Earlier this month, Selina Robinson slammed the city’s own proposed social housing plan as “unworkable,” and said if the city wouldn’t work with the province, the ministry would “move forward” with building temporary supportive housing on its own.
On Wednesday, Robinson unveiled what that would look like, in the form of a 51-unit supportive housing project for residents of the controversial Anita Place homeless camp on the site of a previously-rejected social housing project at 11749 Burnett St.
READ MORE: B.C. housing minister slams Maple Ridge’s plan to address homelessness as ‘not workable’
In its own social housing plan, Maple Ridge had sought to restrict new supportive housing for the homeless to the site of the city’s one existing temporary modular housing project on Royal Crescent, with seniors’ housing proposed for the Burnett Street site.
In a letter to Maple Ridge Mayor Mike Morden and council Wednesday, Robinson said she appreciated the city’s attempt to create a housing plan, and applauded proposals for seniors and recovery housing. But she said she had made it clear to the city that there was no space for more housing at the Royal Crescent site.
READ MORE: Housing minister decries frustrating pace of housing in Maple Ridge, points to roadblocks
“Given this, we will be moving ahead on an expedited basis to build modular supportive housing on the property we own at 11749 Burnett,” Robinson wrote.
“I agree with your councils assessment that in the longer term this would be an ideal site for seniors housing, and so I have asked staff to also work with city staff on planning for an affordable rental building for seniors for this location” at a later date.
Robinson also asked Maple Ridge to work with BC Housing to develop a plan to ensure support for homeless campers are supported until construction begins in April.
I am troubled by this arbitrary decision made without significant dialogue on the Citys Social Housing Plan recommendations, he said.
READ MORE: Judge rejects appeal of injunction against Maple Ridge homeless camp as housing concerns deepen
Our expectation was that city and provincial staff would work through a process together, gather the facts, overcome obstacles and make recommendations to address the immediate and long term needs in our community.
Morden has not responded to requests for further comment. Once city councillor reached by Global News said they hadn’t seen the letter and could not speak to it.
The province says construction will take about five months to build, and the project will house all 47 people who have been confirmed by the city as residents of Anita Place.
Lawyers for Pivot Legal Society, which represents the Anita Place campers, called the province’s move a “step in the right direction,” but added there’s plenty more that needs to be done for the city’s homeless population.
“This is still an insufficient number of units to house those who are chronically homeless in Maple Ridge,” staff lawyer Anna Cooper said. “Housing solutions should be based on regional need, not the number of people recently living at Anita Place.”
While City is tearing down homes @ #AnitaPlace, Province of BC announced 51 new temp homes for Anita Place residents. What a scathing indictment of Maple Ridge when ⬆️ level of govt uses paramountcy to unilaterally enact solutions that should have been done from beginning by City pic.twitter.com/R7ivaAVKDZ
Cooper added she’s concerned the province didn’t appear to consult any homeless people in the design of the facility, and that the units are meant to be temporary.
“We are still waiting for the announcement of long-term affordable housing projects, she said.
The new facility will be operated by Coast Mental Health and provide 24-hour supports for residents. Fraser Health will also provide clinical support services.
The province’s move is sure to be controversial. Last May, Maple Ridge city council rejected a rezoning application to build a shelter and supportive housing facility at the Burnett Street site.
The long-simmering debate over homelessness in Maple Ridge came to a boil at the end of February after three fires in one week at the Anita Place homeless camp, after which the site was evacuated for safety reasons.
The B.C. government seems to have both solved a housing problem and escalated a dispute with the City of Maple Ridge.
Housing Minister Selina Robinson announced Tuesday afternoon the province will be constructing 51 temporary modular homes on a plot of land it owns in the 11700 block of Burnett Street, in an attempt to alleviate conflicts over the Anita Place homeless camp.
"Our goal is to quickly get people into housing where they can get the help and the support they've long been needing, while working to close the camp in a managed way," said Robinson in a statement.
The province said Coast Mental Health will be the building operator and included statements from the organization and background from BC Housing in its statement.
In a presentation last week, the city said it wanted more housing for the homeless — just not at the site the province just announced.
Instead, it wanted more modular housing units at a site already in operation, along with a new senior's centre at the Burnett Street site, and a "Made in Maple Ridge" model for supportive housing going forward.
"The mayor was told that the plan that they brought forward … wouldn't work," she said in an interview last week.
While Robinson said BC Housing will begin work with Maple Ridge on a seniors centre to eventually replace the new modular housing, the time for negotiations was over.
"The people of Maple Ridge have been waiting too long. The people who are in tent cities have been waiting too long. We need to move forward. We're prepared to do that, with the city preferably, or without the city at this point. We just need to get going."
The provincial government has been building modular homes throughout B.C. for the last 18 months but what makes the situation in Maple Ridge unique is twofold.
First, the community's relationship with homeless camps might be more strained than anywhere else in the province: three possible housing locations have been rejected (two by the province, one by the city), former Mayor Nicole Read received police protection following online harassment over her support of homeless community members and the controversy around the current homeless camp has featured plenty of conflict.
Secondly, new Mayor Mike Morden campaigned — and won by a large margin — on a campaign of cracking down on crime and shutting the homeless camp.
"Housing is a component to this, but it is one small part of a very large puzzle that has to be solved. Drugs are the key here," he said in a debate during the campaign.
For its part, the province is adamant: it has a model it has implemented in communities large and small since it was elected and feels no need to deviate for a suburban community of 85,000 just an hour from Vancouver.
"We're seeing communities where people are putting together welcome kits and wrapping their arms, so to speak, around people who have been marginalized for a long time. And I know in Maple Ridge this is possible too," said Robinson.
However, Morden declined multiple requests in person and in email to talk about the issues he's hoping to tackle in his community — the first mayor in this series to do so in three months — saying he didn't want to negotiate with the province through the media.
Multiple councillors have also declined comment, abiding by a request from the mayor not to speak on the homeless issue.
While he declined an interview, Morden did issue an emailed statement late in the day after the story was published, expressing disappointment with the province's decision. "I am troubled by this arbitrary decision made without significant dialogue on the city's social housing plan recommendations," said Morden of Robinson's announcement.
"Our expectation was that city and provincial staff would work through a process together, gather the facts, overcome obstacles and make recommendations to address the immediate and long term needs in our community."
With the two sides at loggerheads, social media in Maple Ridge swirls with criticism of people in the homeless camp and the government, painting a picture of activists and people outside the community exacerbating the problem, while Robinson refuses to put homeless shelters in her own Coquitlam riding.
"This community has extended itself to the end of its reach … we continue to open more facilities and more move in," said Wesley Mann, chair of the Burnett Street Neighbours in Maple Ridge, who said he was disappointed but not surprised by the government's move.
"We need treatment, mental health, after treatment care. We need these sort of things in order to cope with this, and the other communities that surround us don't have these facilities that we're putting in."
What the next steps are by the city remain to be seen, but one thing is clear: both the provincial and municipal governments believe they have the political capital to enact their agendas.
Metro Matters: On The Road is exploring how new city governments throughout B.C. are approaching age-old issues (some political, some not) in their communities.
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