As plans ramped up for a modular housing project, BC Housing butted heads with the City of Abbotsford over approval delays and the length of a lease for the city-owned property.
In emails obtained by The News through a freedom of information request, BC Housing director of regional development Naomi Brunemeyer expressed frustration that the city appeared unwilling to sign a long-term lease for the supportive housing project on Riverside Road.
Cole Starnes Residence includes 44 units of modular housing, part of the B.C. government’s announcement of over 2,000 units in 2017 to bring fast construction of homeless housing. Cole’s Place was the first of 16 Fraser Valley projects named by BC Housing, but in a July 3, 2018 email to city hall homelessness co-ordinator Dena Beno, Brunemeyer said the city’s approval process was slowing down the project.
“Despite the significant advantage, the approval process at the City of Abbotsford has delayed this project considerably. We have seen our schedule slip from May – November. And now I have been informed that the current council schedule and [development/building permit] submissions proposed would see the projects completed in April 2019,” Brunemeyer wrote.
“This is beyond the funding timelines for the program … This new schedule sees vulnerable individuals in your community spend another winter outdoors.”
City spokesperson Alex Mitchell said in an email to The News that the city is “highly supportive of these types of affordable housing projects being developed in our community” and recognizes the challenges of delays.
“We also recognize the need to balance timeliness with ensuring that all life safety, fire and BC Building Code requirements are met,” Mitchell said, pointing to BC Building Code issues with the original seven-storey proposal.
“Due to the variety of adjustments and subsequent resubmissions by the project applicant, the project experienced additional delays.”
BC Housing spokesperson Laura Mathews acknowledged “some challenges during the lengthy municipal approval process,” but lauded city hall as “a willing and cooperative partner who understands the need for this type of housing.”
She said most residents have now moved into Cole’s Place.
BC Housing isn’t the only affordable housing provider frustrated by city timelines. The Mamele’awt Queesome Housing Society expressed frustration in January with slow progress on a 60-unit project slated for Fuller Street and Old Yale Road after shovels hit the ground on a similar project in Chilliwack.
But the frustration didn’t end with the approval process. In an Aug. 15, 2018 email, Brunemeyer contacted city hall general manager of intergovernmental relations Katherine Treloar after some disagreements over the lease term of the Cole’s Place property.
When the project was originally proposed in 2017, the city responded that the residence would require an amendment to its recently adopted official community plan, Brunemeyer wrote in the email.
Planners and politicians have repeatedly said OCP amendments should be rare and exceptional, and Brunemeyer wrote that the city did not want to be the first to apply for an OCP amendment.
With that in mind, BC Housing agreed to a six-year temporary-use permit “under the good will that the City would, in six years time, proceed with an OCP amendment on the site,” Brunemeyer wrote.
However, she wrote that in meetings with BC Housing, city staff could not give assurances that the lease would continue beyond six years.
BC Housing had proposed a 40-year lease, which Brunemeyer said she was flexible on, “but not six years.” She cited the additional price tag taken on by BC Housing by sharing the cost of removing knotweed, a tenacious invasive plant.
“Our willingness to absorb part of these costs into the development was also influenced by our belief that the supportive housing would be in place for longer than six years,” Brunemeyer wrote.
“The above issues were not resolved at the last face to face meeting between BC Housing and City of Abbotsford staff. I am needing some reassurance from the City of Abbotsford.”
In a response, Treloar wrote that Brunemeyer had “my commitment to working alongside you and the BC Housing team to address both the question about the lease and the costs.”
A contract obtained by The News indicated just a six-year term, and Mitchell said any extension to that term “is a decision that would go before Council.”