CRD directors vote to let Oak Bay Lodge sit vacant

After a heated debate, Capital Regional District politicians stuck by their decision Wednesday to let Oak Bay Lodge sit vacant rather than investigate using it to house seniors without homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Victoria’s mayor and councillors on the Capital Regional Hospital District Board tried to get their colleagues to take another look at using the 235-bed facility for temporary housing.

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A CRD committee rejected the idea last week after B.C. Housing said it would take too long to modify or lift a covenant on the property that requires it to be used as a retirement home.

Victoria’s politicians, however, argued that the CRD should explore the idea of working within the covenant by using the facility to house homeless people aged 55 and older, which would free up space elsewhere in the shelter system.

The CRD took possession of Oak Bay Lodge on Cadboro Bay Road last month after former residents were moved to The Summit, a new seniors’ facility on Hillside Avenue.

Victoria Coun. Jeremy Loveday called it “unconscionable” that regional politicians would allow a public building to sit vacant in the midst of a homelessness crisis.

And Victoria Coun. Geoff Young said using the lodge for older people would meet the spirit of the covenant. “I think it does deserve further exploration, if only so that I can give a reasonable answer to people who ask me the question, which is: ‘Why is Beacon Hill Park a better place for people to live than a room that was being occupied by a senior two months ago?’ ”

They were ultimately outvoted, however, by a majority of other directors, who raised various concerns about the building’s safety, Oak Bay’s opposition, B.C. Housing’s reluctance, the difficulty of finding an operator, the facility’s communal washrooms, and whether using the site temporarily would get in the way of long-term plans for the site.

Oak Bay Mayor Kevin Murdoch argued at one point that the vacant building isn’t really vacant, because plans to develop the site for housing or health care are already underway.

“On the face of it, it looks reasonable,” he said. “The reality is this is not sitting empty. It’s not sitting idle. There is a very active process underway here. We’re trying to find those housing solutions necessary for the region.”

Colwood Mayor Rob Martin said it’s not the role of the hospital board to make such a decision. “This is one where we are out of our lane.”

Victoria did win support from politicians in other jurisdictions, including Saanich councillors Ned Taylor and Rebecca Mersereau, View Royal Mayor David Screech and Salt Spring Island Electoral Area Director Gary Holman.

Screech disputed Murdoch’s claims that temporary housing could interfere with development plans, arguing that such a process will take years to complete. He noted, as well, that his municipality found a way to overcome zoning hurdles so that an empty youth detention centre could be used to house people from the encampment behind the Victoria courthouse in 2015 and 2016.

“I just can’t see why we would not support looking at this,” he said. “We’re in a crisis. There’s people on the street.

“Believe me, in View Royal, we took a lot of flak. There’s people still angry at me for being a strong advocate of us needing to do what was right. So that’s certainly my opinion, that this is the right thing to do.”

Holman, a former NDP MLA, said he couldn’t see how directors in good conscience could refuse to investigate the possibility of using the lodge to house seniors when people are living on the streets in the midst of a pandemic.

“When people say it’s got safety issues, surely those safety issues do not exceed the safety issues that those people face right now living in tents,” he said. “So how can we possibly say: ‘No,’ we’re not going to use a facility that we own, that just a few months ago was deemed fit for seniors?”

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