When it came time for a public hearing about mixed supportive housing and below-market rental building proposed for Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood, people had plenty to say. Speaker after speaker lined up at the June 30 public hearing, many expressing their fears about the eventual residents of the 13-storey project at Arbutus Street and Seventh Avenue.
Some questioned the size of the structure, others whether too many people with mental health issues were concentrated in one project. Quite a few said they were concerned the new residents would bring crime to their neighbourhood and threaten the safety of children at a nearby park and private school.*
It’s a common pattern whenever social housing is proposed. Especially when the building is specifically for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, and might have mental illness or addiction issues.
Karen Ward, a former resident of supportive housing, told The Tyee that it was “like a punch in the heart” to watch the public hearing and hear the assumptions people opposed to the proposed project are making about unhoused people.
At the same time, homelessness has grown in the region, and large encampments are common in parks and other public areas across Metro Vancouver.
“‘I do not want the homeless in my neighbourhood’ — Ok, what if they’re housed? That would make them people,” Ward said.
Some critics say that the problem with the way public hearings are conducted is that they’re supposed to be about land use: whether cities should allow changes to current zoning to allow a taller or denser building, for instance. They’re not supposed to be about who will be living in the building in the future. But speakers routinely make assumptions about future residents, especially if the building is for low-income people.
City councillors in New Westminster recently adopted new procedures for public hearings because of these problems. The decision to change how New Westminster’s council conducts public hearings came when a project proposed by the Aboriginal Land Trust for a 96-unit supportive housing building for Indigenous and Swahili-speaking people was about to come to public hearing in late May 2021.
There were the usual concerns about parking and the height of the six-storey building, but there were other comments that concerned councillors.
“As we approached the public hearing, some of the rhetoric I was starting to hear at council meetings in the community had some real racist components to it, and classist as well,” New Westminster Coun. Nadine Nakagawa said.
“As a woman of colour, as somebody who works with people who are vulnerable, I didn't want to have to sit through it myself. I found it harmful to myself, and I know it was harmful to members of the community who are there as well.”
When the city held the public hearing for the Aboriginal Land Trust project, city council decided to change the way they ran the meeting. Any member of council or the city’s senior management team could call a point of order when they thought speakers were getting out of line. Mayor Jonathan Coté repeatedly reminded speakers that the purpose of the public hearing was to talk about land use, not the future residents of the building.
“You couldn't say stigmatizing things about people who are homeless,” Nakagawa said. “You couldn't use offensive language against people who live in the community as well, who might be opposing the project. And that public hearing was very successful.”
A second public hearing using the same procedures didn’t go as well, Nakagawa said. There was a lot of confusion about why the project proponent could speak about who would be housed in the proposed building, but speakers couldn’t.
“When we have a partnership with BC Housing, they will often talk about the service users that they are trying to serve. So they'll talk about people who might be mentally ill or actively using drugs or street-entrenched homeless, but then we ask the community not to speak about those people,” Nakagawa said.
“That can be very, very confusing for people who aren't particularly savvy in local government, they're just trying to express concerns or fears, and they're not understanding why BC Housing can talk about people and they can't.”
At the public hearing for the Kitsilano building, when speakers started talking about their fears that future residents would be dangerous or a threat to women and children, Vancouver city councillors Christine Boyle or Jean Swanson sometimes interjected to call for a point of order.
“We have heard a number of speakers suggest that tenants in the building would be a threat to the neighbourhood and it’s my interpretation that would be out of order, because it isn’t related to anything in the [project] report,” Boyle said at one point during the June 30 meeting.
At one point, Mayor Kennedy Stewart explained his rationale for letting some speakers continue over the objections of some councillors.
“I am trying to allow as much leeway for speakers as possible,” Stewart said. “And council may find fault with this. But if I kind of have somebody drift into the grey zone in a minor way, I tend to let that go. When it becomes obviously unacceptable, that’s when I’ll interrupt speakers.”
Nakagawa acknowledged that members of the public might have legitimate questions or concerns about certain housing models or housing operators. But she argued the public hearing is the worst place to air those concerns. She said those questions should be addressed in meetings or public engagement sessions before the project gets to the public hearing stage.
“I think that [the public hearing] system is fundamentally flawed, in that it is exclusionary,” Nakagawa said. “And so we should be looking for more inclusive practices.”
The public hearing for the project proposed for 2086-98 W. Seventh Ave. will continue on July 14 — with 179 speakers yet to have their say.
* Story updated on July 15 at 10:07 a.m. to address that not all speakers present at the public hearing voiced the same concerns.