It was the out the city was looking for.
Two years ago, following a lengthy and, at times, acrimonious public hearing on a proposal to build a supportive housing facility at the corner of McCurdy Road and Rutland Road for graduates of an faith- and abstinence-based alcohol and drug recovery program, council agreed to rezone the land.
While they have no say over who can live in a building, members of council made their decision in the belief the facility would be a “dry”—meaning no drugs and alcohol allowed.
Fast forward two years and the proposal on the table back in 2017 has been scraped, replaced by a new one from a different proponent, this time B.C. Housing.
But unlike the previous plan by Freedom’s Door, the B.C. Housing one called for a facility that would have allowed drug use onsite and would have included and an overdose prevention unit in the building.
Faced with a sizable outcry from the neighbourhood, Kelowna’s mayor appealed directly to the province’s housing minister for help.
That’s because council was caught between a rock and a hard place. It had already rezoned the land and also has thrown its support behind the Journey Home initiative to address homelessness, a plan that calls for the very type of supportive housing proposed for the McCurdy Road site.
But faced with growing unease about the B.C. Housing’s proposal from residents, Mayor Colin Basran needed a compromise. And he got one.
Moving away from B.C. Housing’s apparent stand that all new supportive housing facilities it funds allow residents to do what they want in the privacy of their own new homes—including take drugs—a new rule will be put in place at McCurdy Road. Residents there have to agree to not take “illegal” drugs.
The move puts the city right back where it was two years ago when it approved the rezoning for the Freedom’s Door project.
But the concession still didn’t please many who packed City Hall council chambers Wednesday to hear Basran make the surprise announcement on behalf of the housing minister, and council’s discussion that followed.
They applauded loudly when Coun. Charlie Hodge moved a motion to rescind the rezoning on the site—a move voted down by all his council colleagues.
As for the change in rules for residents, some opponents, including the woman who gathered the more than 14,000 names on the petition opposing the McCurdy Road plan, think B.C. Housing is stalling and will change the rule down the road.
But it’s clear, without her petition, no concession would have been forthcoming from the province.
Either way, the bottom line is council was never going to kill the project by rescinding the rezoning. It couldn’t.
The could still have been built as a legal, non-conforming structure based on past use. And the city would be staring at a potential lawsuit from the developer—a lawsuit it believes it would lose.
That would put taxpayers on the hook to pay. So council needed the province to bend. And it did.
Th question now it is, what will happen next time? And there will be a next time.
Every supportive housing project proposed for the city has faced protests from opponents. The next one, proposed for McIntosh Road, will likely be no different.
In future, project opponents will point to McCurdy Road and, quite correctly, say the “anything-goes-in-your-own-home” rule was changed there, so why not here?
But in order to have what’s known as “stage 2” supportive housing (where drugs are not allowed on site), you have need “stage 1” housing (where they are and treatment programs are available).
Where those facilities will go remains the issue for council, and phone call from the mayor to the housing minister looking for help is not going to work every time.
Council was able to go back to the future this time. Next time, maybe not so much.
Alistair Waters is a regional editor with Black Press Media in Kelowna.