in nature with this bylaw.”

Coun. Chinu Das said “emergency” situations and “crisis” situations” are not interchangeable, as an emergency is dealing with a particular situation and a crisis is something that has long-term effects on the community.

“We need to have the measures in place to expedite some of these things that we need to get done,” she said. “There is no room for delays and for being able to access grants. That’s one of the things that I really am appreciative of – it will enable us to reach those grant opportunities quicker.”

Coun. Jaimie McEvoy said the global pandemic has demonstrated the need to be able to move quickly and effectively to respond to people’s needs.

“What a time: fires; wildfires; smoke; climate emergency; deadly heat wave; overdose crisis; global pandemic; homelessness.  And every one of those problems builds on the other problems, and they interact with each other,” he said. “I don’t think there is anybody who doesn’t think that we need to look at enhancing our preparedness and our ability to respond to a crisis.”

On Sept. 13, council directed staff to bundle the review of the various crisis response bylaw amendments together, with the goal of fast-tracking their review processes. At the same meeting, council also supported the development of a new homelessness strategy.

Mayor Jonathan Cote said the city needs to take its time doing “thoughtful public policy work” such as a homelessness strategy, but it also needs to be able to react quickly to crises.

“There are emergencies hitting us left, right and centre right now, and we need to be able to be nimble and flexible and to work as a local government to address emerging issues,” he said.

For more information on the proposed crisis response bylaw amendments or details about the public engagement sessions, go to click on Crisis Response Bylaw Amendments.

Follow Theresa McManus on Twitter @TheresaMcManus