Recently, I spoke at the City’s Executive Council meeting in favor of a moratorium of non-market housing in a number of inner city neighborhoods. I did so with some qualifiers which I will mention later, but I want our funders, donors, community members, area residents, and my colleagues from other inner city agencies to understand Bissell Centre’s opinions around this important issue.
The neighborhoods that the proposed moratorium includes are: McCauley, Central McDougall, Queen Mary Park, Alberta Avenue, Eastwood, and Boyle Street. All of these neighborhoods are identified in the proposal as “high stress” neighborhoods because they contain a much higher incidence of non-market housing than do other city neighborhoods. They also are areas of town with high incidence of low income and homelessness and a corresponding higher incidence of human service organizations that address poverty, homelessness, addictions, mental illness, and so forth.
At Bissell Centre, we understand that many community residents of the aforementioned neighborhoods not only have concerns about the degree of non-market housing in their area, but also concerns about the impacts of human service agencies like Bissell Centre and others on the quality of life in their neighborhoods.
The proposed moratorium only addresses non-market housing, which is part of the problem. Often we tend to “singularize” issues and then attempt to address them. Also, it is common for us to aggregate various elements of an issue into a common identifier. In this case, non-market housing is a term that includes a wide range of housing:
- affordable, independent housing for families and single people,
- seniors housing in its various forms, and
- supportive housing.
While the six identified neighborhoods together are home to 20% of non-market housing in the city, it is also true the neighborhoods have an inordinate share of supportive housing – approximately 60% of what exists in the city. It is reasonable to suggest that, at some point, it’s time to rethink our historic practice of locating so much supportive housing in one area of town.
At Bissell Centre we believe that time is now. We will support the proposed moratorium if it goes forward without amendment, but our preference is that it goes forward with some changes. We do not believe affordable housing or seniors housing are posing the same challenges or issues to the neighborhoods as are the wide range of supportive housing facilities. That’s not to suggest better collaboration between housing providers and community members concerning these types of housing is not worth exploring, but I am hoping a moratorium does not need to be invoked in these cases.
As well the proposal is to put in place a 10 year moratorium in McCauley and Central McDougall, with five year moratoriums proposed for the other four neighborhoods. Our position is that 10 years is too long a time for the City of Edmonton to not financially support any non-market housing in McCauley and Central McDougall.
We believe this even more strongly if the six communities, Edmonton’s administration, and area human service and housing organizations work together to address the challenges facing these neighborhoods from an overall community development approach. Consultations led by human service or housing agencies are not enough, and I suggest are not really community development consultations. Most of the time, consultations are designed by groups that are trying to convince the community that what they are proposing is good for community. I am not suggesting such consultations are wrong or somehow deceitful, but it is time for larger scale collaboration around community aspirations and needs than any one organization or even small group of organizations can muster on their own.
For purposes of transparency I should mention that I am a recent resident of McCauley. While it is hard to separate my residency from my position at Bissell, I am not a resident in favor of the moratorium; however, I believe there are many residents who think otherwise. As a leader of one of the major human service agencies in the area, I feel obligated to support them.
Such support does not mean we agree with all the positions voiced by community members. That said, I can see how the high incidence of supportive housing for the mentally-ill and those with addictions are a concern even as I declare our firm belief that people with such challenges deserve help and a decent place to live.
I can also understand concerns neighborhood residents have about organizations like Bissell Centre that attract large groups of people to their doors and often frequent the area around the agencies during the day. Such numbers lined up at our door or at the doors of other similar groups do impact our neighbors. It is also true that the numbers of people who are poor, homeless, and troubled by mental illness or addictions are a community-wide problem or challenge. Neither the organizations that serve them nor the residents surrounding our facilities own the problems alone.
We know thousands of Edmontonians, as well as many businesses and funders outside the inner city borders, support Bissell Centre’s work and the efforts of the many other organizations that work so hard to help the disadvantaged. I also believe that the majority of community members and organizations throughout Edmonton do not think that a much smaller group of neighborhoods should carry a disproportionate amount of responsibility for the location of supportive housing and helping institutions.
So, Bissell Centre’s support of the moratorium, hopefully with some changes, is just part of our belief that there are larger issues and challenges to address. The moratorium by itself won’t solve anything. Working together in new ways just might.
It is worth noting that shelters are not included in the definition of non-market housing. It makes sense that they are not, but from the community’s point of view there is also a very high incidence of shelters in the area, some of which may be pressured to relocate due to redevelopment. Where will they go? How will that be decided? What criteria should be used to establish what shelters need around them to best help those who use their services? And what must the shelters, along with groups like Bissell Centre, do to help ensure not only the safety and well-being of our clients but the safety and well-being of our neighbors?
I certainly don’t have all the answers to these questions, but I do believe small pockets of organizations or small pockets of residents will not resolve them either unless we work together, and in the process of doing so, engage more residents as well as our own clients in building acceptable solutions.
I won’t pretend it was easy to voice our opinion at Executive Council. I heard colleagues I trust and respect speak against the moratorium and their opinions and positions were well articulated and also made sense. None suggested that not having a moratorium would magically fix things, and there were calls for actions that were not being addressed in the moratorium proposal, such as incentivising market housing development that could be accessed by low income people. Our support of the moratorium does not mean those ideas are not worth exploring. Quite the contrary.
As well, when it comes to an issue as complex as this one, it is not so much about one side being right and the other wrong. Few things in life are that black and white. But there are times a community requires a catalyst for change. A five year moratorium in the six neighborhoods with respect to supportive housing could serve as such a catalyst.
My sense is that the City of Edmonton will not approve any moratorium. We understand that position, and have no interest in polemic exchanges about any decision made. It’s impossible for civic leaders to appease everyone. But we hope no matter what happens, the discussion and debate, and more so the authentic interest that all involved have in strengthening the community and its neighborhoods, especially the six in question, will motivate new and innovative efforts of working together with area residents as well as with the larger community.
Mark Holmgren, CEO