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Council denies housing proposal for homeless men

Artist
Artist's rendition of the proposed facility for homeless men, which was not approved by council.
— image credit: Submitted

A controversial proposal for a 20-bed housing facility for homeless men has failed, following a tie vote at Monday’s council meeting.

Abbotsford Community Services’ (ACS) rezoning application that would have paved the way for a low-barrier housing project at 2408 Montvue Ave., across from ACS headquarters, was denied after passionate debate from both sides.

The proposed location has faced strong opposition from the Abbotsford Downtown Business Association (ADBA), the Abbotsford Chamber of Commerce and some community members, citing the location of the project in the C7 downtown zone, which specifically prohibits supportive housing.

Homelessness, an issue with which this city has grappled for years, rose to the forefront in June last year when city crews dumped manure on a popular homeless camp. That event resulted in heightened public debate about solutions, among them supportive housing.

Coun. Dave Loewen said fears the project would negatively affect the downtown were unfounded. He said the concern should be of leaving men on the streets, not of the individuals in the proposed facility who would be working for positive change in their lives.

“To deny this proposal is to vote for the status quo. To approve this proposal is to vote for change.”

He said the project would help Abbotsford reclaim its reputation as a caring community, as well as fulfilling the city’s own strategy of providing a range of social housing, which includes low-barrier housing. Loewen added that the city urged the province to assist with social housing, and it came forward with funds.

He added that the issue is personal for him, becoming emotional as he explained that his own brother had been homeless  and died a premature death as a result of addiction.

“These men are my brothers.”

Couns. Patricia Ross, Henry Braun, Moe Gill and Loewen supported the rezoning application.

Coun. Bill MacGregor agreed that supportive housing is needed, but due to the community opposition and a need to respect downtown businesses, the possibility of another location must be explored. He said that at an earlier Fraser Valley Regional District meeting, where Fraser Health announced plans for a seniors’ campus of care facility and a community health centre on the former MSA Hospital lands on McCallum Road, representatives were asked whether the remaining land could be used for supportive housing. He said they acknowledged the possibility.

“I believe the way to go is the campus of care at the old hospital site. It respects the ADBA.”

Ross countered that money is currently on the table from BC Housing to build the ACS project, and no plan is currently available for the MSA site. She said she was absolutely certain if the ACS project wasn’t supported, the BC Housing funding will disappear.

“(A new project) is years away, starting the process all over again … ACS is ready to build now and get people off the street now.”

Ross added there is such a need for supportive housing in the community that a facility on McCallum Road will be required in addition to the ACS proposal on Montvue, and there is no time to waste finding another site.

Mayor Bruce Banman, and Couns. John Smith, Les Barkman and MacGregor voted against the proposal.

Due to the tie vote, the proposal failed.

With the defeat of the ACS plan, council passed a motion to consult with Fraser Health and explore possibilities for supportive housing on the MSA Hospital site.

Braun voted against the plan to petition Fraser Health for assistance, calling the plan for an alternate site “an illusion,” adding that the city has “no authority to tell Fraser Health what to do.

“I think we’ve really put our city back 10 years.”

Ross said council “gambled with people’s lives” by turning down the ACS proposal for an “airy” and “vague” idea.

After the meeting, Mayor Bruce Banman said the city manager will open up discussions with Fraser Health.

When asked whether the BC Housing money – roughly $2.5 million in capital and $15 million in operating funds over 60 years – is potentially gone from Abbotsford, Banman said, “I don’t know if that particular funding is gone or not. I don’t know that necessarily what you need to do is rely on 100 per cent of government funding.”

He said it is now time to pull the community together to work on a solution.

ACS executive director Rod Santiago said he was disappointed in council’s decision, but commended councillors and community members who passionately supported the project.

The plan for the MSA Hospital site is based on faulty logic, he said, as both projects are needed in Abbotsford, not one or the other. He said any alternative could be a decade away from realization.

“It was faulty logic to put aside something that exists now in place of something that was a maybe, for something that is perhaps 10 years down the road.”

When asked about the MSA Hospital lands, Fraser Health representatives stated that they may explore social housing opportunities as part of the redevelopment of the MSA lands, “however, consideration of this is contingent upon the request-for-proposal process and future requirements from the city for social housing, as part of the rezoning of the lands.”

When asked about the potential for supporting an alternative project in Abbotsford, BC Housing representatives stated:

“It is unfortunate that the city chose not to proceed with the project after all the work that has gone into it. The province will now consider our options for the funding that had been allocated to the project – we only partner with communities that support housing projects.”

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