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Increased optimism for Abbotsford homeless village proposal

Plan would see 40 cabins for the homeless built on Valley Road site.
Abbotsford Dignitarian Society board secretary Nancy Gallagher and president Jeff Gruban stand at the site of a proposed 40-cabin housing project for the homeless on Valley Road.

It may be overgrown with weeds now, but Jeff Gruban has renewed optimism that a two-acre parcel of undeveloped land on Valley Road near the Matsqui Transfer Station could play a big role in helping solve homelessness in Abbotsford.

Last week, the Abbotsford Dignitarian Society, of which Gruban is the president, resubmitted its proposal for a community of 40 cabins to house the homeless. The group had first submitted a proposal for what it calls “Abby Digs” nearly two years ago, but that project stalled, in part because the proposal was included in another plan by a landscaping company for an adjacent area on the same nine-acre parcel of undeveloped land.

On Thursday, the society resubmitted to the city its application for a temporary-use permit for the site, which is currently zoned for agricultural/residential use but not included in the Agricultural Land Reserve.

After examination by staff, the application would need approval by city council.

While Gruban was hesitant to comment on how he thinks council might respond to the application, he said he feels optimistic about the society’s proposal and that there seems to be more interest in the project than ever before.

He said the lack of affordable housing in Abbotsford, the temporary nature of the 40-bed Riverside Road winter shelter, and last fall’s Supreme Court decision that gives the homeless the right to set up overnight camp in public parks have all put into stark relief the need for more shelters for the homeless.

“There is a feeling from my perspective … that there is now interest in parsing our plan,” Gruban said.

The society’s proposal is inspired by a “dignity village” for homeless people in Portland, Ore., but has several differences, Gruban said.

As envisioned by the society, the project would feature 40 eight-by-10-foot cabins, with separate buildings for cooking, washrooms and showers. The society put the cost to construct the two-stage project at just $250,000, with the hope that money could be raised through fundraising.

Last month, Mayor Henry Braun said safety concerns and the lack of upkeep of the Gladys Avenue protest encampment had him wary of setting aside property for self-regulated camping and shelters for the homeless.

Gruban said the Abby Digs proposal entails “several layers of management,” and council would have the ability to pull the site’s permit.

Residents would elect a strata council, Gruban said, but there would also be an on-site salaried caretaker, and the entire project would be managed by the Abbotsford Dignitarian Society’s board of directors. Operating costs would be covered by rent from occupants. Gruban noted that social assistance provides recipients with $375 for housing, and that while the cost of renting in Abbotsford usually far exceeds that sum, rents of that total would be sufficient to operate the site.

While the proposal has just gone before council, Gruban said that once approved, construction would be completed by winter.

Gruban said the society has also planned extensive consultations with the public. The last time the proposal was submitted, in 2014, a petition was created in opposition to the project. Opponents worried about property crime, along with the rural nature of the site.