Tonight, my partner and I attended a presentation/open house for the Kamloops affordable housing strategy for the North Shore. While we missed the presentation, the open house materials were very informative and there were opportunities to speak to City staff and provide feedback in various ways. Personally, I am excited by what is happening in our city with respect to affordable housing. Kamloops is in a fortunate position in that it has a City Council that is taking the issue seriously, a provincial government that is providing significant investment, a diversity of social service agencies that have the capacity to participate meaningfully in the development and operation of affordable housing, and City staff that has the capacity to help steer this. We even have private sector developers playing an active role which is great. No one agency or level of government is able to effectively take on the affordable housing issue on their own so the partnerships that have been established are encouraging.
While there is a lot of positive energy around the provision of affordable housing in Kamloops, not everyone is completely on-board. While I doubt that there are too many people that don’t see a need for affordable housing in Kamloops, I have certainly heard some people express consternation with where affordable housing has been proposed to be located and the lack of consultation on the process. While I can see their point in some way, this is often a challenge with community planning – people do not pay attention to the higher order plans that set the direction for future development but will raise concerns when an actual development is proposed. I remember years ago being at a presentation that the City participated in pertaining to development in Kenna Cartwright Park. Mountain bikers and cyclists were irate that development was going to infringe on their trails. I remember being one of them. However, the City representatives noted, correctly, that development had always been proposed for that area in the Kamloops Official Community Plan (KAMPLAN) and was in fact a condition of the transfer of the land that forms Kenna Cartwright Park from the province to the City. The challenge was that due to market conditions the development took 10 – 15 years to actually materialize so people lost sight of what was in the plan.
The same is in fact true of planning for affordable housing. The current Official Community Plan, adopted in 2004 identified the need for affordable housing. The Official Community Plan that is currently going through the adoption stages reiterates this need. More specifically, the North Shore Neighbourhood Plan which was finalized in 2008 has a section on Affordable Housing and quite clearly states that the City will support a diversity of affordable housing types in all neighbourhoods, including in the Tranquille market area. This plan, while getting older, was developed with a significant amount of community and stakeholder engagement. While there may not have been consensus on the direction set, there was generally support and it was adopted by Council to be part of the Official Community Plan.
Municipalities rely on these types of plans to set direction for future initiatives. While they may fade into the background in terms of the public perception, they are critical to the day to day planning and development of the community. The Local Government Act requires that all bylaws enacted or works undertaken by a council be consistent with the Official Community Plan. As a community planner, I’ve been involved in the development of a number of Official Community Plans. It is sometimes challenging to get the general public excited for these types of plans and policies – they are abstract, future oriented and comprehensive. Sometimes it feels that we need a really contentious issue to bring people out to our engagement sessions.
You can see this manifested in the current debates over affordable housing in Kamloops. While I may not be right on this, if the City were to seek broader community engagement on creating an affordable housing strategy before any potential locations or housing styles were selected, it would only really get the input of people that are very much in support of affordable housing and those people would likely be pushing the City to get on with it. The fact that more people are starting to get engaged in the issue is probably due in large part to there being defined projects being proposed. There is something tangible going on and people now have opinions, either in support or opposition.
Related to concerns about consultation, people have also mentioned that they would like to see greater transparency from the City in this process. While this makes sense on one level, I think it would be very challenging given that these types of developments involve complex land deals and multi-stakeholder partnerships. Section 90 of the Community Charter, which governs the way municipalities operate, allows for in-camera discussions of property purchase details and provision of a municipal service in order to protect the interest of the municipality (it could be debated whether affordable housing fits the definition of municipal service). Regardless, it would be difficult and perhaps impossible to negotiate these partnership arrangements in public and necessarily the City must rely on the guidance provided in previous planning documents in order to make decisions that reflect the interests of the community.
While it is up to the City to provide meaningful engagement at appropriate points in any process, it is also up to us as citizens of the community to actively participate in the shaping of our community. The fact that people are coming out to these sessions on affordable housing is great but I’d encourage more people, in any community, to get involved in the development of their municipal Official Community Plans, neigbourhood plans and other higher order plans, policies and strategies. These plans provide the framework from which the community develops and evolves and therefore are critical to determining what should happen in the future.
Turning back to the open house tonight, one of the questions that was asked is what is your vision for affordable housing – let me share mine: Affordable housing will transform from being an issue that brings out the ‘not in my backyard’ crowd to being something that people want in their neighbourhood because the City, province, social service agencies, private sector, and occupants have collaborated effectively to address the issue in a way that benefits the whole community. I wish all the various stakeholders well in this process.