May 12, 2020
Or will pandemic-induced debt just make it worse?
AS OUTREACH WORKERS tick names off lists of campers at Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue, trying to bring order to the hurried plan to move homeless people into hotels, others are drifting in to the area, hoping to be included in the relocation.
Although Topaz and Pandora, with about 360 people, are the outward face of homelessness in Victoria, tents can be found scattered around Beacon Hill Park, along side-streets, and outside Rock Bay Landing shelter.
The shifting numbers are among the complications faced by the Coalition to End Homelessness and its partners as they conduct assessments before moving people into hotels, where they can practice physical distancing and self-isolation, in an effort to stop COVID-19 from gaining a toehold in the homeless population.
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said in an emailed statement that efforts are being made to reach as many people as possible.
“We’re working across government and with all partners to implement extraordinary measures to protect everyone in BC from the risks of two public health emergencies—the fentanyl poisoning crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re working on an accelerated timeline to keep people safe and connected to the care they need through these crises and beyond,” she said.
It is uncertain how many people in Greater Victoria are in need of homes. Some are newly homeless and others, who were previously living under the radar, are finding it difficult to make a living from binning, bottle collecting, the sex trade or panhandling in today’s era of closed shops and restaurants.
“The numbers are crushing,” said Reverend Al Tysick of the Dandelion Society, one of the partners in the relocation effort.
“It is going to be difficult for the Coalition to End Homelessness to house everyone. They’re going to do their best, but to do it in this short time is extremely difficult,” he said.
Reverend Al Tysick of the Dandelion Society
The last homeless count found 1,500 people in Victoria without stable housing, but, over the last year, Tysick has seen a spike.
“Rents have gone up, people have been kicked out and they haven’t been able to find a place. [Rents are] well over what we’re paying on welfare and disability,” he noted.
Numbers then bumped up again this spring after shelters were forced to reduce capacity when they could not maintain the prescribed pandemic distancing.
The Province, under the Emergency Program Act, has leased 324 rooms in five hotels in Victoria and set up a 45-bed emergency response centre at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre. On May 10 the ministry website showed 106 people from Topaz and Pandora had moved to new accommodation.
However, it has been difficult finding experienced staff to provide wrap-around supports and sufficient spaces in Victoria. Shane Simpson, Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction has extended the deadline for moving people from Topaz and Pandora from May 9 to May 20.
“While we have been working with the hotel sector and service delivery partners towards the May 9 target in Victoria, it is now clear that more time is needed to ensure each person leaving Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue is moved into the accommodation that best meets their needs,” Simpson said in a news release.
“No one will be asked to leave these encampments without being offered a suitable temporary housing option,” he said.
Simpson also acknowledged that there are people outside Topaz and Pandora who need housing help. “We are not ignoring them. This discussion will continue,” he said,
In total there are more than 2,750 spaces across the Province for people without homes, according to BC Housing.
Apart from the immediate problems of finding space for the fluctuating number of homeless people, the major question is how they will all be housed once the pandemic is over.
The Province and City of Victoria have pledged that, after the three-month contract with hotel owners is up, no one will be forced back into homelessness.
There is speculation that the Province could buy some of the hotels, which were almost empty after tourism ground to a halt. Advocates are also pushing for construction of modular housing, spread through southern Vancouver Island communities, while the provincial emphasis is on the goal of building 4,900 new supportive homes in BC over the next decade.
“That work will happen in the weeks and months ahead, but the priority now is on the immediate health and safety of people experiencing homelessness in these public health emergencies,” said an emailed statement from a Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing spokeswoman.
In Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver, where 261 people had moved by May 10, activist Chrissy Brett, a veteran of Victoria’s 2015/2016 courthouse lawn camp, was fielding numerous questions about potential housing from camp residents.
Like other advocates, she believes that, provided adequate supports are in place, the plan to move people into hotels or community centres will help. But she worries about those left out or those dealing with past trauma and addictions who are unable to adjust to life in a hotel where there are rules to be followed.
Activist Chrissy Brett
A possible model would be a type of refugee-style camp run by organizations such as the Red Cross, Brett suggested. “It’s not that I’m advocating that tent cities are where it is at, but, if you look at San Diego or San Francisco or Seattle, they are now creating these sort of camps,” she said. “They are made to live in with showers and bathrooms and everything people need to live properly. Why are we not looking at those as short-term measures?”
Brett would also like to see housing for Indigenous people, seniors and those not battling addictions made available at sites such as Woodwynn Farm, the Central Saanich property bought by the Province in 2018 for use as a therapeutic recovery/training centre (it does not offer housing on site).
Tysick would love to believe that, after decades of neglect, the homelessness problem is about to be solved.
But realism kicks in.
“I am waiting to see this magic wand,” said Tysick, pointing out that, for decades, the problem has been ignored or, at best, chipped at around the edges.
“Let’s be really clear the only reason this is being done is COVID-19. Period. End of story,” he said.
But, when this crisis is over, will attitudes and political will have changed?
Tim Richter, president and founder of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, said modern-day homelessness was created by federal government policies in the late 1980s and 1990s.
“It wasn’t on purpose obviously, but it’s a product of the policy choices that were made when the federal government withdrew from affordable housing investments almost completely and cut social transfers (to the Provinces) that funded welfare and health care,” Richter said.
Tim Richter, president and founder of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness
Now, organizations working to fix the problem need the support of the provincial and federal governments and a more ambitious, more aggressive investment in housing than Canada has seen in recent decades, he said.
Change will come if the public demands it, Richter believes. “We are in a really unique window of time right now where the public is feeling what many people experiencing homelessness feel. They feel isolated and they understand that housing is healthcare, so they are much more empathetic to the plight of people experiencing homelessness,” he said.
“In a crisis like this, things that, on a policy basis, may have seemed a little crazy a month ago, aren’t crazy any more. I think big, bold changes in social policy are possible,” he said. This is the time for people to speak out, Richter said.
“Canadians need to say we are not prepared to accept homelessness of any of our neighbours as inevitable and we’re not prepared that people should be at this sort of risk from a pandemic for no other reason than they don’t have a place to live,” he said.
However, there is a possible flip side to government attitudes post-pandemic, said Tysick, who wonders what will happen when bills for the Canada-wide pandemic financial aid start to roll in.
“Look at the amount of money the government is putting out for COVID across the country, not only for homelessness, but for unemployment and business and other initiatives,” Tysick said.
“I am proud of our governments for doing it, but, once it’s over, will they say ‘yes, let’s build two or three buildings for 400 people.’ I don’t think so. I think we are going to be hearing about the debt and how difficult it’s going to be to pay off that debt for the next 10 years,” he said.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
May 6, 2020
Langford waives public hearings, a practice threatening to become common across the region
THE CITY OF LANGFORD is already famous around the capital region for its rapid-fire, debate-free Council meetings, but it seemed to set a new speed record on Monday night (May 4). In a half-hour, socially-distanced conference call, Langford’s Council approved a parks maintenance contract, a five-year financial plan, an alternate property-tax collection scheme — and gave final approval to several contentious developments, without holding a public hearing for any of them.
The biggest of those developments involved 50 acres of mostly forested land on either side of the Trans-Canada Highway and immediately east of the Leigh Road overpass, once belonging to the reclusive Victoria property owner Clara Kramer. Langford’s Council voted unanimously on Monday to rezone the Kramer lands as a “mixed-use employment” district, permitting anything from apartments and offices to car dealerships and liquor stores.
On May 4, Langford rezoned 50 acres containing Garry oaks, a wetland and a mobile-home park, to permit commercial development — but without a public hearing
Langford's official notice
Letters of opposition appeared in the agenda package for Langford councillors, however. TLC The Land Conservancy warned that the property included a wetland, and a significant stand of engangered Garry oaks. But the most troubling messages came from elderly residents of a trailer park south of the highway, afraid that the rezoning and development would force them to move, and upset that they couldn’t voice their concerns at a regular public hearing.
“Most of the residents have either vision or hearing problems or no computers so it makes it difficult to keep informed of what’s going on during the meeting,” one resident wrote. “I think it’s very unfair to go ahead with this meeting without giving all of us a chance to be involved.”
“50 percent of my neighbours are in their 80s and 90s and feel the same, the difficulty of moving represents a nightmare,” wrote another, asking the Council to only rezone the section north of the highway and defer rezoning the trailer park for several years. “Please consider my suggestion, and let us die in our own homes.”
Langford’s councillors approved nearly all the rezonings during their phone-in meeting without any comment, but Denise Blackwell, the chair of Langford’s planning and zoning committee, did say something about this one: “I’d just like to add that it’s too bad we couldn’t have this in public because of the circumstances. But based on our information from the province on how to conduct these, and the urgency with regard to some of the questions that people are asking, we need to go ahead at this time.”
(Langford Council doesn’t webcast its meetings, but you can hear how quickly it approves rezoning bylaws from a recording of part of the May 4 phone-in meeting linked here.)
Letters (above and below) from TriWay residents. “Let us die in our own homes,” wrote one, pleading with Langford to defer rezoning of the trailer park.
Public hearings are arguably one of the most important procedures conducted by municipal councils. As the province’s online guide to local government notes, land-use decisions by elected municipal officials affect entire communities as well as individual properties; consequently, “In order to balance their broad powers, elected officials are required to provide the opportunity for residents and other interested parties to share their views on [rezoning] bylaws through a statutory public hearing process.” Several B.C. court decisions have deemed public hearings a “quasi-judicial” function of local governments, requiring councils to be impartial and adhere to rules of procedural fairness.
But normal council meetings or public hearings are impossible under COVID-19. In March, after the province declared a state of emergency, public safety minister Mike Farnworth issued an order allowing councils to hold electronic or phone-in meetings. He failed to include public hearings, though, which drew some councils’ attention to a rarely-used provision of the Local Government Act:
464 (2) A local government may waive the holding of a public hearing on a proposed zoning bylaw if
(a) an official community plan is in effect for the area that is subject to the zoning bylaw, and
(b) the bylaw is consistent with the official community plan.
On April 4, the deputy minister of municipal affairs encouraged local governments “to consider whether it may be appropriate to waive public hearings,” and to “be creative in moving local government business forward.” Langford took that advice and ran with it: on April 6, it passed a sweeping motion directing staff “to waive all Public Hearings for any zoning bylaws which receive 1st reading on, or before, the World Health Organization rescinds the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Last Friday, May 1, Farnworth finally issued an order permitting electronic public hearings during the province’s state of emergency, currently slated to last until May 12 (a date likely far closer than the WHO rescinding in Langford’s motion). But it seems Langford will continue to waive hearings in most cases. “We have to be respectful of our needs to protect the public and Council and staff from unnecessary exposure,” said Matthew Baldwin, Langford’s director of planning. “But secondly,” he added, “there really is no material difference to not doing the public hearings.”
As Baldwin noted, under the Local Government Act, the municipality is required to post two notices of the waiver in a newspaper, as it would for a public hearing. (It does not, however, have to post a notice on the property itself, saving the developer several hundred dollars.) “The public is still aware that Council is considering the bylaws. They’re still aware that Council is going to talk about it on this particular night. And they can address Council in the public participation part of the Council meeting.” (Langford allowed public participation during its May 4 phone-in meeting, but no residents called in to speak to any of the rezonings on the agenda.)
Baldwin said that if a rezoning requires an amendment to Langford’s official community plan (OCP), it will hold a “delegated” public hearing under the Local Government Act, in which councillor Blackwell will meet personally with any concerned residents. But few such hearings will be necessary, because Langford’s generous OCP has anticipated dramatic growth.
Langford was able to waive a hearing for the Kramer lands because they were already designated “Mixed Use Employment Centre” in the OCP. Similarly, on May 4, Langford’s Council approved rezoning a lot on a cul-de-sac of single-family houses at 2681 Claude Road for a six-storey, 35-unit apartment building because that part of town is identified as “City Centre” on the OCP, defined as including “a wide range of high-density housing.” It also approved rezoning a “one- and two-family residential” lot at 595 Hansen Avenue to accommodate seven new townhouses — despite numerous letters and photos from neighbours showing current issues with parking, traffic and hazards for pedestrians — because Langford’s OCP said that area would support “a range of low and medium density housing.”
In the past, Blackwell and Baldwin have told FOCUS that few residents participate in Langford’s public hearings because the City has resolved most issues raised by neighbours earlier in the development process. The letters tell a different story.
Without a public hearing, Langford approved seven townhomes for this one-house lot, even though residents sent photos showing already crammed on-street parking and hazards for pedestrians (below)
So far, most other B.C. municipalities have been comparatively reluctant to waive public hearings. The City of Delta, for example, has directed its staff to “recommend” waiving hearings for rezonings consistent with its OCP — but only if they are “routine in nature and where Delta has not received a substantial volume of correspondence in opposition.”
On April 2, City of Victoria mayor Lisa Helps expressed interest in waiving public hearings for specific projects, especially those involving affordable housing, but City staff presented a report stating that “a decision to waive a public hearing must be made by Council for each application individually,” and merely recommended “exploring this potential option” in future reports.
Locally, the most vocal debate about waiving public hearings so far has been heard in Saanich, which held a phone-in council meeting of its own on May 4.
Saanich staff put two developments on the agenda, the first rezoning a single-family lot to permit four residences at 3281 Cedar Hill Road, the second rezoning to allow subdivision of a single-family lot at 4595 Cordova Bay Road. Staff suggested waiving hearings for both because the rezonings were consistent with goals in Saanich’s OCP to have “a range of housing types” in neighbourhoods, and “limited infill” housing.
Both rezonings provoked letters of opposition. But the proposed waivers also prompted several neighbourhood associations to write to Saanich Council, pointing out that whether a project is “consistent with” an OCP can be a subject of considerable debate. They warned that waiving public hearings for these rezonings could set a worrying precedent, one that would “circumvent basic principles of natural justice and procedural fairness,” and called on Saanich to postpone the hearings, or come up with ways to hold them electronically.
Saanich councillor Colin Plant, who said he was “shocked” to learn that it was even possible to waive public hearings, moved that both developments go to hearings, electronic if necessary. “It does fit the [official community] plan, and yet we have heard from the public they don’t feel that it necessarily does,” he said, regarding the first rezoning. “So as such, I want to hear from the public and have a fulsome discussion, even if it is in a new way of doing business.”
“For me the public need to have input into these projects, and in the past, we’ve seen how public input has created a better project,” said councillor Judy Brownoff. “True democracy, it’s hard and challenging, but we really need to hear and listen to our public before we make any final decisions.”
Councillor Karen Harper pushed back a bit, saying, “There’s a notion that the lack of a public hearing means a lack of public input, and I don’t agree with that notion. We receive input all the time and in all sorts of ways.” In the end, though, Saanich Council voted unanimously to send both rezonings to a public hearing, even though staff had not yet figured out how to conduct one electronically. Saanich CAO Paul Thorkelsson told councillors he would likely have a report on that next week.
Ross Crockford is a Victoria journalist and former lawyer.
ANXIETY IS RIPPLING THROUGH Victoria’s Burnside-Gorge neighbourhood as residents hear through the unofficial grapevine that about 80 percent of the more than 350 of those living in tents in Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue will be coming to hotels in their community.
The area, which is home to many families with children, already has two shelters and several supportive housing complexes. Residents have, as a result, experienced fallout from mental health and addiction problems in the past. Recent incidents around Topaz Park, where crime spiked after the camp was set up, have added to their concerns.
It’s a delicate balance for both residents and those who have been living in tents since shelter space was reduced because of COVID-19.
While there is widespread support for dismantling the camps, providing adequate housing, and helping those struggling with mental health and addictions, questions are being raised about what help is available to the receiving community.
Rock Bay Landing, located in the Burnside-Gorge neighbourhood
Residents in the Burnside-Gorge area neighbourhood recently discovered that four out of five sites for hotel relocations are in their area—although, according to Michelle Peterson, no one has reached out to the community to offer specific information or security help.
Peterson, a long-time Burnside-Gorge resident, told Focus, “Every single one of the people I have talked to, no question, agree that these people need to be housed. That is not an issue. It is more the impact and the lack of support for the communities.”
At a virtual meeting that included Island Health representatives, Peterson was told that many of the campers are feeling anxious and uncertain about the move, so will be helped by psychiatrists and mental health experts.
“I told them I am hearing very similar feelings from residents in my community and there’s no supports for them. What are they going to do to support the neighbours?” she asked. Island Health has agreed to take the concerns to their executive, Peterson said.
“This is a crisis and I think everyone understands that, but what people are worried about is what is the plan to help mitigate any negative impact, because we know that there is a percentage of that population who can be quite dangerous. They’re the ones who have active, significant mental health issues or active substance abuse issues or they’re violent to themselves or others,” she said.
Given the crime spike in the Topaz neighbourhood, residents are asking for increased security, possibly additional policing, and assurances that 24/7 supervision will amount to more than someone sitting at a reception desk, Peterson said.
BC Housing is not confirming which hotels in Victoria are providing the 324 rooms, but emphasized that people will be assessed and then connected to wrap-around care including doctors, outreach workers and psychosocial supports. Harm reduction supplies will be provided to people with substance use disorders.
“BC Housing is engaged in active and ongoing conversations with neighbourhood and community associations in Victoria to raise awareness and provide information about our response to the pandemic and how we are assisting those who are vulnerable,” said a Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing spokeswoman in an emailed response to questions from Focus.
“While we typically connect with neighbours and the public prior to new services opening in the community for those who are vulnerable, we recognize the need to act quickly in the current context. The hotels are temporary and will be vital to mitigating the spread of this virus, protecting those who are vulnerable and the broader community.”
Peterson said a BC Housing representative is planning to meet with residents, but, so far, no one has come up with a mitigation plan and the lack of information is creating suspicion and polarization.
“I understand why they don’t want to disclose the location, but, when they don’t provide information to the community and they stay silent and don’t reach out, it creates a significant lack of trust,” she said. “Then what happens is it creates more of a divide, more hostility, more conflict between the neighbourhood and the homeless population which is not what we want,” she said.
By April 30, 51 people had been moved out of camps and into hotel rooms, with the Province paying the tab. The final cost will depend on the length of time the hotels are used, according to the ministry.
The contracts with hotels are below the market rental rate, but are providing income for hotel owners at a time when COVID-19 has brought the tourism industry to a grinding halt.
“We have not forced hotels to accept people. To date, all hotel spaces that BC Housing has secured have been freely negotiated with hotel owners without the use of orders,” wrote the spokeswoman. “These contracts are producing positive outcomes for everyone, including hotel owners, who are getting a fair deal, and their employees, some of whom are being contracted to help operate hotels.” BC Housing has committed to “professional and rigorous cleaning” of all the buildings once the contracts end and will cover the cost of any damages.
However, for Peterson and other Burnside-Gorge residents, the remaining question is how much help the neighbourhood will be receiving.
“There needs to be a plan on how to mitigate the impact in the short term, because we know there are going to be impacts,” she said.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
April 25, 2020
New pandemic guidelines giving medical professionals and pharmacists flexibility to prescribe and distribute drugs to those suffering from addiction need to be put into practice more quickly in order to keep everyone safe, say advocates.
THE ALREADY-TOXIC STREET DRUG SUPPLY in BC is becoming increasingly poisonous and expensive as borders close and supplies from China and the US shrink.
But, for most people suffering from addiction, quitting is not an immediate option and, although a growing amount of basement concoctions are being sold on the street, the urge to avoid withdrawal overrides all else.
“You will have to go out, no matter what, and do what you have to do to get that substance,” said Guy Felicella, who spent decades as a heroin addict living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and is now clean, an advocate for a safe drug supply and a peer clinical adviser for BC Centre on Substance Use.
Guy Felicella, right, an advocate for a safe drug supply (Photo courtesy guyfelicella.com)
As COVID-19 physical distancing rules clear the streets, it is more difficult to make money from panhandling, bottle collecting or the sex trade. Advocates worry that people with addictions are struggling to find alternate ways to finance their habits.
There is also concern that those searching for drugs are at risk of both contracting and spreading COVID-19.
So it is to everyone’s advantage that new guidelines will give prescribers and pharmacists flexibility to prescribe and distribute drugs such as hydromorphone, stimulants, benzodiazepines, and substances to manage alcohol and nicotine withdrawal, according to Felicella and other advocates.
Federal relaxation of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act was followed last month by innovative provincial guidelines designed to address two overlapping public health emergencies—the opioid crisis, fuelled by fentanyl, which has killed more than 5,000 British Columbians since January 2016 and, now, COVID-19.
The new rules allow physicians and nurse practitioners to prescribe the drugs to people at risk of contracting COVID-19, those with a history of ongoing substance use, people at high risk of withdrawal or overdose and youth under the age of 19 who provide informed consent, provided there is additional education. Costs are covered by provincial PharmaCare.
Rapid access addiction clinics can also provide assessments, and phone visits to prescribers and pharmacists are encouraged. The guidelines allow home delivery by pharmacy employees, pharmacists can extend, renew and transfer prescriptions and, in some cases, people will be allowed up to three weeks supply instead of having to go to the pharmacy daily.
“We want people not to have to go into pharmacies every day, which puts themselves and other people at risk when they should be self-isolating,” said Judy Darcy, Minister of Mental health and Addiction. “We are trying to flatten the curve at the same time as stopping overdoses and these really unprecedented measures are meant to do both of those things,” she said.
The guidelines were put in place as fast as possible and a massive effort is now underway to get the word out to all health professionals, Darcy said.
However, implementation is slow as some physicians and pharmacists are not yet fully informed about the changes.
It is frustrating, said Leslie McBain, co-founder of Moms Stop The Harm. “What you had was rollout of a good policy that I hope will continue to progress and evolve, but the infrastructure was not out there,” McBain said.
She added, “If I was a person searching for safe drugs because I didn’t want to go out and buy them on the street, there was no way to figure out that pathway.”
Bernie Pauly, University of Victoria School of Nursing professor and a scientist with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use research, said it is essential prescribers familiarize themselves with the changes. “[They] need to not only know and understand the guidelines, they need to do it really quickly because people’s lives are at stake,” she said.
Pauly and other advocates are anxious to ensure the changes stay in place after federal exemptions reach their sunset clause at the end of September.
“I would hope we are able to show the benefits of this,” said Pauly, who also wants to see decriminalization of personal possession—something recommended last year by provincial health officer Dr Bonnie Henry.
Felicella wants to see a further step with pharmaceutical grade heroin, fentanyl and cocaine made available without prescription.
“What we have today is a medical version and it’s a great start and will help many people, but it is not where we want to stay,” he said.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
April 3, 2020
With an estimated 1,500 homeless people in Victoria, increasingly worried officials are trying to find enough facilities to house them in a way that allows physical distancing.
THERE IS INCREASING URGENCY to move the jumble of tents on Pandora Avenue into the safer environments of Topaz Park and Royal Athletic Park, as health professionals and advocates watch anxiously for signs of COVID-19 spreading to Victoria’s homeless population.
So far, no members of the group, many of whom have compromised immune systems, have tested positive, but the risk is obvious. With parks regarded as a temporary solution, the overriding question is whether the virus will hold off long enough to allow indoor accommodation—where greater physical distancing is possible—to be found for hundreds of people.
Tents sprung up along the 900-block of Pandora Avenue, outside Our Place, after drop-ins closed and shelter spaces were reduced because of the need for physical distancing.
Tents on Pandora Avenue. (Photo by Ross Crockford)
Many of those camping on Pandora are using Our Place services such as washrooms, paramedic services, and meals—which are handed out at the gate in disposable containers.
The City, BC Housing, Island Health, Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness and the Dandelion Society are working together to move people initially into the specified parks, which have washrooms and running water and will allow for physical distancing.
The plan to use parks as temporary campsites has brought objections from some neighbours who worry about drug use and increased crime.
But the possibility of infection in the current crowded environments should concern everyone, not just the unhoused population, said Reverend Al Tysick, founder of the Victoria Dandelion Society. “This doesn’t just affect [this group]…We are all in this together. This epidemic does not distinguish between the rich and the poor, the drug addict and the woman in the nursing home,” Tysick said.
“Once it hits our [homeless] community it’s going to spread like wildfire. People are already sick when they move into the community. This is serious stuff. Much more serious than we have ever seen before,” he said.
It has not been possible to persuade Pandora campers of the importance of staying at a safe distance from each other, said Our Place communications director Grant McKenzie. It is difficult to explain social distancing to a group living in precarious circumstances, who are already dealing with losses from the opioid crisis, McKenzie said.
“Many people here are suffering from addiction or using opioids, so they are really just looking at their day-to-day survival. Where is my next meal coming from? Where am I sleeping tonight? They don’t have the luxury of worrying about COVID-19, which is why social distancing is very difficult,” he said.
Royal Athletic Park [see update in Comments] will be set up for 80 people with addictions or mental health problems, who are likely to need a higher level of service, but one delay is finding available front-line staff. “We are working as hard and as fast as we can,” said Mayor Lisa Helps at one of her daily briefings. “In a public health emergency, no one should be living outside. Period,” she said.
“COVID-19 will hit the unsheltered population at some time,” Helps said, echoing the concerns of Chief Medical Officer Richard Stanwick who has emphasized that homeless people must have the opportunity to meet social distancing requirements and that, if they are displaying symptoms, they must be able to isolate themselves.
A federal grant of more than $1.3-million will be added to programs to address homelessness; and a search is on to find indoor alternatives to parks.
As of April 3, 102 homeless, who are healthy and do not require a high level of support, had been moved into motel rooms. Others, who were previously camping in Topaz Park, will remain there until indoor accommodation can be found.
Ideally, that search should include premises in neighbouring municipalities as the downtown core attracts people from all over the region and several of Victoria’s facilities have already been rejected as unsuitable, said Helps. She acknowledged that 80 spaces at Royal Athletic Park will not be sufficient to meet the needs.
Meanwhile, there seem to be more tents on Pandora than ever. And the numbers of facilities in motels and parks so far arranged do not add up to anywhere near the 1,525 homeless people found in the 2018 count in Greater Victoria.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
March 31, 2020
Some doctors say we must test widely to find all carriers of the coronavirus. British Columbia isn’t doing that.
ON MARCH 16, as many countries rapidly expanded their social-distancing measures to combat spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and the associated disease COVID-19, the director-general of the World Health Organization told them that they needed to do more.
“The most effective way to prevent infections and save lives is breaking the chains of transmission. And to do that, you must test and isolate,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. And we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected. We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test. Test every suspected case.”
Canada generally, and British Columbia in particular, claims to be following that advice. B.C. health minister Adrian Dix says the province conducts around 3,500 tests for COVID-19 every day. According to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, by March 31 the province had conducted 43,229 tests — 8,458 per million residents, a testing rate better than the 8,152 per million conducted by South Korea, considered a model country for managing the crisis.
But some say that’s still not enough if we want accurate data about the prevalence of the virus, and hope to identify and isolate carriers who are only experiencing mild symptoms, or no symptoms at all.
A coronavirus testing laboratory in Leeds, UK (Credit: HM Treasury)
Estimates of the number of such asymptomatic carriers varies greatly. One study of the notorious Diamond Princess cruise ship found that half of its passengers who tested positive for COVID-19 showed no symptoms. A recent study of transmission of the virus in China said that 86% of the infections there went undocumented — meaning that for every one person who tested positive, another six carried the virus but weren’t identified. “This high proportion of undocumented infections, many of whom were likely not severely symptomatic, appears to have facilitated the rapid spread of the virus throughout China,” the researchers said.
Consequently, some argue that the only way to catch those asymptomatic carriers is to test healthy as well as sick people, like Iceland has done. As of April 1, Iceland had conducted 19,516 tests of its 364,000 citizens, or 5.3% of its population, the highest testing rate in the world. “The virus had a much, much wider spread in the community than we would have assumed, based on the screening of high-risk people,” said Kári Stefánsson, a neurologist and head of the Reykjavik-based biopharmaceutical company deCode genetics. Iceland has identified 63 positive cases for every 1,000 tests, a rate of 6.3%. British Columbia, on the other hand, has only turned up 23 positives for every 1,000 tests.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, told FOCUS at a March 28 press conference that the province is testing some asymptomatic people — if it’s tracking the source of an outbreak, for example — but otherwise it’s concentrating tests on workers in the health-care system and long-term care homes, and people being admitted to hospital, to ensure that COVID-19 sufferers are separated from other patients. “A broad testing of well people in our community right now is not what we are going to be doing,” she said. “That is the strategy we will be looking at if and when we come to the downside of our curve, when we’re looking again at introductions coming into B.C. from other places. That’s part of the strategy that would be at that phase of the epidemic. But certainly not right now.”
What’s more troubling is the fact that B.C.’s testing regime is also bypassing people who areshowing symptoms of COVID-19. On March 23, the CBC reported that at least 11 attendees at a memorial service in Vancouver were experiencing symptoms, and though some were told by doctors that they likely had the virus, they still didn't qualify for testing.
On March 28, Dr. Sean Wormsbecker, an emergency-room physician at New Westminster’s Royal Columbia hospital, posted a video (embedded below) expressing his frustration that “based on our current resources, we are very much undertesting the population.” He said he saw several ill patients that day who likely had COVID-19, but because they displayed stable lung function, he followed the Ministry of Health’s protocol and sent them home without testing. “And that scares me,” Wormsbecker said, concerned that such patients wouldn’t self-isolate because they didn’t know that they had the virus. He also said failure to test those patients means B.C. is “low-balling” its numbers, and that we’re not copying the nations that have identified carriers to flatten their rates of infection. “We can’t use those countries like Singapore or [South] Korea as a benchmark for what we can expect to come.”
“I actually don’t agree with that,” Henry said on March 30, when asked about Wormsbecker’s comments. “Having been on the front lines with my colleagues in public health who are actually talking to these people, who are at home and who are self-isolating, most people are absolutely doing what we need them to do.” As she explained, the province’s testing strategyhas been to concentrate on the people most likely to have the disease, and those most likely to need hospital care. “And we are still maintaining the contact tracing, we’re talking with people who have this, who have mild enough illness that they’re able to stay at home. For the most part, that is working.”
Strategy aside, the province is also likely limiting tests to conserve its supplies for the peak of the crisis. (FOCUS asked the Ministry of Health what’s holding up wider-scale testing, but the Ministry hasn’t replied.) Governments around the world are in a rush — and sometimes bidding wars — for the nasal swabs and chemical reagents used in test kits, and for PPE (personal protective equipment) such as gowns and masks, which if used for testing would take them away from hospital wards. It’s true that some countries like South Korea and the United Arab Emirates have been able to conduct large-scale testing, but that’s because they’ve been stockpiling equipment and chemicals ever since the MERS coronavirus hit them in 2015.
Instead, it seems that locating those who actually have the virus in B.C. will be left up to a variety of ad-hoc projects. The City of Langford, for example, has created its own COVID-19 response team, asking all of its residents to take an online screening test, even if they don’t have symptoms, to “help us understand the COVID-19 health status of our community.” Langford mayor Stew Young told CFAX that the team has already sent doctors to the residences of 16 people for in-home testing, using a small number of test kits provided by the province. “What's going to win the war is test kits and home testing at the front line and keeping our hospitals for the severe cases,” Young said. “That is the way to do this.” (Dr. Henry doesn’t agree: when asked about Langford’s project on March 31, she said “it’s not a good use of resources to test people who are at low risk.”)
Online projects are also springing up to assess local COVID-19 risks, such as FLATTEN, which asks Canadians to answer an anonymous online survey about their symptoms and contacts with COVID-19 patients, generating a “heat map” of the country organized by postal code. By March 31, 281 people had answered surveys in the V8V postal code, which covers James Bay and Fairfield — and 24 of them exhibited enough symptoms and/or connections to be considered “potential cases,” suggesting the spread of the illness could be wider than officially declared, even in Victoria.
We won’t know without tests. New ones should be coming quickly: on March 27 the US government approved a new test that can provide results in minutes, unlike current tests which take days, and the manufacturer plans to start cranking out 50,000 of them daily.
In the meantime, British Columbia, like the rest of North America, is about to head into the mouth of the COVID-19 storm. Very soon, we will know whether or not the province’s testing strategy has worked.
Ross Crockford agrees with Dorothy: there's no place like home.
March 5, 2020
Innovative programs are being put in place to help farmers address the high cost of farmland—but are they enough?
IT’S AN EASY EQUATION IN MOST HOUSEHOLDS—if more people turn up for dinner, it means producing more food. But in the Capital Regional District, where the population is expected to increase 27 percent by 2038, only half of the region’s 16,000 hectares of Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) is growing food.
In other words, as climate change makes food security and buying local increasingly important, much of southern Vancouver Island’s rich agricultural land is being developed for non-agricultural uses or simply under-utilized.
Farmland being farmed, a relatively rare sight in the Victoria area
ALR land represents seven percent of the CRD, with additional rural land not included in the ALR. Farm Credit Canada’s 2018/2019 report says that out of more than 700 farms in the capital region, less than half are growing food.
Another report, the Foodlands Access Program feasibility study, produced by Upland Agricultural Consulting Ltd for the regional district, states: “The underutilization of farmland, both now and in the future, is a lost regional opportunity. With over 50 percent of the region’s farmers retiring in the next 10 years, there is concern that new farmers will not be able to afford to enter the sector to replace them.” The study noted, “The high cost of land is a barrier, not only to new farmers, but also to those wishing to expand their business. This is due, in part, to agricultural lands being purchased by non-farmers and held with low risk for speculative purposes.”
As the southern Vancouver Island population grows, farmland is appealing to those who want to put down roots in a rural setting and are willing to pay between $100,000 and $200,000 an acre. While the cost of farmland across BC increased by 6.7 percent in 2018, on Vancouver Island it jumped by 21.7 percent, the highest regional increase in the country, according to Farm Credit Canada’s Farmland Values Report.
Saanich Councillor Nathalie Chambers, who farms Madrona Farm in the Blenkinsop Valley with her husband David, has fought against development and dumping of fill in the soil-rich Blenkinsop Valley. Chambers believes the price of farmland and non-permitted activities, which degrade the soil and pollute watersheds, are the largest obstacles to saving farmland. And, she adds, “Mega-mansion carbuncles are totally contagious.”
Linda Geggie, executive director of the Capital Region Food and Initiatives Roundtable (CRFAIR), agrees mega-homes are a problem. “A lot of people say that on most of the land on the Peninsula, the biggest crop is large estate homes,” said Geggie, who believes urban containment zones are a valuable weapon against development on rural land, especially when combined with stricter enforcement of zoning restrictions.
“We need to contain sprawl, but the challenge is that there’s so much competition for that land, and there’s a lot of non-farm use now for those farmlands because we have a low stock of industrial land and we are in a housing crisis,” explained Geddie.
Surprisingly, given the breakneck pace of development in areas such as West Shore, only 45.6 (of 16,000) hectares of ALR land in the region has been removed during the last decade. However, that does not mean the remaining land is being farmed. And even if it is farmed, the extent of the crop is often only enough to graze the limits of the farm credit, giving a significant tax break to owners. A few fields of hay or a couple of pigs can reach the $2,500 production figure that gains a farm tax credit on smaller properties. A November 2016 Globe & Mail investigation into farmland in the lower mainland noted, “Effectively, wealthy investors and speculators are receiving millions in tax breaks not meant for them.”
Yet upping the sales limit for farm status could have unforeseen consequences, say advocates such as Geggie. “It really depends what you’re producing, because if you’re producing carrots, that’s a heck of a lot of carrots…You also have some farms that are just starting out—developmental farms—and it’s hard in your first couple of years to make a lot of income,” Geggie said. Still, she believes there could be more nuanced categories in the farm tax credit regime.
The Province has struggled to control mega-mansions on ALR land. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham told Focus that, after tweaking an initial proposal, she believes proposed new rules that would allow secondary homes of 1,000 square feet and restrict primary residences to 5,400 square feet provide the correct balance.
But if land is in the ALR, why are the owners not required to farm it?
Not possible, responded Popham. “There are quite strict rules about what is allowable activity and what isn’t, but actually forcing people to farm is not something we can legislate,” she said. “What we can do is make farming more viable so that it’s an option they will choose,” she said.
Agriculture Minister Lana Popham
A series of initiatives to encourage farming, at provincial and regional levels, are making a difference, Popham said. “It’s like turning a giant cruise ship around. You’ve got to connect all the dots and get everything in place and then as soon as it starts to move, it really starts to move, and I really feel that is starting to happen,” she said.
Part of that dot-connecting is a series of food-processing hubs around the province that make it possible for farmers to create value-added goods—such as baked goods, beverages, condiments, and broth. Three are already in operation, and more are planned.
“They are really going to be places where people who wanted to start an entrepreneur business were stuck in a small space or home kitchen. Now they can move to a commercial area where all the boxes are ticked off…so they can get those products out,” Popham said.
Creating markets for farmers is one of the keys, said Popham, and a recent game-changer has been getting BC products into the health care system. Health authorities spend vast portions of their budgets on food, and the Province is encouraging them to buy BC-grown food, such as berries, eggs, vegetables and frozen meals, Popham said. “It’s really working. There are all these new business opportunities that are popping up,” she said.
THE AVERAGE AGE OF FARMERS in the capital region is 57, with more than half planning to retire over the next decade. Many members of the next generation are not interested in taking over the family farm, so protecting the land base and persuading others to farm the land are key challenges in the quest for regional food security.
The regional district is working on an agricultural land use inventory. It is also in the final throes of creating a foodlands trust, which will see participating municipalities put municipally-owned land into the trust, to be protected as agricultural land. (And perhaps down the road, purchase farmland for that purpose.)
The aim is for the regional district to then work with a non-profit land manager, such as CRFAIR, to lease the lands to farmers or community organizations.
Community farms already exist in the region, including Haliburton Farm, Newman Farm, Lohbrunner Farm, Burgoyne Farm, and the Sandown Racetrack lands, Geggie pointed out. “There’s an interest, and the foodlands trust is a framework for moving that forward,” she said. “It’s a pretty exciting thing, because people really do value local food now…It’s such an important thing for sustainability in our region,” she said.
The idea of a foodlands trust has been controversial because of fears it would give some farmers an unfair advantage. But Geddie noted the land would be leased at market rates, and tenant farmers would have long term leases, giving them security to make investments such as irrigation systems or greenhouses. It is one way to address the exorbitant value placed on any land in a hot real-estate market.
“It’s not going to solve the whole problem, but it is a strategy—a tool,” said Geggie, who wants to see the amount of locally-produced food consumed in the area grow from less than 10 percent to 25 percent by 2025. (So far, eight of the region’s municipalities have indicated their support, though Esquimalt, Langford, Colwood and Oak Bay do not support it.)
Along with protecting the land, there is a need to look at the types of food that can be grown in the era of climate change, Geggie said. “The diet that we are eating now is not the diet we will be eating in 10 years,” she said.
Some of the more innovative crops are coming through the Young Agrarians land matching program, supported by the provincial government, which matches young farmers to landowners who no longer want to farm their land, or who want to lease part of their land.
Young Agrarians in BC now have almost 290 hectares in production through 65 matches. In addition to the land matches, the organization provides education and support for new farmers, said Darcy Smith, Young Agrarians BC land program manager.
“We have worked with everything from small-scale market gardens, to mushroom production to goats to a buffalo dairy,” Smith said. “People are turning back to farming as a career and lifestyle choice. They love working with the soil and looking after animals,” she said.
Programs such as Young Agrarians and a foodlands trust are positive, but there is no magic solution to the local food production problem, especially when land costs are so high. Smith feels the first step is for people to be aware of where their food originates, and the importance of farming. Then, positive incentives, rather than new rules and regulations, are the best way to encourage people to continue farming or to consider it as a career, she said.
“We all have to understand that this farmland is something that we, as a community, need to value,” Smith said.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
March 5, 2020
The clinic attracts Canada’s best aspiring public-interest environmental lawyers to work on cases for community groups.
SHOULD YOU WANT TO TRACK DOWN one of British Columbia’s most important shapers of public policy regarding environmental protection, better have your GPS handy.
There’s no glitzy storefront to brand the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria. No swanky offices with plush carpet, oak panelling, and some elegantly-tailored watchdog receptionist. In keeping with its humble origins as a student initiative launched almost 25 years ago, it’s tucked away in a rabbit warren of austere cubicles, a Zen-like reminder that in the world of ideas, it’s the ideas, and not the trappings, that are the important currency.
And the ideas for statutory and regulatory reform that emerge from this small, scholarly clinic have profoundly altered the legal and political landscape for generations of British Columbians yet to come. That’s quite a legacy for undergraduate law students with only their passion, brains, diligence and the judicious guidance of a few wise mentors behind them. As such, UVic’s ELC offers a refreshing antidote for the next time some grumpy elder from my generation holds forth about the failings of young people.
On scales that range from the intensely local to the national arena, there’s no doubt that students who have passed through the ELC have worked critically important transfigurations in the administrative fabric of Canada’s environment. And they’ve gone on to work as federal litigators, to clerk with federal and provincial supreme courts, and to join leadingedge lawfirms working with environmental, civil rights, and First Nations’ issues.
To find this quiet epicentre of change, visitors must navigate through the hushed expanse of the university’s newly-renovated Diana M. Priestly law library, with its vast high-tech access to more than a hundred extensive legal databases, and past a series of glass-fronted study and seminar rooms. Then—an abrupt change in atmosphere—through unmarked, metal crash doors and up a nondescript back stairwell graced with handrails of utilitarian steel pipe. Beyond the library’s upstairs book stacks with their 180,000 volumes, past the students lounging in a pair of moulded designer chairs and taking an introspective break with their AirPods, and down a drab corridor adorned with hand-scrawled directions, is the beating heart of environmental law reform in the province.
Presiding over this unassuming heavyweight is a triumvirate.
ELC'S Calvin Sanborn, Deborah Curran and Holly Pattison
There is executive director Deborah Curran, a scarily well-informed expert in land and water law who is also an associate professor in both the law faculty and the university’s school of environmental studies. Curran does vital work in the centre’s background on governance, fundraising, liaison with the university, and program development.
But in the foreground, Curran is also one of the centre’s big hitters. She has earned a reputation for a steely analysis of how those with environmental concerns can use something as simple as their own municipal bylaws to trigger powerful and effective protection for local ecosystems, particularly in terms of employing already existing regulatory tools to modify development so that it sustains and conserves healthy watersheds and clean water. She supervised one ELC study of urban storm water management that’s credited with transforming policy regarding urban rainfall runoff in Greater Victoria.
Holly Pattison, a former UVic student herself, directs the ELC’s day-to-day operations and conducts financial oversight. But Pattison, who graduated from the university’s fine arts faculty, also multi-tasks as a writer, photographer and documentary filmmaker, and manages the communications that are so critical to any public policy agency in these days of spin, greenwashing and fake news.
And last, but far from least, there’s Calvin Sandborn, whose formidable legal intellect on subjects as diverse as drilling regulations, the ethical duties of mining engineers, and the obligations of politicians to close statutory loopholes exploited at the expense of the environment, combines with a genial, avuncular style. He’ll bring his guitar to a legal seminar and deliver a not-bad rendition of some 60s protest song, invites human rights and environmental activists into his classes, and has pizza delivered to workshops on dry subjects like corporate media.
Sandborn might be a poster-boy for effective environmental activism. He’s certainly a metaphor for the perils of environmental inaction. Born in Alaska, he moved to California as a young child and grew up at the centre of what became the 2018 wildfire inferno that erased whole towns—one of them the community of his childhood, Paradise, where 85 people died.
“My entire childhood, turned to ash,” he muses.
That which hadn’t already been drowned. He says his heightened awareness of the importance of environmental integrity coalesced around the fate of the Feather River, in whose canyons he spent one of those nostalgic Huckleberry Finn boyhoods. “I grew up swimming in the Feather River,” he recalls, “then they built the dam and flooded my swimming holes!” To make things worse, a politician came to town and scoffed there’d never been anything there before the damn dam anyway.
That memory was a motivator in the ELC’s work to stop plans to log watersheds in the upper Skagit River Valley. Protecting the Skagit had been a joint Canadian and American environmental mission for an earlier generation of environmentalists, but then it came back for his students, some of whom hadn’t been born for the first go round.
Student Caitlin Stockwell, he says, looked at the original agreement between BC and the City of Seattle. She found that BC, by approving logging in the “doughnut hole”—an unprotected patch of forest in the Upper Skagit set aside because of mineral claims and now surrounded by three state and provincial parks, a BC recreation area, and a US wilderness zone—was infringing upon Seattle’s rights under the 30-year-old international agreement protecting wilderness, wildlife habitat, and recreational resource values.“She finds that its provisions give the city of Seattle unilateral ability to take the BC government to court over the international treaty!”
In 2018, on the basis of the ELC report, the mayor of Seattle politely reminded Premier John Horgan of this fact. Last December, the Province abruptly banned further logging in the ecologically sensitive valley on the US border.
Sandborn, educated at a Jesuit university in San Francisco (“The Summer of Love was about to happen, and there I was in this place full of priests!”), cut his activist teeth on the civil-rights movement, anti-war protests, and efforts to organize California’s agricultural workers.
He came to Canada to join his brother Tom, who had come north after ripping up his draft card and mailing it to President Lyndon B. Johnson. On arrival, Calvin promptly rolled up his sleeves and got involved helping organize farm workers in the Fraser Valley and setting up the now-iconic Downtown Eastside Resident’s Association that has successfully worked to reconfigure cruel stereotypes about the Vancouver neighbourhood and its often marginalized, low-income citizens.
Curran, who was born in Kamloops and graduated from Trent University, had her environmental epiphany while working in Pacific Rim National Park when the Clayoquot Sound protests erupted. And Pattison, who came to Campbell River from Guelph as a teenager 43 years ago, was working in Victoria law offices when the flood of Clayoquot defences—the protest generated the largest mass trial in Canadian history—transfixed the legal community.
IF THESE THREE REPRESENT the official face of the Environmental Law Centre, they are quick to point out that the real engine of environmental change is the ever-changing team of law students—about 30 a year—that cycles through its clinics, gaining experience in researching, writing, and advocating for the law reforms that have lasting community effects upon how we live and interact with our environment.
For example, there was the work done by law student Neal Parker, who in the summer of 2017 investigated and reported on the growing problem of private landholders encroaching upon public access to publicly-owned waterfront lands on the Gorge waterway.
Parker, under the guidance of Sandborn, found 11 public access points colonized as parking pads, misidentified with intimidating signage, developed as private recreation sites, incorporated into gardens, used as dumps for garden waste and construction debris, and blocked by structures, hedges, walls, car ports and private docks.
Half a dozen of these effectively preempted public rights-of-way from members of the Songhees Nation a few blocks to the south, whose Douglas Treaty rights guaranteed them unfettered access to traditional hunting and fishing grounds on the Gorge in perpetuity.
In Greater Victoria, Parker pointed out in a 77-page brief to both Saanich and Esquimalt municipal governments, that projected population growth of an estimated 100,000 people by 2040 means the inevitable loss of existing green space, at a time when it’s becoming even more valuable and important for urban livability. It also represents an attack upon the core values in some of the most successful marketing strategies and economic revival plans of forward-thinking cities in the world. It’s clear from what’s happening in cities like Austin, Texas; Lyon, France and even Winnipeg, which is upending its dowdy grey image, that cities embracing public access to green space are more livable, and that cities deemed more livable will be the economic winners over the decades ahead. Cities that don’t proactively develop public green space will have to reestablish it at great expense, if they are to compete with the Seattles, Portlands and Vancouvers.
As a result of Parker’s work, those public access points have since been restored, Sandborn says.
THE NON-PROFIT ELC, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in the fall of 2021, started as a dream, took shape as a hope, and was realized when professor Chris Toleffson, a specialist in environmental law, agreed to work with half a dozen students who wanted to study in the field. He became the ELC’s first executive director.
“There was no funding,” Curran says. “It was run without funding until Calvin came on board as legal director [in 2004].”
Sandborn didn’t even have an office to start. He was working from the students’ computer lab. Then entrepreneur Eric Peterson, who had made his fortune developing and then selling medical imaging technology and whom, with his wife Christina Munck, had created the non-profit Tula Foundation, provided the ELC with $1.1 million over a five-year period.
“We had 10 years of angel funding with very few strings attached,” Sandborn says.
Now there’s stable funding from BC’s Law Foundation, which provides 48 percent of the centre’s annual revenues, and from other philanthropic organizations, including the Oasis Foundation, Tides Canada, the Sitka Foundation, and the Vancouver Foundation. Small individual donors make up the rest.
What the ELC does with this funding is provide students with a hands-on opportunity to learn environmental law, while simultaneously using it to empower individuals, small community organizations, First Nations, environmental and other groups. The students offer—at no charge—the statutory research and advice that enables the public to use existing legal frameworks to hold private, corporate, and administrative agencies accountable for ensuring that environmental regulatory requirements are met. Or, in other cases, to help press for reforms to environmental laws, and their enforcement, so that they serve the public, and not private, interest.
Among their notable achievements, ELC students conducted research into the proximity of sour gas wells to schools, residences and other public buildings on behalf of the Peace Environment and Safety Trustees Society.
Sour gas contains hydrogen sulphide, a compound so toxic that it paralyzes olfactory nerves at concentrations as low as 100 parts per million. Respiratory failure begins at 300 ppm, and at 800 ppm, 50 percent of those exposed will die within five minutes. The ELC students discovered that during one leak at Pouce Coupe in 2009, sour gas was released for 27 consecutive minutes before emergency shutoff valves cut off the flow.
In 2013, ELC law student Jacqui McMorran, lawyer Tim Thielman, and Sandborn gathered information from DataBC and plotted it using Google Earth to locate active, suspended and abandoned wells capable of leaking sour gas.
They reported that 1,900 children at 9 schools in 2 northeastern school districts were at risk from sour gas wells that, under provincial law, could be located a scant 100 metres from schools or hospitals. Worse, there were no minimum setbacks at all for pipelines carrying sour gas—although in 2010 the Province said it planned to establish safety zones of 2,000 metres.
In some cases, provincial emergency plans for gas leaks were so primitive, they consisted of supplying classroom teachers with rolls of duct tape and instructions to seal cracks around doors and windows.
After this inconvenient political bombshell, the provincial government announced it would increase the safety buffer for sour gas wells adjacent to schools and other public buildings from 100 to 1,000 metres.
“Government seemed quite content to renege on their 2010 promise to extend the legislated safety buffer around schools—until we exposed the fact that the safety buffer had not been expanded,” Sandborn said at the time.
“What about all the other issues that never get publicized? Day to day, who is looking after the public interest? Who is watchdogging the regulators to make sure that the Province doesn’t weaken regulations?” he asked.
Luckily for the public, the ELC has been doing a first-rate job of watch-dogging. Among its most high-profile accomplishments:
The ELC’s complaint to the federal government in 2013 regarding the muzzling of scientists on controversial issues like climate change. It triggered such a robust public response that government can no longer mute the voices of its own scientists just because their message is politically vexing.
More locally, a complaint about metals contamination leaching from an old copper mine on the Jordan River beyond Sooke—it hadn’t even been checked for 20 years—prompted clean up efforts and a full scale remediation plan for later this year.
But that’s just a start. In the aftermath of the Mount Polley mine disaster, in which the failure of a tailings dam dumped the equivalent of 10,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools of contaminated waste into one of the biggest salmon rivers in the Fraser River watershed, the ELC produced a report calling for comprehensive mining reform. It found that BC taxpayers are liable for more than $1 billion in mine clean up costs, and called for the Province to begin fully checking and cleaning up 1,100 mines like the one that killed the lower Jordan River.
ELC students and lawyers also assisted local residents in the Interior, whose drinking water was being contaminated by nitrates leaching into an aquifer from agricultural applications of manure to fertilize fields. That work led to a new provincial code for agricultural waste management but, perhaps more important, it also earned a ruling from the Province’s information and privacy commissioner that government must promptly and proactively release, without charge, all government records that are in the public interest.
Working with the World Wildlife Fund, ELC students supervised by Sandborn and Curran prepared a study last fall calling for remediation of beaches around the Salish Sea that were once critical spawning habitat for forage fish that serve as foundation species for the chinook, and other salmon, upon which threatened resident orcas depend.
The ELC recently called for regulation of single-use plastics, and recommendations for how to go about it. It follows a report two years ago outlining legal reforms necessary to address the growing problem of marine plastic pollution.
There isn’t room in a short article like this to list all the work done on the public’s behalf, or to name the students who have passed through the ELC’s clinics and left their enduring mark upon the laws that frame our collective relationship with the world in which we live.
There is room to observe that for something that began with a handful of students, one professor who saw their potential and another willing to work from a computer lab to help them realize that potential, the ELC’s 25th birthday party will represent an extraordinary milestone in the evolution of BC.
Stephen Hume spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
March 5, 2020
The April 4 by-election puts the City of Victoria’s youthful electoral organization to the test.
LIKE MOST VICTORIANS, the residents of Avebury Avenue have issues. Bike lanes, poor transit service, affordability, property taxes, homelessness — I heard earfuls about all of them one recent Saturday afternoon, tagging along with Together Victoria candidate Stefanie Hardman as she knocked on doors in the Oaklands neighbourhood.
A middle-aged guy in wool-felt slippers told Hardman he had to put a down payment on the house he’s in because he was exhausted by the instability of renting in Victoria. “There’s a lot of wealth around here, and I’d like to see it squeezed to provide more services,” he said.
“Yes, yes!” Hardman replied. A cat stretched in the window, and the guy noted that many Victoria landlords prohibit pets, an exclusion that’s illegal in Ontario. Hardman gave him a brochure listing her campaign promises, including “End discrimination against renters with animals.” (A vote-getter, considering that six in 10 Canadians have pets, but a matter of provincial jurisdiction.)
The guy liked what he heard. A Together canvasser asked for his email address and phone number, and marked him down as a “2” out of five — a likely supporter, certain to receive follow-up inquiries making sure he casts a ballot for Hardman in the City of Victoria’s April 4 by-election.
Candidates in Victoria's April 4 by-election (as of the time Focus went to press): Stephen Andrew, Jeremy Caradonna, Stephanie Hardman, Rachel Montgomery
It’s likely “the most interesting by-election we’ll see this year,” said CBC Vancouver’s municipal affairs newsletter Metro Matters recently. For one thing, the winner could hold the balance of power on Victoria’s council. During 2019, Together’s three first-time councillors Laurel Collins, Sharmarke Dubow and Sarah Potts sided with incumbents Ben Isitt and Jeremy Loveday to pass several controversial measures — voting 5-3 in February to limit increases to the police budget, for example, and 5-4 in June to require big condo developments to include 20 percent affordable rentals, despite warnings that the requirement would “kill” those projects. Now with Collins serving as Victoria’s MP and her council seat up for grabs, the “Together+2” majority is in question.
Councillors in that majority have also famously annoyed the Province’s NDP government. As the CBC noted, Ben Isitt’s calls for free transit and regional police amalgamation, plus his public support for the February 11 anti-pipeline blockade of the legislature — which Stefanie Hardman endorsed online — have brought sharp rebukes from Premier John Horgan, indicating “an unease some on the centre-left have with the current incarnation of council.”
“Given all the controversy over the past year,” the CBC concluded, “if Hardman ends up facing no serious competition it’s a clear sign that Victoria voters are reasonably happy with a council that has a more expansive notion of its jurisdiction than local government normally does.”
IN PERSON, Hardman doesn’t seem like a threat to municipal-provincial relations: she’s clear-eyed and boundlessly cheerful. Raised in Toronto, where she studied urban planning, since 2014 she’s worked for various Victoria agencies as a community-based researcher, interviewing people affected by specific issues, and turning their concerns into reports designed to influence government.
“So I have that background in community engagement, and then listening with an ear to shaping those experiences into policy, things that could happen at the municipality to improve people’s lives,” she says. Asked for an example of changes her research brought about, she cites one job as a “school travel planner,” working with Victoria schools, City departments and parents to improve transportation options for kids, which resulted in a new signalled crosswalk, and a “walking school bus” of kids strolling together to classes.
The big issue for Hardman (and Together) is housing, which aligns with one of her recent jobs, preparing a report for the Community Social Planning Council on housing instability. Hardman says we need to dramatically increase the supply of low-income housing, and need to consider the elimination of residential, single-family zoning that may be coming in the City’s “missing middle” housing policy. “I can appreciate that these types of changes can be challenging, but I do think there are ways to engage with neighbourhoods, and come together to talk about how we can create the future of the city that we want to live in.”
A renter herself, like 61 percent of the City’s residents, Hardman also wants the City to increasingly apply its new legal powers, granted by the Province in 2018, to prezone properties and areas exclusively for rentals. “That could help us to increase the supply of affordable rental housing, and rein in rents. I’d like to see that used.” (The City is already phasing this in, starting with the oldest rental buildings most at risk of being torn down and replaced with condos.)
“I would like to look to strengthening the [City’s] tenant-assistance policy, and reducing renovictions and displacement,” she says. “I’d like to see stronger rent control, exploring the idea of rent control tied to the unit, rather than to tenancy agreements,” she continues — but admits that will require lobbying the Province to change the Residential Tenancy Act.
That might not be easy, given Victoria’s tendency to irritate the premier. But cities are seeing the worst effects of the housing crisis, she says, and they have to speak up. “I do think it is the responsibility of municipal government to let other levels of government know what those experiences are, what we’re feeling here in our city, and what we think could help.”
Together Victoria began to form after the 2014 municipal election, in which moderates Margaret Lucas and Chris Coleman won the last two Council positions, narrowly beating out NDP stalwarts Erik Kaye and John Luton, who ran independent campaigns. Various progressives in town figured that if they pooled their resources and volunteers and ran a limited slate of candidates, they would stand a better chance of tipping the Council in their favour. Then they held a series of open houses to crowdsource their platform of an “affordable, inclusive and thriving city,” to identify supporters, and to raise their profile. It worked spectacularly well: seemingly from nowhere, Together got all three of its candidates elected in 2018.
Now it stands as the dominant electoral organization in the City of Victoria. During Together’s recent nomination process, which Hardman won in January, its membership swelled from 200 to more than 800. (To witness its developments, I joined too.) And they’re young, compared to the members of most political parties: mainly in their 20s and 30s, they raise funds and network at coffeeshop trivia-contest nights, not $500-a-plate dinners.
Together has had challenges achieving the inclusivity it seeks, though. Its executive is almost entirely comprised of employees of the University of Victoria or various provincial ministries. Its membership doesn’t include many businesspeople, or seniors. And it’s only somewhat nonpartisan: former provincial Green candidate Kalen Harris is active in Together, for example, but the organization seems dominated by the youth wing of the BC NDP. One director has chaired the Victoria NDP’s federal riding association, others have worked for NDP members of parliament, and to arrange an interview with Hardman, I had to go through one of Laurel Collins’ constituency assistants. (Thanks to Together’s transparent financing, it’s already possible to report that Collins donated $1,199 to Hardman’s election campaign.)
Together’s recently enlarged membership is also fracturing. During the run-up to Together’s nomination meeting, a group of frustrated renters signed up new members in the hope of electing a champion for the types of rights that tenants have recently won elsewhere in BC. (In Burnaby and New Westminster, for example, renovicted tenants have the right to return to a renovated building at the same rent they paid before.) But after Hardman won, Darren Alexander, one of the renter activists, blasted her and several Together principals in a 10,000-word online diatribe as the courtly members of a “professional managerial class,” more concerned about maintaining their contacts and connections in nonprofit housing networks than in organizing renters to demand change. (Instead, Alexander says, members of those circles mobilized renters in 2018 mainly to get Together candidates elected — a story recently covered by the online news site The Capital.)
Karmen McNamara, a triathlete who ran unsuccessfully for the Together nomination, also says she’s “lost confidence” in the organization. “What we need at City Council right now is action and problem-solving, not more talking,” she tells me. McNamara says she signed up 219 new members for Together, but she doesn’t know who they’re voting for now. “Everybody needs to make their own decision.”
IN McNAMARA’S CASE, she’s now campaigning for Rachael Montgomery, a Registered Nurse, mom, and environmental activist with the Surfrider Foundation who says she’ll bring more collaboration to City Hall.
“When a patient comes in,” Montgomery says, “I don’t ask them what political leanings they have, I ask, ‘What do you need right now?’ And I work with a team of experts to solve that problem.”
Montgomery worked in the Royal Jubilee Hospital’s oncology ward, and eventually assumed management of the eighth floor of the hospital, supervising some 200 staff. Currently she’s on leave from the corporate department of Island Health for her election campaign — and applying her medical evaluation skills to the City’s issues.
To deal with the acute problem of housing, for example, she prescribes simplifying the process for homeowners to add suites or units to their properties, “so neighbourhoods can gently densify the way they want, rather than how they’re being told to.” She admits that won’t be enough to cure the problem, so she’s been meeting with developers, and withholds judgement on the council’s requirement to include 20 percent affordable rentals in big condo projects: “I want to make sure we’re actually seeing those outcomes,” she says.
During her campaign, Montgomery has also gone on a ridealong with VicPD, and spent time with Victoria’s Assertive Community Treatment teams, which are comprised of health-care workers and police officers to address mental-health emergencies. “If I come with any bias, it’s as a frontline worker,” says Montgomery, who is dismayed that some Victoria councillors hold an “ideological” opposition to the police. So would she simply give the police the budget increases they demand? “Of course not. I’m a manager, I know how to manage a budget.”
Montgomery started campaigning in December, and since then she’s spoken to hundreds of residents on the doorstep. No single issue dominates those conversations, she says. “What people want is some good, commonsense, practical decision-making that they feel a part of.”
Jeremy Caradonna, another independent candidate, has been at it even longer, campaigning since November. He’s had over 1,000 conversations with residents, and says many are telling him that local politics has become “too divisive” and that they’re opposed to municipal parties. “They see it as a slippery slope, into the hyperpartisan politics we see in Vancouver.”
Caradonna is an experienced communicator: he holds a PhD in history from Johns Hopkins, wrote Sustainability: A History (Oxford University Press, 2014), and quit a tenured professorship at the University of Alberta to get his hands dirty running Share Organics, a Victoria business with 12 employees. (“I know how to calculate operational costs, unlike many of the current councillors,” he says.) He currently works as a policy analyst in the Province’s Climate Action Secretariat, but still teaches a course at UVic on the local organics industry, and grows vegetables that he sells from a farm stand in front of his house in Fernwood.
Like other candidates, Caradonna says affordable housing is one of the big issues he will tackle on council. “We lack supply. Here we didn’t build housing for 30 years, and now that our population is growing, the problem is coming home to roost. So it’s about making it easier for people to have secondary suites, it’s about building the ‘missing middle’ — those three- to five-storey buildings close to urban villages. The overwhelming majority of Victorians don’t want skyscrapers, they want densification in scale with neighbourhoods.”
Caradonna, a father of two school-age girls, says his other main issue is climate action. He fully supports the construction of bike lanes, but says the City needs to thoroughly improve its bus service, and get on board with rail transit. Half of our greenhouse gases come from aging buildings, so he wants a City program helping residents switch from oil tanks and natural gas to heat pumps, cutting our emissions dramatically. “My vision for Victoria is that this is the leading progressive jurisdiction in the country, and that we push the envelope.”
Policy-wise, there might appear to be little daylight between him and Together — in fact, Caradonna says many people on his campaign team are also Together members, but they’re backing him instead. “I think it’s going to be a close race, and it all depends on who gets out their electorate.”
JUST BEFORE FOCUS WENT TO PRESS, a few more candidates announced themselves, including UVic lab instructor Alexander Schmid, building contractor Peter Forbes, and former broadcaster Stephen Andrew. “I’ll bring a balance, a certain level of professionalism that I don’t think exists in some members at the council table,” Andrew says. “We’ve been the laughing stock not just of the region, but the whole country. That’s simply unacceptable to me. We’re a compassionate city. We have tremendous opportunities. And that’s what we should be talking about.”
In the 2018 civic election, Andrew finished in ninth place, just shy of a Council seat, as part of the NewCouncil slate fronted by Stephen Hammond, who led the “Mad as Hell” opposition to Downtown’s 2016 tent city. Almost immediately after announcing his run this time, Andrew faced online attacks that he “hates” the homeless, a claim that saddens him.
“I’ve been homeless twice in my life. I’ve lived that experience. Anybody who criticizes me should walk a mile in my shoes before they do that.” As he points out, he’s won awards from Our Place and the BC Public Health Association for his reporting on homelessness. “My concern is that we build housing but do not staff it sufficiently, because many of these people need support.”
Andrew believes several current councillors “have no clue” about many issues they comment upon, whether that’s the difficulties of parking Downtown, the economics of condominium development, or the pressures faced by VicPD. “You have [councillors] who are standing in the middle of these protests, who are the same people saying we have to reduce the police budget,” Andrew says. “I’m not saying don’t protest, but they have no idea how much it costs.”
Andrew admits he’s starting later than others in the race, but promises he will run a significant campaign online — and he already enjoys greater name recognition than most of the other candidates. Victoria’s by-election will likely prove even more interesting than originally predicted.
Ross Crockford tips his hat to anyone who takes on the complex, difficult job of a municipal councillor.
January 5, 2020
To satisfy the Millennials’ need for housing, Victoria’s mayor aims to permit fourplexes “as of right” on single-family lots.
DOWNTOWN HAD SEEN MANY BIG PROJECTS over the past decade, but nothing like this. On December 3, Starlight Developments revealed its plans for a block and a half of Harris Green — replacing the existing Market on Yates, London Drugs and other businesses with 100,000 square feet of new retail space, topped by five towers up to 25 storeys tall and containing some 1,500 rental apartments.
The unveiling took place at a land-use meeting run by the Downtown Residents’ Association, and the members had questions. What will happen to the businesses there now? Starlight said it would phase the construction so they could move to other parts of the development with minimal disruption. Who will police the proposed half-acre of green space? Starlight said it would create a “governance model” with the City of Victoria. With all the parking underground and entrances only on View Street, how will it handle the traffic? Starlight said it would conduct traffic-demand studies and adjust its plans accordingly.
Starlight Developments proposes to build 1,500 rental units in Harris Green
The audience sounded generally favourable toward the project, if exhausted by the prospect of more blasting and beeping trucks, and their questions sounded reasonable to my aging ears. But then I went home, and on the Vibrant Victoria internet forum, I encountered a very different impression of the evening.
“The room was 90 percent senior citizens who blathered on and on about how there is too much construction in Victoria and new towers block their views from the condo they bought last year,” fumed a forum poster nicknamed “victorian.” As far as they were concerned, the meeting was “mostly just boomer complaints about how terrible it is that Victoria is not in the 1960s anymore.”
I posted my own account of the event, and asked victorian to meet to discuss our differences of perception, but they declined. The “boomers” simply didn’t care about “a failing housing market, lack of rental homes, or [having] a vibrant and economically successful city,” victorian replied. “Unfortunately, the size of the post-war generation and the long lives they are expected to live will continue to hold our city, province, and country hostage for quite some time into the future, and it’s time for those of us who have more future ahead of us than behind us to fight back.”
ONE MIGHT DISMISS SUCH AGEIST HOSTILITY as the gripe of a solitary crank, but similar frustrations are being voiced worldwide. As the Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders noted recently, one common trait of the young protesters who rattled Hong Kong, Beirut, Santiago, Moscow, and other cities in 2019 is that they do not feel in any way represented by the older leaders who run their countries.
“Their anger represents a positive force of change — and a register of this decade’s failure to fully deliver the fruits of 30 years of worldwide human improvement to the next generation,” Saunders wrote. “Most of these protesters do not enjoy the lives and livelihoods that they and their parents had expected to be available for them. Many want something completely new — a new political system, a new way of managing the economy, a new ecological commitment.”
Canada has largely avoided such conflict because we continue to enjoy a buoyant economy, and elect youngish politicians who claim to be listening. But a generation gap is opening up here too. The Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964 and comprising some eight million Canadians, retain the lion’s share of economic wealth and political influence, while making increasing demands on government pension plans and health care. Millennials, mainly Boomers’ children born between 1981 and 1996 and numbering around 7.4 million, on the other hand, increasingly argue that they’re facing stagnant wages, crumbling infrastructure, climate change, and massive personal debt due to the high costs of education and housing. (Justin Trudeau, born in 1971, falls squarely in Generation X.)
“The movement we are part of is about intergenerational solidarity, which means people of all ages looking out for each other — and our particular focus in that is fighting for young people, and giving young people a chance,” says Eric Swanson, the Victoria-based executive director of Generation Squeeze, an advocacy nonprofit with more than 35,000 supporters across Canada. “We have a lot of people coming to us as they hit that crunch, where all these things start happening at once, and people are forced to make tough decisions, forced to leave the community they love and prefer to live in, forced to delay starting a family or perhaps not having one at all, forced to take on multiple jobs or precarious work, and through all of that living with increasing anxiety, from personal debt that you have to take on now to buy a home, anxiety around your or your children’s future when it comes to climate change,” says Swanson, who’s 36, and has a one-year-old daughter. “That’s why we need governments at all levels to start responding more urgently, and in a more coordinated fashion.”
Gen Squeeze executive director Eric Swanson
Gen Squeeze was founded in 2014 by Paul Kershaw, a professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health who often publishes research showing how Millennials have been getting the short end of public finance. In one paper, Kershaw calculated that Canadian governments spend up to $40,000 per person age 65-plus, but only $11,000 per person under 45; in another, Kershaw estimated that young Canadians pay 20 to 62 percent more in taxes to support retirees than they did four decades ago, even though many seniors are wealthier than at any time in national history. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the executive vice-president of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons once accused Gen Squeeze of “trying to start an inter-generational war.”) Increasingly though, Gen Squeeze’s research and advocacy has been focused upon dampening the crippling price of housing in Canadian cities, Victoria included.
To that end, Swanson says Gen Squeeze has been working to “dial down harmful demand” on urban housing. It lobbied Vancouver and Victoria to restrict short-term rentals, and helped persuade the B.C. government to pass the Speculation and Vacancy Tax — and apply it to the entire capital region, much to the frustration of Langford mayor Stew Young. (“We are seeing provincial data revealing global capital coming here [to buy housing] too, not just in metro Vancouver,” Swanson says.)
The Gen Squeeze message
More controversially, Gen Squeeze has also encouraged municipalities to “dial up” the supply of housing, by supporting large housing developments opposed by neighbourhoods — leading to accusations that Gen Squeeze is just a stooge of wealthy corporations. (Along with VanCity Credit Union and the Vancouver Foundation, Gen Squeeze’s funders include the developer Wesgroup and the rental owners’ association LandlordBC.)
“We need to build a lot of homes,” Swanson replies. Although publicly-funded housing and co-ops are part of the solution, he says, private developments also increase supply. But will many private units actually be affordable? In the spring of 2018, Swanson urged Victoria’s council to approve a project at 1201 Fort; now it’s being sold as Bellewood Park, with condos priced from $665,000 to $1.9 million.
“We need to build more housing Downtown, near urban cores, employment centres, and amenities, and be comfortable with the fact that it’s going to take some time for that housing to become affordable, as the unit ages,” Swanson says. “Simultaneously, we need to recognize that a lot of the problem in the end price is the underlying land value.”
To drop those values and spur housing, Gen Squeeze advocates increasing taxes on unimproved and underused land, and decreasing income taxes — an idea first proposed by the 19th-century economist Henry George, and which it’s currently researching for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Gen Squeeze has also called for a luxury tax on residences worth over $1 million, and eliminating the exemption on capital gains from the sale of a principal residence, a loophole that costs the federal government $6 billion a year. “Nobody does anything to earn that money,” Swanson says, although he admits cutting the exemption means “we will have to invest more in seniors as well, because a lot of people are banking on home equity to fund their retirement.”
SUCH ARGUMENTS SEEM TO BE increasingly influential — especially in the City of Victoria, where Millennials hold a growing share of political power.
According to the federal census, in 2011 nearly the same number of Millennials (18,270) and Boomers (17,070) lived in the City of Victoria. But by 2016, the numbers had tipped decisively in favour of Millennials (23,165) over Boomers (18,100). They will likely tip even further in the 2021 census, given Victoria’s hot economy and boom in apartment construction.
That trend might explain why Together Victoria got all three of its first-time, Millennial-aged candidates elected to council in 2018, and why Mayor Lisa Helps was re-elected. (Helps was 38 when she first won the mayoralty in 2014, making her one of the younger mayors in the City’s history, but the youth record likely goes to Alexander R. Robertson, who was 30 when he became mayor in 1870.) And since then, the council has fast-tracked concerns that often split public reaction along generational lines: bike lanes instead of cars, expanded services instead of low taxes, and new housing instead of heritage, trees, and quietude.
The next big fight over new housing is coming soon. On November 21, the council directed City staff to come up with a plan to increase the stock of lower-cost, “missing middle” housing, such as multi-unit houses and townhomes — and during the discussions, Helps indicated that she wants to eliminate single-family residential zoning across the entire city, as Minneapolis did this past year, to get such housing built.
“I’d like to see us go at least as far as Minneapolis, where they have triplexes as of right [on single-family lots]. I’d like to see fourplexes as of right,” Helps told her staff. (Video of the meeting here; start at 1:51:00.) “There was a big stir in the North America-wide planning community when the headline was that Minneapolis got rid of single-family zoning. From staff’s report it doesn’t seem quite that drastic, but I think we need to do more with the land that we have.”
(One critique of such blanket “upzoning” is that it jacks land values even higher, and only produces expensive townhomes in desirable neighbourhoods, not the affordable housing that cities need. So Victoria’s council, to its credit, also told staff to build an “affordability” requirement into its “missing middle” plan. City staff will present their draft recommendations this coming spring.)
Urban municipalities are now pushing for similar upzoning in cities across North America, in an attempt to address a housing crisis generated by a multitude of factors, including an economy producing a lot of downtown-based, tech- and service-oriented jobs — mainly employing Millennials — and outdated transportation infrastructure that prevents commuting from cheaper housing farther away.
Over the past three years, Seattle, Austin, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington D.C. have all upzoned parts of their cities to permit greater housing densities, especially along transit routes. And in November, the City of Vancouver directed its staff to draft bylaws that would automatically permit six-storey rental housing on arterial roads and four-storey rentals on side streets near parks, schools and shopping.
“At best it’s an incremental improvement, but once we get this type of bylaw on the books, then it’s relatively easy in subsequent years to extend that,” says Adrian Crook, the founder of Abundant Housing Vancouver, a volunteer-run YIMBY (Yes, In My Back Yard) advocacy group. “I think that’s how we get zoning reform. It’s not a single pen stroke, it’s a bunch of them.”
Of course, another attraction of upzoning to municipal governments is that it eliminates the lengthy consultations and public hearings that are required to rezone residential properties for higher densities. Crook, who was in Victoria recently to speak about the YIMBY movement to the Urban Development Institute, cites a recent battle over 21 rental townhomes in Vancouver’s high-end Shaughnessy neighbourhood, which concluded in a public hearing with dozens of speakers, consuming 10 hours of city council time. (The council rejected the proposal and a 13,000-square-foot mansion is being built on the lot instead.)
“That is the problem with our current housing-approval process,” Crook says. “The people who can potentially benefit from those 21 rental townhomes, they may not even live in Vancouver right now, and they’re not going to be motivated to show up at a council meeting. But the surrounding neighbourhood is highly motivated, because they perceive harms to be directly visited upon them. So that’s what we’re constantly fighting.”
Crook, who’s 43, says it’s “reductionist” to claim the two camps split entirely along Millennial-Boomer lines, but he admits that those demanding density and new housing are generally younger, while the oppositional “incumbents” in residential neighbourhoods are older. “They’re a generation that was raised on Jane Jacobs, and fighting freeways,” Crook says. “That’s a good fight, but now they see any type of growth as a bad thing.”
Crook has seen it in his own family. “My mother lives in Port Moody, in the house I grew up in. She very much fits that Sierra Club-model of environmentalist, but she voted in the current council because she thinks there’s been too much development and change in Port Moody. She loves the Skytrain and West Coast Express, but doesn’t want the areas around the stations developed,” Crook says. “It’s a really weird, contrarian perspective, to want all the amenities but nobody living around them.”
Ross Crockford was born at the tail end of the Baby Boom, and lives in a triplex that predates his neighbourhood’s single-family zoning.
January 5, 2020
Residents are concerned about possible bias and the sacrifice of green space as Langford continues housing push.
“ONE DAY A FOREST, the next day a clearcut,” shrugged a Costco shopper, staring at a denuded patch that seemed to have appeared overnight above Langford’s big-box stores.
The 20-hectare patch, slated for a mixed commercial and residential development, went through the usual processes at Langford City Council—including a public hearing—but for many it is hard to keep up with the breakneck pace of development in one of BC’s fastest-growing cities.
New housing has transformed landscapes, from sprawling rural to small-lot urban, in areas such as Happy Valley and Latoria Roads. There is no sign of a slowdown, despite growing discomfort that the unremitting push to build housing means the loss of natural landscapes. Those concerns are exacerbated by suspicions that developers are controlling the agenda to the detriment of those pleading for larger lots and retention of contiguous green space.
A new development in south Langford
Langford’s Official Community Plan calls for 40 percent open space on previously undeveloped land. But wiggle room allows open space to drop to 25 percent if there is a significant community benefit, such as affordable housing or a school site. Critics say those requirements are often waived, or green space is divided into fragments, with playing fields or recreation facilities making up much of the mix, as opposed to more natural parkland.
“They [council] often don’t follow their own requirements. They constantly make exceptions for…the benefit of the developer, not for the natural resource,” said South Langford resident Mike Turner.
The “clearcut-blast-build” formula, followed by promises to plant saplings, cannot replace the loss of critical and endangered habitats, said a member of Citizens of South Langford for Sustainable Development, one of the recently formed groups asking for a more environmentally and socially sustainable approach to development.
“Langford development requirements do not need to undermine the integrity of our natural ecosystem; instead, they should complement each other,” said Tim Allan, a member of the group. “The community has made it clear that preserving natural parkland is important…Council and developers need to hoist in that message, keep the lines of communication open with the community, and more deliberately integrate natural parkland into their planning,” he said.
Langford incorporated in 1992 and the City’s aggressive push to provide housing has taken the population from 18,000 in 1996 to more than 40,000 today.
Mayor Stew Young, who has been in charge since 1993, proudly proclaims Langford’s come-hither approach to developers, saying reducing red tape and delivering fast approvals remains one of council’s highest priorities. Langford is renowned for completing rezoning applications in six months, minimizing the time that developers are left in limbo holding expensive land, which helps them keep housing costs more affordable.
According to Langford staff, the pushback from a few residents is weighed against the needs of a broad cross-section of citizens who need homes, along with the need to increase the tax base—which provides amenities ranging from sidewalks to arenas.
Langford planning director Matthew Baldwin said there is some friction in South Langford because it is transitioning from the haphazard pattern of development pre-incorporation to a more organized, urban form of development. That means small-lot or condominium development in areas with more spacious homes or surrounded by green space which is used by the community. But it is impossible to roll back the clock 40 years to a time when there was no development pressure or housing crisis, Baldwin said. “You can’t do it that way any more because the fundamental economic underpinnings of land value and construction costs would make that home prohibitively expensive.”
Speedy approvals of developments in Langford have come in for criticism (and will likely increase given the removal of the new 11-storey Danbrook One’s occupancy permit, forcing 86 households to move just before Christmas). Much of the approval work is done behind the scenes as municipal staff work with developers to fine-tune applications before they go to council.
“Quite often we have robust discussions at planning and zoning and resolve a lot of the issues,” Baldwin said, noting, “By the time things get to a formal public hearing, there are often no more issues, as people feel their issues have been addressed. Members of the public who had concerns are aware that those concerns have been addressed, and then they may decide not to attend the public hearing.” He pointed out that no one turned up when there was a public hearing for 3,000 residential units on Bear Mountain.
Councillor Denise Blackwell, who chairs the Planning, Zoning and Affordable Housing Committee, said background work by staff aims to bring unambiguous proposals to council. “By the time an application gets to the committee stage, it is usually just a matter of tweaking the proposal, adding certain conditions that suit the particular circumstances or address unforeseen concerns raised by neighbours,” she said, adding that, since incorporation, the total area of protected green space has increased from 8 percent to more than 20 percent. “Council has also worked to acquire strategic park lands, develop active recreation for all, and continues to support efforts of the region as a whole to protect green spaces through the CRD’s Regional Green/Blue Spaces Strategy,” she said.
However, the City’s friendliness towards developers troubles some residents, dealing with what they see as a council that does not prioritize the environment. A group in the Latoria Road area was surprised when told by council that they had to deal with Draycor Construction Ltd to address concerns about a proposed development.
Council was dismissive when the group first turned up at a council meeting, said Laurie Anderson. “We don’t agree with the lot sizes that are being proposed, and there are a lot of environmental concerns…They just dismissed us and said we had to speak with the developer,” she said.
There is increasing concern that developers, many with long-term ties to the community and council, hold undue sway.
The Planning, Zoning and Affordable Housing Committee, which provides advice to council, but does not have decision-making authority, is made up of two councillors and five appointed citizens including Kent Sheldrake, co-owner of Draycor Construction Ltd.; Art Creuzot, owner of Luxbury Homes; and Malcolm Hall, owner of Lifestyle Ventures development company and Solo Suites airbnb hotel.
The six-member Board of Variance, which operates at arm’s length from council and deals with matters such as relaxation of zoning regulations or tree-protection requirements, includes Cliff Curtis owner of TBJ Properties; Jim Hartshorne, owner of Keycorp Developments Ltd and Westhills Land Corp; land development consultant Rachael Sansom; and Ron Coutre, owner of SouthPoint Partners Ltd and president of Westshore Developers Association.
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said no complaints have been received about the makeup of Langford committees. But some residents are alarmed by the perception of bias.
A presentation on behalf of developers of the property behind Costco was made by Hartshorne, chair of the Board of Variance; a controversial rezoning application for 734 Latoria Road, made by Kevin Parker, co-owner of Draycor Construction, whose partner Sheldrake is a member of the planning and zoning committee, was approved with 17.5 percent green space, despite public opposition.
The selection criteria used by mayor and council is unclear, Allan said. “Given its current membership, the Planning, Zoning and Affordable Housing Committee appears to be overwhelmingly weighted to favour development. With such an apparent bias, it is difficult for it to reflect the broad views from the citizens of Langford,” he said. Some members have served several consecutive terms and will continue to the end of 2022, Allan noted.
“The [committee] needs to have a cross-section of representation from not only the developer community, but also public housing representatives, seniors, business, Chamber of Commerce, environmental groups, just to name a few,” said Allan.
Turner pointed out that committees are usually balanced between interests such as citizens, First Nations, government, and environmental groups. “I would say that any committee making recommendations to government needs to be balanced between all the special interests that have a stake in whatever they are discussing. So to have it dominated by one group that has a clear, vested interest more than any other group is not appropriate,” he said.
J.Ocean Dennie, founder of the Friends of the T’Sou-ke Hills Wilderness, is worried that plans to punch an alternate route to the Malahat will result in a sprawl of development, and he has little faith that Langford will protect wilderness values. “What it comes down to is who is sitting at the table, who is making the decisions and who is pushing the agenda. As concerned citizens, a lot of the time we just don’t have that information. We don’t have time to keep up with the backroom deals,” he said.
Lawyer Matthew Nefstead, who was hired by West Coast Environmental Law to help those fighting for more Latoria Road green space, wrote in his analysis, “The fact that most, or all of the non-elected members are property developers who have dealings with the Committee and the City and who do not appear to declare conflicts of interest, presents—in my opinion—a reasonable apprehension of bias.”
But Blackwell said some members of the committee are semi-retired and, as chair of the committee, she asks individuals to recuse themselves if there is a perception of conflict of interest.
The argument heard from Langford staff is that council wants the expertise provided by developers and, for environmental input, relies on registered professional biologists or professional foresters. “I don’t think it would serve anyone on the committee or council or the public at large to have one qualified professional questioning another qualified professional’s opinion,” said a staff member.
With controversy over the makeup of committees, there is a push for more transparency from Langford council—one of the only municipalities in the Capital Regional District that does not webcast meetings. “Why are there no cameras recording the meetings?” asked Terrie Wilcox, who mobilized a group of neighbours worried about overdevelopment in the Goldstream Avenue area, where plans call for redevelopment of St Anthony’s Clinic, including a 15-storey condominium building.
Wilcox worries that development is racing ahead of infrastructure, and most of the input heard by council is from tradespeople and developers. “I agree with development due to the housing shortage, [but] Langford is moving far too fast with very little change, if any, to infrastructure,” she said, pointing to road dust on her patio table from incessant traffic.
Like many Langford residents, Sarah Forbes agrees that housing development is needed, but the “pitchy-patchy approach” of separate developers is resulting in isolated communities connected by commuter corridors.
“With the large-scale development, we could have some really world-class communities if we had a more sustainable approach to development. It’s a huge opportunity that is being missed,” said Forbes. “I do support development. We need to grow as a community, but we can do better…We have this great opportunity to grow this whole city, and we could develop it more sustainably with real sustainable practices in mind,” she said.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
This story has been edited to reflect the correct name of Danbrook One, the development in Langford which had its occupancy permit revoked. An earlier version had referred to the development as Donwood One.