Royal Athletic Park parking lot could house shipping-container village for homeless

The parking lot next to Royal Athletic Park is being pitched as a possible site for 30 tiny houses built from shipping containers and made available to people without homes.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps and Coun. Jeremy Loveday are recommending that council allow Aryze Developments to apply for a permit to temporarily use up to 20,000 square feet of the city-owned parking lot for its tiny homes project.

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Council will consider the motion next week.

Helps said in an interview that the site, if approved, would be used to house people from March 2021 to September 2022 “at the very latest” while more permanent housing options are built over the next 18 months.

“There will be a very experienced operator that has some really creative ideas about how this can really be a transitional community, so that people can get off the street, get their life back together, get the supports they need to then move on into more permanent housing,” she said.

Aryze and the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness launched a crowdfunding effort last month to raise $500,000 to convert 30 shipping ­containers into one-room homes for people living in city parks. Each unit would be 160 square feet with a bed, desk, hot plate and fridge, with shared shower and washroom facilities.

Helps and Loveday are recommending an ­accelerated approval process, while still allowing an opportunity for public comment.

The parking lot at 940 Caledonia Ave. is already being used as a temporary tenting site for people without homes, after nearby Central Park was flooded by winter rains and closed to camping. About 35 tents are in the lot.

“I think we can do better,” Helps said. “I think the neighbourhood would hopefully agree that we would rather have people living inside than out.”

Sarah Murray, executive director of the North Park Neighborhood Association, said the parking lot makes sense as a temporary location for the tiny homes.

“I mean, obviously, a shipping container is a better solution than a tent,” she said. “We can all agree on that.”

She said it’s important, however, that city officials keep the community informed and immediately establish a working group with representatives from the developer, the city and the site’s operator to deal with issues as they arise.

“It’s not going to follow the same trajectory that a land-use development follows. We get that. But there still needs to be good and adequate communication and opportunities for feedback,” Murray said.

The association also wants Central Park removed from the list of parks where sheltering is permitted.

Jim Swanson, one of the owners of the Victoria HarbourCats baseball club, which plays at Royal Athletic Park, said the organization supports anything that will help the community get through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This has not been easy on us,” he said. “We’ve had a very, very difficult time, not being able to play this entire season, and there are questions as to when we’ll get back to normal, obviously. But for us, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. We’re known for our involvement in the community and we’re certainly going to step up and support this as well.”

Luke Mari of Aryze Developments said the tiny homes would be built elsewhere and then delivered to the site.“It’s a fairly flat parking lot, so we can drop the shipping containers directly onto grade,” he said, adding that connecting to power, sewer and water could be done in a cost-effective way. “So those aspects are important to stretch our fundraising dollars as far as possible.”

The crowd-sourcing campaign has raised more than $240,000 to date, and Aryze has also received donated materials and services worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Mari said the important thing is to get people indoors. “They were living in Central Park in a flooded area, which is horrendous living conditions. Then they got moved to this parking lot and then a windstorm came and snapped their tent poles in half.

“So these weather-protected, lockable, safe shipping-container homes — compared to what they’ve been going through — is a considerable step up in the humanity of their housing.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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