Oak Bay Lodge rejected as temporary shelter

B.C. Housing has rejected the idea of using the vacant Oak Bay Lodge as a temporary shelter for people without homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The main stumbling block was that Oak Bay council would require a public hearing before considering discharging or modifying a covenant that stipulates the property be used as a retirement home.

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“The process for this would be lengthy, extensive and the ability to use this facility at the end of the process is uncertain,” Malcolm McNaughton, B.C. Housing’s director of regional development for Vancouver Island, said in a letter to the Capital Regional District.

“B.C. Housing recommend[s] finding other facilities that will meet our deadlines and urgency on this matter to provide temporary housing.”

McNaughton’s letter was attached to a report that went before the CRD’s hospitals and housing committee Wednesday.

CRD staff said the 235-bed lodge on Cadboro Bay Road has structural issues, as well. “The facility does not have suitable showers, the balconies are unsafe and the elevator is also a concern.”

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, who pitched the idea of using Oak Bay Lodge for housing, called the staff report “inadequate,” and tried to convince her colleagues on the housing committee to take another look at the issue.

She suggested it might be possible to work within the covenant by allowing seniors without homes to stay at the lodge, which became vacant in July when residents moved into The Summit, a new 320-bed facility on Hillside Avenue.

Helps said that might free up space in the existing system and get more people out of the parks, where they have been living since the pandemic forced shelters to reduce the number of beds.

“About a month ago, we had lots of seniors living [at the lodge],” she said. “They moved out to somewhere nicer and the proposal in this amendment is to say: ‘Can we have some more seniors move in there, from wherever they would come in the region, particularly in the shelter system?’ “

She noted, for instance, that there are a number of people over the age of 55 living at the former Boys and Girls Club in Victoria, where they have only cots and dividers. Oak Bay Lodge is “ better than that,” she said.

Her motion, however, received the support of only one other director. Most voted to accept B.C. Housing’s answer and move on.

“We, as a committee, asked B.C. Housing to take a look at it,” Saanich Coun. Susan Brice said. “They’re not neophytes. They’re well aware of the population needs. They’re well aware of the potential of the building. B.C. Housing came back and said: ‘No,’ this was not something they were prepared to proceed on.”

Langford Coun. Lanny Seaton said the building’s condition is another concern. “I think you’re going to have more problems trying to bring it up to code,” Seaton said.

“But also, would you put vulnerable seniors in a building that we didn’t think was fit for other seniors?”

Oak Bay Mayor Kevin Murdoch said using the lodge for temporary housing might interfere with long-term plans to redevelop the site, possibly with a mix of housing and health-care services.

He said the consultation process is already underway and running a parallel consultation process for a short-term use would be confusing and counterproductive.

“It’s not a situation where it’s sitting there and we don’t know what we’re doing — we know what we’re doing and we’re actively underway,” he said.

But Victoria neighbourhood associations, whose communities are dealing with a number of homeless encampments, expressed frustration with the decision to let the lodge sit vacant while hundreds of people live on the streets.

“That is a real missed opportunity,” said Sarah Murray, executive director of the North Park Neighborhood Association. “We’re in a public-health emergency and it’s a priority to get people into housing.

“It’s a suitable property. It’s an assisted-living facility with supportive infrastructure and it could be argued that the covenants do not prohibit the use of Oak Bay Lodge.”

Murray questioned whether the CRD committee has another solution to the problem. “It sounds like Mayor Helps has turned over every rock in terms of trying to find indoor accommodations for the roughly 300 people who are living outdoors in the capital region. This was an option. Now that it’s been overturned … I’d be interested to know if they have any other solutions that they would like to bring to the table?”

Avery Stetski, president of the Burnside Gorge Community Association, took issue with what he called “excuses” by CRD directors, including the fact that the elevators don’t work. “You could easily keep 50 people on the main floor; you don’t have to use the elevator.

“It’s a perfect location, it’s meant for seniors … It’s infinitely better than sleeping in a tent, no matter how leaky the tubs are.”

Stetski also didn’t buy Murdoch’s claims that temporary housing might interfere with plans to redevelop the site.

“Any redevelopment plans will take years to get through and there’s no reason these people could not be there temporarily,” he said. “It was just frustrating listening to it.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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