Yes – in my backyard

Neighbours, businesses, local governments step up to bring affordable housing to fruition

Wayne Reid and his wife watched from the kitchen window as crews tore out their poplar trees

At 15 metres in height, they were the tallest trees on the block, and, until recently, they provided a natural barrier between their yard and the adjoining commercial property.

“It’s left a mess in the backyard for a little while,” Reid said, examining the deep trench where the trees once stood. Blue metal fencing encroaches about a metre past the property line.

While saddened by the loss, the Reids agreed to let Knappett construction dig up their lawn to accommodate an affordable housing project.

“We wanted to support the project,” he said, adding the trees will be replaced, albeit with smaller ones.

Backing onto his Lotus Street lot, an underground parking lot takes shape at 21 Gorge Rd. E.

Reid and most of his neighbours have literally welcomed the project into their backyards – thereby saving an estimated $200,000 in construction costs.

Their acceptance starkly contrasts the Not-In-My-Backyard attitude that sometimes dogs social housing projects.

This project, due for completion by the end of the year, will include 52 units offering below-market rent to working families.

It’s a joint venture between the Greater Victoria Housing Society, the future operator, and a new player in the field; the Greater Victoria Rental Development Society formed in 2009.

Executive director Alanna Holroyd pitches the project as a new model for building affordable housing, not reliant on ongoing rental subsidies from government.

“This is a business model,” she emphasized, adding rental revenue alone should cover operating costs and pay off the mortgage.

“It needs to succeed because there’s only us to pay the bills,” she said.

As the developer, Holroyd purchased the land, secured a loan and hired contractors, such as Knappett, willing to work at a significantly reduced rate.

“Governments can’t (fund) it anymore so the corporations have to start doing it again,” she said.

Unlike most business models, however, Holroyd works as an unpaid volunteer, at least for now.

On Thursday, she gathered at the Gorge Road construction site for its official media launch, despite suffering from the flu.

“Go Canucks go!” she croaked into the mike, handing off her speech of thanks to a healthy colleague.

Mayor Dean Fortin announced Victoria’s $370,000 contribution. Oak Bay Mayor Christopher Causton, representing the Capital Region Housing Trust Fund, announced an equal contribution.

Under the shade of a white tent, North Saanich MLA Murray Coell highlighted the B.C. government’s commitment to families. The province, however, is the only level of government without any grant money on the table.

B.C. Housing’s mandate, under the 2006 Housing Matters program, is to fund housing for the homeless, explained Roger Butcher, Vancouver Island’s regional director. To this end, the province has doled out $30 million in grants toward five housing projects in Victoria.

Affordable housing projects, however, do not qualify for grants.

Whether the new Liberal government will broaden eligibility criteria is an open question.

“We’re kind of wondering … because our new premier, Christy Clark, has made a top priority of families,” Butcher said.

The province, however, still plays a role. Coell announced a $9.8-million mortgage loan, sourced from private investors. It’s value, explains Butcher, is a lower-than-market interest rate and an exemption from mortgage-insurance requirements. The exemption will save roughly $800,000, he said. “Every little bit helps to make a project like this work.”

After taking in the announcement, Reid strolled back to his house.

The project promises to be better than the Capri Motel, which used to occupy the site, he said.

Reid moved to the neighbourhood three years ago. Within days, police surrounded the now-demolished motel, with guns drawn. Officers evacuated the block.

“We didn’t want something similar to go back in,” said Reid.

rholmen@vicnews.com

 

At a glance

The 21 Gorge Rd. East affordable housing project:

Capital cost: $12.7 million

52 units (51 two-bedroom)

Rent: $1,100 to $1,350

 

 

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