KELOWNA - The Agassiz project is either “unconscionable” or the “difference between life and death.”
Despite the harsh words spoken by opponents about the proposed supportive housing project at a seven-hour public hearing that ended early this morning (Jan. 18), Kelowna city council voted 8-0 in favour of rezoning the land for the project. Coun. Maxine DeHart did not attend at the meeting.
“I’m proud of you as a council, for what looks to be a very courageous decision to move this community forward,” Mayor Colin Basran said moments before the vote. “Through the (October municipal) election campaign and, again, in our Citizen Survey, the overwhelming top item brought up of concern was social issues, particularly homelessness and addiction. If dealing with those two things isn’t in the community’s best interest as the whole, I’m not sure what is.”
The controversial housing project may still face legal challenges from opponents.
To be funded by B.C. Housing and operated by the John Howard Society, it will include 52 suites, some of them with room for couples, on Agassiz Road, just behind Orchard Plaza.
More than 200 people overflowed council chambers by the 6 p.m. start of the public hearing to both attack and support the project that’s designed to get people off the streets and into housing where they can deal with their addiction and mental health problems.
"I don’t make my votes at council based on what is going to garner me votes at election time," Basran said. "I never have and I never will. This is clearly not a popular decision with some but, in my heart, this is the appropriate decision to help our community move forward. I will always believe in building a city where everyone belongs, where there are no segregated or exclusive neighbourhoods, where we foster inclusion and not a community of us versus them."
The key issue for opponents was the fact that the project will bring in homeless people who, after a screening process, will be able to use drugs and alcohol on site.
Opponents call it a “wet” facility while B.C. Housing refers to it as a “harm reduction facility.”
Neighbouring residents talked about it being unsuitable for a high-density neighbourhood, largely populated by single senior women who are living in fear of drug addicts moving into their neighbourhood.
But B.C. Housing says that area has one of the lowest number of residents and seniors within a five-minute walk when compared to other supportive housing it funds in Kelowna.
One speaker went so far to say: “Give them a free home, free meals, free drugs. Just step up and join the party.” Another accused councillors of “willfully inflicting harm” on neighbours if they approved the rezoning.
Along with the fear factor, some speakers raised concerns about the price B.C. Housing paid for the land, saying it paid $2.6 million shortly after the previous owner bought it for $1.4 million.
“I’m not saying there was anything illegal,” Dave Bradshaw, one of the chief spokesmen for the opponents said. “But, there was some sort of hanky panky going on.”
Richard Taylor, another leader of the opposition, talked about the previous owner having bought the land with a covenant restricting development to two storeys (B.C. Housing is proposing four). The earlier rezoning application was never completed and the covenant never registered.
Taylor threatened legal action if the city approved the rezoning.
No one opposed the zoning, just who was going to live there.
The opponents dominated the early part of the hearing, where about 100 people spoke.
Later on, supporters got up to the microphone to talk about how many of the homeless are really good people.
“People moving in (to Agassiz) have been portrayed as criminals that roam the streets at night attacking people,” Ruth Mellor, who lives in the neighbourhood, said. “I didn’t realise that fear was so contagious, but I saw that today.”
While one opponent said people with addiction and mental health issues should be treated in institutions before living in the community, supporters argued that providing housing for these people is the best way to start dealing with their underlying issues.
“It’s not the most dysfunctional in the community (who will be housed in Agassiz),” Gaelene Askeland, Executive Director of the John Howard Society, told council. “The most dysfunctional in the community will be outside and continue to be outside because they don’t fit into supportive housing.”
She explained that people destined for this type of housing are carefully screened and there are strong support systems in place to help them transition from homelessness.
The major objection to Agassiz was that it was a “wet” facility – which means that residents are allowed to drink alcohol and use drugs in their own homes. It will also have a safe injection room.
Coun. Charlie Hodge asked Ann Howard from B.C. Housing about the difference between a “wet” facility and “harm reduction”
“I could say, each of our homes is a wet facility,” she replied. “Usually that term refers to the use of alcohol in our homes. That’s a common practice (in any home).”
That drew heckles from the crowd. Mayor Colin Basran quickly chastised the audience, saying all speakers need to be treated with respect.
Along with the speakers at the public hearing, council was presented with more than 100 letters of support and 42 letters of opposition. There was also an on-line petition of opposition signed by 658 people, the vast majority of whom lived outside of Kelowna. Many were from the United States and at least one from Mexico.
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