Politicians at all levels of government have struggled to address Kelowna’s lingering affordable housing problems, but city council’s recent decision to take a hands-on approach may be what’s needed to get the job done, says the man behind a downtown shelter.
The Gospel Mission’s executive director Randy Benson this week decided to stand behind council’s controversial decision to kill one of its 14 committees and instead sit as a committee of the whole when discussing housing issues.
“We are glad council sees housing as an important issue to deal with and they’re taking it over as one of their own agenda issues,” said Benson. “We’re really happy it’s not being dropped.”
And, said Benson, council’s decision to shift gears doesn’t reflect poorly on the committee that will cease to be.
“It means they’ve done a good job in raising the profile of homelessness and housing,” he said.
“But it’s city council that has the ability to influence and change the zoning, put out the initiatives for developers or any number of things to encourage adequate and affordable housing.”
Even before this council took the reigns, however, the impact of local government addressing housing issues that previously lay with the provincial and federal governments was made clear.
Numerous affordable housing initiatives and projects that councils-past lobbied for and contributed to have been completed in recent years, while another in Rutland is just getting finished.
“We have some 150 extra units available now that weren’t a few years ago, and that’s helped,” said Benson, referencing projects on St. Paul Street, Tutt Street and Boyce Cresent.
“The fact we have case workers not only only our own, but others, working hard to get people in housing has also helped.”
The real need may no longer be for those who require temporary shelter or are facing extreme personal challenges. It’s those who are just keeping their heads above water that will need the most help in years to come.
There’s an estimated shortfall of 4,400 low-income homes in the city, which is putting families and individuals who can barely make ends meet at risk.
“There are still too many people in this city that are spending too much of their monthly income on housing, and when you have that it’s difficult,” Benson said, noting the economic downturn has applied a lot of pressure.
“That’s where the rubber hits the road. There are people who are just one cheque away from being homeless. That’s why we have to think about getting people who are struggling into more affordable housing.”
They’re who he’s seeing more of on a day-in, day-out basis at the Gospel Mission as well.
People who once would never have relied on shelter services are going through the mission’s door for a hot meal, because groceries are no longer making the cut when budgets are drawn up.
Although the housing committee will go into history with little ado, council’s decision to axe it along with the Advisory Planning Commission Women’s and Community Committee took a lot of heat.
Even some council members were leery of the change.
Coun. Luke Stack, who once sat on the APC and the housing committee was taken aback in December when incoming Mayor Walter Gray announced all city committees would be reviewed with an eye to disbanding some.
During the review process, however, Stack came to support the move.
“I found the review process to be a very healthy exercise,” he told council, adding later the committee of the whole change puts council “in the driver’s seat.”