The plan to rejuvenate the municipally owned house on Hampshire Road for refugee housing is essentially in a holding pattern.
Little has changed as council reverted to its March decision to support the project in principle and await a society or organization to take on the at-arms-length task of volunteer rejuvenation of the home and rental agreement.
The subject arose as Jan Mears took on the task of creating a proposal to have in-kind and volunteer work bring the home back to living standards and use the space as an affordable transitional housing for Syrian refugee families for two years.
She garnered huge community support – also reflected in a handful of letters to council May 9. Council voiced its support but stuck to the March direction that they need a society or organization to keep volunteer work, leasing and maintenance at arms length from the district.
That’s the rub, says Mears.
“Nobody can step in between the tenants and the owner of a property. All we can do as a community group is come in and get the house ready,” said Mears, who missed the meeting because of ferry traffic on the Mainland.
Since March, Mears has explored potential partnerships with several groups including HeroWork, Habitat for Humanity, the Community Association of Oak Bay and various faith groups in the community, and found none was in a position to take the lead.
“The reason is clear. The house is owned by the municipality and as such, the municipality needs to take the lead on the project, provide insurance and liability coverage, charitable tax status and banking support,” Mears wrote in her letter to council.
Her letter outlined a plan that included support from the municipality including to: support the request from the community to make the house available for transition housing for refugee families for two years; provide leadership in partnership with other community partners such as Friends of Hampshire House; provide direction to the property manager of other municipally owned rental properties such as Tod House; and work with the newly formed Friends of Hampshire House to enable the renovations, updating and subsequent lease arrangements with a tenant.
She suggested the Friends of Hampshire House would provide a work plan and regular progress updates, fundraising, in-kind donations and and co-ordinate volunteer labour.
Coun. Eric Zhelka made the motion to support the project as outlined in the letter. “I’m assuming it’s going to happen,” Zhelka said of a formalized group. “If we need to make it legal, let’s make it legal.”
“The community is eager to support this project; we need to give staff the signal to iron out some of the issues,” said Coun. Tara Ney.
Coun. Hazel Braithwaite likened moving the project forward without an organization, with the assumption it will happen, to being “almost pregnant.”
“I think we need to have that viable group come forward,” she said.
Coun. Michelle Kirby questioned whether council needed to move the proposal to its strategic plan, bumping something else. However, Coun. Tom Croft noted the use of the Hampshire property is on the priorities list.
Jensen suggested council adopt in principle and have it come back when an organization is formalized, however that was a direction already given by council in March. Those March instructions stand, as after some discussion of amendments, but no alterations, Zhelka’s motion was soundly defeated.
“I have presented a plan, a motion was put forward, the plan was defeated. Until we see the minutes from the discussion, we don’t know what door might be open,” Mears said. “Nobody wants to be signing the lease that should be signed with the municipality and their tenant.”
Staff stuck to its legal recommendations that a third-party would be optimal for such items as volunteer organization, recognition of in-kind donations and labour and overseeing a lease and care of transitional tenants.
“A society would create a more commonly used arrangement,” said Maura Jones, acting director of corporate services during the May 9 meeting.
Staff also provided one beam of light on the project. A legal team offered pro bono work should a society form to take the lead on the proposed project for refugee housing at the Hampshire Road house.