The provincial government is looking to buy or lease another hotel or vacant residential building in Greater Victoria to house hundreds of people without homes before the end of March, says B.C.’s attorney general.
“We’re looking at any opportunities to get people inside as quickly as we can, which is the over-arching goal,” David Eby, who is also the minister responsible for housing, told the Times Colonist. “And it may look like, if there are opportunities to do so, acquiring properties with minimal renovations that are appropriate for people to live in.”
Eby could not elaborate on any specific hotels or buildings being considered.
An estimated 190 people are sheltering in Victoria parks but the province is preparing to house “significantly” more than that to ensure no one is left behind, Eby said.
B.C. Housing is working with the City of Victoria to identify appropriate supportive housing sites. Eby said any new supportive housing facilities should not be in the Burnside Gorge neighbourhood, which is already home to several such facilities including the former Comfort Inn on Blanshard Street and several former hotels on Gorge Road East.
“I’m very clear with both B.C. Housing and Victoria that adding additional sites at Burnside Gorge is not on the table so we need to diversify and find other sites,” Eby said.
Elizabeth Cull, a director with the Burnside Gorge Community Association, said the association expects B.C. Housing to live up to their 2018 commitment to a moratorium on permanent supportive housing facilities in the neighbourhood. The housing agency has promised that the former hotels — purchased or leased over the summer to house hundreds of people living in encampments in Topaz Park and on Pandora Avenue — are temporary solutions to the homeless crisis.
The province purchased the 75-room Paul’s Motor Inn on Douglas Street for about $15 million in June, a month after it spent $18.5 million to buy the Comfort Inn and Suites which now houses more than 160 people, including 80 people who were displaced by the November fire at the Capital City Centre Hotel.
Cull is happy that Eby is directly involved in the discussion on future supportive housing locations in Greater Victoria.
“Sometimes it takes a minister … to get things moving so we’re cautiously optimistic that there is a better plan for how we’re managing the hotels in Burnside Gorge,” Cull said.
Several affordable or supportive housing projects are in development across the region, Eby said, so the goal is to provide immediate housing for people without homes until those developments are complete.
Eby stressed that other municipalities in the capital region have a responsibility to provide supportive housing, most of which is currently concentrated in Victoria.
“There is an opportunity for us to find ways to support development of supportive housing in areas other than Victoria,” Eby said. “And to recognize that these municipalities do have the need to provide supportive housing to their residents.”
In September, CRD directors voted against exploring the possibility of using Oak Bay Lodge to house seniors without homes during the pandemic, which frustrated Victoria councillors.
The province is looking at increasing rent supplements for low-income individuals so they can afford to move into market-priced rental units. Eby said some people living in supportive housing are ready to move into affordable housing, which would free up space for people living outside.
No decisions have been made on whether the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre, which was used as emergency shelter for 45 people from May to September, will once again provide emergency housing. One of the issues, Eby said, is that the GSL Group, which operates Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre, is waiting to hear whether the Western Hockey League will play this season. The league play has been delayed because of the pandemic. The second challenge, Eby said, is finding an organization to manage the temporary shelter.
Dozens of people are living in tents in the parking lot of Royal Athletic Park, relocated from Central Park next to Crystal Pool after major flooding on Dec. 22. Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps and Coun. Jeremy Loveday have pitched that parking lot as a possible location for 30 shipping-container homes, which are being constructed by Aryze Developments in partnership with the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness.
Helps and Loveday are pushing council to allow Aryze Developments to apply for a permit to temporarily use the site to house people from March 2021 to September 2022.
Eby said the province has the power to step in and fast-track public hearings or zoning processes if there are delays in approving temporary housing sites.