Ahousaht elder Wally Samuel appeared before Port Alberni city council on the evening of May 31 seeking zoning amendments that would allow for the construction of much-needed affordable housing units in the city.
He was representing the Citaapi Mahtii Housing Society in its application to amend the Official Community Plan and zoning bylaws at 4210 Cedarwood Street, the site of the former Cedarwood Elementary School, that they hope will be replaced with a four-storey, 35-unit apartment complex.
The new building is funded by BC Housing’s Community Housing Fund and is a partnership between the Citaapi Mahtii Housing Society, BC Housing and the City of Port Alberni. The planned complex will also receive funding from CMHC.
There are more than 500 registered Ahousaht members living in Port Alberni, many in a tight and very expensive rental housing market. Elected Chief Greg Louie told Ha-Shilth-Sa that his council heard from membership that they need affordable housing.
The proposed new complex would deliver 35 affordable new units in a four-storey building. The structure will have eight studio units, seven one-bedroom apartments, four two-bedroom units, 12 three-bedroom suites and four four-bedroom units.
The blend of unit sizes will allow for a more inclusive community atmosphere. In addition to the housing units, the development plans show a one-storey amenity space with a kitchen that can be rented for gatherings.
The public hearing allowed proponents of the project speak to the need for the project and for city residents to ask questions.
Harley Wylie, Sharean Van Volsen and Archie Little of Tseshaht, Hupacasath and Nuchatlaht respectively all spoke in support of the project, saying their councils and people are aware of the need and support the idea.
“This will not only benefit Ahousaht, but also the city,” said Wylie.
Alice Sam is an Ahousaht member residing in Port Alberni who advocates for homeless people. She noted that in today’s housing market, people are losing their homes due to renovictions, zoning changes or just being priced out of the rental market. Add to that, there are no shelters in the city that provide rooms for couples.
NTC Vice-President Mariah Charleson mentioned a homelessness forum hosted by the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council a few years ago. At that forum, she said, Port Alberni was one of five cities identified as having a high number of Nuu-chah-nulth-aht that identify as homeless. The other cities are Nanaimo, Victoria, Vancouver and Courtenay.
Charleson noted that racism continues to be a problem for Indigenous people seeking rental housing.
“Many can’t rent once the landlord sees the colour of their skin,” said Charleson.
She went to say that moving the project forward would indicate a chance for real reconciliation with the city and its Indigenous population. Opportunities for affordable housing for Indigenous people would contribute to the economy and the tax base.
“There’s a myth out there that we don’t pay taxes, but we do,” said Charleson.
Jeff Cook of Huu-ay-aht and long-time Port Alberni resident talked about the history of housing projects in the city and the barriers that were broken through. When Ma’kola Housing went up in certain sections of town, people in the neighborhood protested, “Not in my back yard”.
But everything worked out and low barrier housing has been beneficial to all, according to Cook.
There were few if any speaking against the project. One business owner was in favor of the project but worried that the noise from his business might be disruptive to the tenants. The architect assured him that the building would be well insulated and highly efficient, and the property will be fenced so noise from the neighbors should not be an issue.
The Citaapi Mahtii Housing Society is seeking amendments to the Official Community Plan and zoning bylaws in order to move the project forward. If successful, the property will be rezoned to RM3 High Density Multiple Family Residential from P2 Parks and Recreation.
Port Alberni City Council said they will vote on the proposed amendments sometime in June.