- Posted February 23, 2014 by
Small Business clashes with local Social Services Initiative: a growing issue for small cities.
Although business owners, land owners and residents in Abbotsford B.C. profess themselves sympathetic to the plight of the homeless and drug addicted on their city streets, they were appalled to discover that the local community services group had been secretly planning a low barrier supportive home for men in the local downtown business core for over two years.
The supportive housing was intended for homeless, unemployed and addicted men. The community services group wished to have area zoning specifically prohibiting supportive housing changed to allow for the home to be built. The intended site was a vacant lot adjacent to their offices. This lot is right in the downtown business core and immediately adjacent to the downtown residential area.
The acrimony first started when the city council set a public hearing prior to voting on the issue. The notice of the hearing was the first intimation many of the local businesses and residents had of the proposed zoning change.
The downtown core has had a long and checkered history, having been revitalized by local businesses and landowners at great cost and effort over the past decade. City Council agreed to zone the area 'C7' which prohibits certain types of business and residential usage. Prior to the revitalization, the area had been run down and avoided by most city residents as being too unsavory to frequent. Business and landowners, on the basis of this zoning, invested significantly in upgrading the area and succeeded in attracting both local business and local shoppers into the hitherto avoided downtown core. Buildings and facilities were upgraded and it became a model for revitalization projects.
When the community services group's proposal became known, there was general outrage by those who would be most affected: the people who'd invested so heavily in the area and whose livelihood and property values were likely to be affected. Their main concern was that a change to the zoning would prove detrimental to the area.
The public meeting which was held of 17th February 2014 saw passionate and polarized groups both for and against. Those against cited fears for public safety and the potential for a boycott of the area by shoppers. They pointed out risks associated with low barrier supportive home residents, citing examples from what had occurred in the area prior to the revitalization. They were most concerned that the term 'low barrier' meant that in effect there was no requirement for residents to be making any effort toward sobriety and therefore they would be a risk.
Those for the project denied any such risk and cited examples of supportive housing operating successfully elsewhere. They also cited examples of people who had been helped back to a productive and meaningful way of life by this type of housing.
When the council vote took place after the public meeting it was evenly split. The major, Bruce Bandon case the deciding vote. He voted against the proposal based on the secrecy of the community services group during their planning phase and the fact that there were more suitable areas available for development.
Although this is an occurrence in one small city, it does highlight a North American wide divide and an increasing problem faced by many other cities. As the economy continues to falter, small businesses, who form the highest percentage of employers, are under increasing pressure. They have to contend with lower profits, higher costs and greater uncertainties. The slightest change to the status quo can easily put a small enterprise out of business, resulting in further unemployment for owner and staff. This, in turn, negatively impacts local economies.
At the same time, an increasing number of homeless are flocking to cities with a temperate climate.
This increases pressure on local community organizations and city infrastructure. As both rely heavily on support and taxes from local businesses, the need for co-operation in balancing economic and social considerations is also increased.
Those involved in the recent Abbotsford situation recognize this and agree that the solution is not straight forward or easy.
Those who opposed to the initiative stated repeatedly that they felt alienated because they had been 'blind sided' by a proposal which had apparently been in the works for over two years. Many stated their willingness to support the project with suggestions for alternate locations and financial assistance. They requested greater transparency and involvement in future initiatives so that viable solutions to community issues could be more easily achieved.