As crocuses and daffodils start poking up their heads in many gardens around the Capital Region, some big local, regional and provincial issues are blooming right along with them.
Homelessness, amalgamation, the housing crunch and sewage create a bouquet of challenges for local politicians and communities. While no one promised elected officials a rose garden in the 2014 municipal election, the challenges facing them are thorny nevertheless.
Homelessness is an issue that tests public tolerance and acceptance, despite worthy efforts by social organizations, advocates and volunteers on the ground. But recently, it seems that it is middle school students who model neighbourly compassion and understanding. In response to a new new temporary homeless housing shelter called My Place, managed by Our Place at the former Boys’ and Girls’ Club building on Yates St., Central Middle School students are reaching out to the facility’s residents in a variety of meaningful ways. For Our Place staff, volunteers and the City of Victoria, this is a heartwarming turn of events.
Meanwhile, the homeless camp on Victoria Courthouse grounds remains a difficult issue and is being addressed by the Province. At the same time, BC Housing is funding other temporary housing options at the former youth correctional facility in View Royal and at the former Mt. Edwards Court extended care facility on Vancouver Street. Both efforts show promise for the City, the CRD and, most importantly, for homeless residents.
Regional sewage is another topic that is testing public patience. No treatment vs. treatment, innovation vs. gate-keeping, big plants vs. small plants, secondary treatment vs. new technologies and taxpayers vs. the CRD, have played out during a ten-year process with a multi-million dollar price tag and at the time of writing this post, still no final decision on a solution. Despite the CRD’s most recent attempts to involve the public in decision-making on site selection, controversy dogs the project related to costing, and where and how treatment options may be implemented. A lot has been written in local media about looming funding deadlines set by the provincial and federal governments, as experts, politicians and the public weigh in. But I understand that no formal request of senior governments from the CRD for an extension to deadlines has yet occurred; an extension would certainly give the public, politicians and CRD staff more time to assess new technologies and all the treatment options.
Community-based organizations and advocates, many of them whose members are experts in the field, have lobbied the CRD hard, urging them to seek alternatives to the “big centralized secondary sewage treatment plant” concept (one that keeps popping up). Cost-effective options of new technology, smaller plants, resource recovery and better treatment (tertiary for example) are not, so far, getting as much traction with the CRD as these groups had hoped. Moreover, it’s argued that the huge costs of conventional secondary sewage treatment lay in conveyancing i.e. the extensive pipe networks needed to carry wastewater to a large central plant for treatment. Remember, secondary sewage treatment is essentially nineteenth century technology, which begs the question: with the new federal government’s focus on climate change, will secondary sewage treatment for the CRD be adequate enough to protect our environment and to satisfy the feds in meeting its climate change targets?
On the heels of unresolved sewage treatment, comes the question of amalgamation, another contentious issue. Are they connected? Some think so and believe that the inability of the CRD to close the sewage file with a solution, fuels the argument that amalgamation will solve such regional ills. As with sewage, amalgamation has a long history in Greater Victoria and for the first time in recent memory, voters in some municipalities had a question about amalgamation on the 2014 municipal election ballot. But the flaw of the 2014 municipal election question was twofold in my opinion: not all municipalities participated; and, the question asked of voters varied from municipality to municipality. Is opinion data, therefore, reliable in determining whether or not amalgamation is a desirable goal?
Amalgamation is not a raging success in all cities across Canada that have it. As many have argued, amalgamation has uncertain outcomes and is no panacea — it can be more costly to taxpayers in the long run, with large bureaucracies and bigger administrative cost burdens, while tending to diminish the voices, needs and identities of smaller communities. What is certain is that regional coordination of services and shared service models are effective and efficient, both in cost and delivery. What is also certain is that the amalgamation conversation has not ended with the 2014 municipal election. Stay tuned…
Housing remains on everyone’s radar as house prices zoom to new heights, lots are cleared of older homes and new, more expensive homes replace them; all this in the context of a record low rental vacancy rate in Victoria, a hot real estate market that shows no sign of cooling and greater demand for a limited housing supply. While the Vancouver real estate market demonstrates its own kind of marketing insanity, prompting calls for an inquiry by the Provincial Government, I can’t help but feel that Greater Victoria and the South Island cannot be far behind the Lower Mainland.
Equally concerning is a recent report citing the fact that in Vancouver, the “lifeblood” of the city is leaving, meaning that young people and young families who cannot afford to purchase housing in Vancouver are moving elsewhere to find affordable options. This is a problem with potentially serious social and economic implications, while the industry will argue that real estate should be left to market forces and that prices are determined by supply and demand. The housing situation may be a conundrum for governments but no one can deny the urgent need for more affordable, accessible and supportive housing options in a market that is relentless when it comes to prices.
In its 2016 budget, the Province “is exploring ways to make the components of the cost of new housing more transparent to home buyers, such as local government costs and fees. The Province urges municipal leaders and regional directors, who are responsible for planning, zoning and development regulation, to use the broader tools at their disposal, to support the Province’s efforts and further the creation of new housing supply…” and “the 2016 budget introduces a new full exemption from the property transfer tax on newly constructed homes priced up to $750,000…the property transfer tax rate will be increased to 3% on the market value of property above $2M. Beginning this summer, individuals who purchase property will need to disclose if they are citizens or permanent residents of Canada…” These measures may be a start but there is still a long way to go.
Yes, local and regional governments face big challenges ahead leading up to the next two elections in 2017 (provincial) and 2018 (municipal). My advice is to fasten your seat belts; it could be a bumpy but interesting ride.