Municipal home on Hampshire eyed for Syrian housing

Hampshire Street property originally purchased for parking lot

In a bid to open community dialogue, former Oak Bay councillor Cairine Green asked council to explore options to provide temporary and/or transitional housing to Syrian refugee families seeking to settle in the municipality.

During last week’s committee of the whole meeting, Green called for a mayor’s task force or leadership team and a municipal staff report to outline what housing options, if any, are available, such as vacant legal in-law accommodation, vacant rental housing and the municipally owned house at 1531 Hampshire Rd.

“If we don’t ask the question of the community we won’t know what the answer is,” Green said. “It could be used as transitional housing.”

The suggestion quickly became about more than hosting Syrian refugee families.

“It’s on everyone’s mind and we’d all like to do our part, we just don’t know how,”  said Coun. Michelle Kirby, adding there are concerns in the community, reflected in the official community plan, about a need for affordable housing in general. “This is a bigger issue and I would not like to see this set aside as a special project.”

Housing should be at the forefront in 2016, she said, not only for refugee families “but the vulnerable people that exist already in our community.”

Coun. Tara Ney agreed Green’s suggestion was innovative.

“The amount of support and willingness to host Syrian families in their community and Greater Victoria is enormous. One of the biggest barriers is housing,” Ney said.

“This could be a wonderful opportunity for our community to do good works,” agreed Coun. Eric Zhelka, adding he’s in favour of moving forward in some capacity with the Hampshire Road home as it’s been “derelict so long.”

During his inaugural speech after the November 2014 election, Mayor Nils Jensen mentioned 1531 Hampshire, suggesting it would see a resolution in the four-year term.

Key is to decide what they should do with the land, as ideas bandied about previously ranged from parking lot to park. The lot was originally purchased for parking. “There’s a myriad of ideas out there,” Jensen said. “Until we have something concrete we’re talking lofty ideas.”

Coun. Kevin Murdoch agreed with Kirby’s assertion infill housing and other affordable alternatives are on the agenda for this year.

“I think we’re all in support of finding ways of helping,” he said. “(However) we have to decide if we’re going to turn it into a parking lot or a park … we need to determine the fate of that property.”

Murdoch said it was a challenge to support renovations to the home to bring it up to liveable standards without a clear idea of what’s needed in the way of housing for Syrian refugee families.

“We do have to make a solid decision on that (property),” said Coun. Hazel Braithwaite.

Braithwaite is a member of the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria that helps individuals and organizations connect across cultures. They currently have 45 people representing all aspects of the community and levels of government working on both private and government-sponsored Syrian refugee files. Braithwaite later confirmed money to top up rents would be most helpful at this point to help house any refugees.