One councillor called it a sign that Sarnians want to take care of one another. Another called it a suicide motion.
In a 7-2 vote Monday, city council agreed to declare a downtown parking lot surplus and gift it to Lambton County for affordable housing.
(To view the council meeting click here)
The decision was met with applause from the gallery although Mayor Mike Bradley cautioned that this was the beginning of a long process that also requires passing of a bylaw, likely this fall.
Michael Kooy, who represents a group of Sarnia Rotarians committed to more affordable and supportive housing, said he recognizes this is only the first step.
But it’s an extremely positive signal from city council, he said.
“The city has made a very brave and practical step forward,” Kooy said. “It’s absolutely tremendous.”
The Rotarians selected the city’s Victoria Street parking lot as their top choice for construction of a not-for-profit housing development to ease the city’s burgeoning homelessness issue.
The parking lot has been called underutilized although it is in the heart of downtown. At least one nearby restaurant owner strongly objects to its development, said the mayor, mentioning a letter sent from Tang’s China House. Bradley said Tang’s owner is concerned about loss of parking and disruption during construction of a housing project.
Councillors Terry Burrell and Bill Dennis said downtown businesses should have been consulted and that a shortage of parking is a perennial problem that should not be ignored.
“This is a suicidal motion,” said Burrell. “Ever since I’ve been on council, the biggest issue downtown is parking, parking, parking. And we’re going to give away a parking lot.”
Housing is not a municipal responsibility, Burrell added. “This makes no sense at all. I will not support this.”
Dennis said affordable housing is not “a good fit” with the downtown.
He urged Kooy to visit cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and Vancouver. “Because that’s exactly what this area is going to start to look like if we put more of those places in our downtown,” said Dennis. “That’s for certain.”
But Kooy said there is a strong case for affordable housing downtown.
The Victoria Street Parking lot is so seldom used, it should be considered a “dead asset” by the city, Kooy said.
An affordable housing complex in the heart of downtown will complement nearby residential buildings and provide its residents with many nearby services, he said.
People experiencing homelessness are increasingly visible in the downtown and a growing concern for business people, noted Coun. Brian White when he made the motion to declare the parking lot surplus.
By building affordable housing on the Victoria Street parking lot, businesses will benefit because people will be off the streets, Kooy said.
“We are deeply concerned about a lack of affordable housing and the absence of supportive housing for folks who are down and out.
“They’re not making it work. They are living in tents. They are in our parks. They’re in a very unstable situation and unable to move forward,”Kooy told council.
It’s hoped that by giving the parking lot – or a portion of the parking lot – to Lambton County, that level of government will negotiate with a third party to build with no land costs.
The City of Sarnia is not directly responsible for social housing. The county is, said Coun. Anne Marie Gillis.
“I understand where Coun. Burrell is coming from, but everyone deserves a home,” she said. “We’re trying to evolve our city and become less car-centric.”
“Yes, it is our responsibility,” said White. “We can no longer…sit here and say that’s a county problem… We have to take care of each other.”
Kooy said the cost of an affordable housing project could reach $20 million, money Rotarians have already started raising.
A special V.I.P. breakfast under the bridge on Saturday is nearly sold out,” he said.
The county also has $3.8 million to spend over 10 years on affordable housing.
“We see our role as being the catalyst for this,” said Kooy. “The important thing is that the city is concretely supporting this with land. And now the ball is in the county’s court.”
For the full discussion, see the video below, beginning at the 1:55:40 mark: