Province to Victoria: we build this, you clear that - The Orca

Province to Victoria: we build this, you clear that

Rob Shaw 2

Rob Shaw: The province is unrolling the most ambitious plan yet to deal with homelessness – but there’s a catch.

B.C. Housing Minister David Eby has been slowly unveiling the province’s new homelessness strategy the past few weeks, and what’s emerged so far indicates he’s ready to launch the most aggressive campaign the province has ever seen to solve one of the most complicated files in government.

Eby was given the task of solving the homeless crisis by Premier John Horgan in December.

Not only was he asked to break up large tent encampments at Beacon Hill Park in Victoria and Strathcona Park in Vancouver, but ensure the province’s efforts survive the inevitable court challenges, and ensure the tent cities don’t simply pop up elsewhere in different neighbourhoods.

This delicate balance between enforcement, court action, shelter spaces, and supportive housing has flummoxed governments of all stripes for decades.

But Eby has long since proven himself Horgan’s top fixer. So it’s no surprise that his fix is ambitious.

Eby has been on a spending spree to buy up hotels, apartment buildings, and unused space to create more shelter beds and supportive housing units across the province.

He’s also sent a very clear message to mayors and municipal officials in the province’s major cities: Either get on board with his plan to open low-income housing, or prepare to get run over.

So far, he’s found mixed success.

In Penticton, he’s been accused by Mayor John Vassilaki of being a meddling bully for using the province’s rare powers of paramountcy to override a city council vote to close a 42-bed homeless shelter in the city.

It will stay open, against Penticton’s wishes, because Eby said he simply cannot stomach the idea of allowing 42 homeless men and women to be ejected onto the street in a pandemic, where they would then likely entrench in another encampment that would infuriate and destabilize a different neighbourhood.

Penticton was the test case for the province’s use of the legal bigfoot maneuver to bring a local council into line on housing.

While it has not gone well, another test case is playing out in Victoria to better results.

Eby has spent tens of millions of dollars – his ministry won’t provide an exact amount – buying up buildings in Greater Victoria and opening more than 200 shelter spaces in advance of a self-imposed April 30 deadline to clear tent encampments at Beacon Hill Park and other local parks.

It’s an enormous investment that picked up even more steam this week when Ottawa and the province jointly announced more than 280 new affordable housing units at six projects across the region, which anti-poverty advocates have said will make a sizable dent in the capital region’s homeless problem for the first time.

It’s one of the largest housing and homelessness efforts in the city’s history, and it comes with provincial cash to fund 24/7 wraparound support for meals, laundry, addictions, health care, and mental health.

But it also came with strings.

B.C. would again use legal paramountcy powers to bypass the municipal councils in Victoria, Saanich, and Central Saanich to start construction as early as this spring on some of the six projects, rather than wait months for rezoning and municipal approval.

Unlike in Penticton, Victoria-area mayors have been wrestling with homelessness for years, and don’t mind the province bigfooting them.

In fact, it gives local politicians a great deal of convenient political cover.

They don’t have to navigate the not-in-my-backyard backlash that inevitably comes whenever a low-income housing project is about to be built in a quiet residential part of town.

They don’t have to hold public hearings, where crowds of angry families demand the housing be built somewhere else.

They don’t have to withstand intense lobbying from influential residents’ associations and neighbourhood groups, in advance of a municipal election next October.

They don’t have to tie up the low-income housing projects with a series of red-tape revisions, and micromanagement, until the project withers on the vine for years and dies of fatigue.

Instead, they can simply point to the Attorney General and say: Hey, it’s his decision, he tied our hands, take up any complaints you have with him.

Eby, it seems, is happy to take on the grief if it means fast-tracking housing.

In fact, the province is overbuilding shelter space in Victoria so that when, or if, new tent cities pop up, the city can immediately go to court and get an injunction by being able to show that there’s a surplus of available indoor housing for the homeless and argue that camping in parks is unnecessary.

The quid-pro-quo for the provincial cash is that municipalities like Victoria commit to sending in bylaw officers and police to clear out new encampments the moment they pop up. It’s unpopular and difficult work, and municipalities have in the past shied away from the negative press generated by dispersing the unhoused, in favour of pointing blame at the province for not funding enough housing.

That excuse is now off the table. As is any deviation from municipalities. Victoria had to sign a memorandum of understanding with the province that it would follow through on enforcement, and now Eby has them down in writing if they try to deviate from the deal.

All of this amounts to one thing: The most ambitious and aggressive move to end homelessness in B.C. that the province has ever seen. It will be fascinating to watch it unfold.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.