CBRM mayor calls emergency meeting over affordable housing funding

Cape Breton regional councillors are reconsidering their options after rejecting $5 million in funding from the federal government for affordable housing. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)
Cape Breton regional councillors are reconsidering their options after rejecting $5 million in funding from the federal government for affordable housing. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)

Cape Breton regional council is holding an emergency meeting on Friday morning to reconsider its options after councillors voted down a project that would have qualified for $5 million in federal funding for desperately needed affordable housing.

If council does not take action by March 15, the funding has to go back to the federal government.

New Dawn Enterprises had submitted a $4.1-million proposal along with the Ally Centre of Cape Breton to build a 20-unit housing project for people who are homeless and needing addiction treatment.

CEO Erika Shea said New Dawn has its own source of funding for the project, but with the Cape Breton Regional Municipality's $5 million in federal funding, the development could have been expanded to 24 units.

Council's vote to reject the proposal on Tuesday came as a complete surprise, she said.

"I'm in absolute, utter shock. I'm heartbroken. This was the last thing we expected," Shea told Mainstreet Cape Breton on Wednesday. "It was cause for celebration to see CBRM listed alongside Halifax and Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto as a city that has an affordable housing crisis and needs directed funds to resolve that crisis."

Matthew Moore/CBC
Matthew Moore/CBC

CBRM received $5 million from the federal government through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, which was announced last fall. The funding falls under the rapid housing initiative, meaning affordable housing projects would have to be proposed, approved and built within 18 months. The deadline to access the money is March 15.

CBRM issued a request for expressions of interest from developers and received four. Three were deemed ineligible according to CMHC criteria, leaving one proposal by New Dawn and the Ally Centre of Cape Breton.

Council met in camera — behind closed doors — for several hours on Tuesday afternoon, then held a brief public meeting during which staff recommended council proceed with the New Dawn-Ally Centre proposal, but it was voted down 6-4. The motion included a clause stating CBRM would not be responsible for any cost overruns.

Housing has long been described as a crisis in CBRM, with the number of people who are homeless on the rise and increasing pressure on the rental market due to a huge influx of international students at Cape Breton University.

Late last month, council voted to censure the mayor for sending council information through email to outside parties, including New Dawn employees Erika Shea and Alyce MacLean.

Some councillors suggested the mayor was in a conflict of interest by sharing confidential information with friends.

Shea said she was not told that those concerns were among the reasons the housing proposal was rejected this week.

NIMBY concerns

However, Shea also posted the New Dawn/Ally Centre proposal online, saying the non-profit agency has nothing to hide.

The development was proposed for Stuart Street in Sydney and was supported with letters from the provincial Department of Community Services, Nova Scotia Health and other local agencies.

"I think that the affordable housing crisis in this community is of such an urgent nature that if council felt that the issues discussed last week negated the content of New Dawn and the Ally Centre's application, I would strongly urge them to fund one of the three other proposals, rather than sending that money back to Ottawa," Shea said.

She said she is worried that councillors voted down the proposal due to NIMBY — not in my back yard — concerns.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

"We have people who are living and dying on the streets in downtown Sydney. If the council does not want to proceed with this round of proposals and this funding, I would like to know what they propose as an alternative," she said.

Shea issued a press release, calling for a public council meeting to get an explanation of council's decision.

CBRM Mayor Amanda McDougall said council needs to reconvene to salvage some kind of benefit for the community.

On Thursday, she called an emergency meeting of council for Friday morning at 9:30 a.m.

Liability concerns

The mayor said council only found out in late November that the federal funding was approved and the CMHC criteria are very rigid on the timing of construction and that vulnerable tenants are housed.

New Dawn's proposal fit all the criteria, but it was not the mayor's first choice, McDougall said.

Some councillors were concerned about the CMHC rule making the municipality responsible for paying back the money if the development failed, she said.

Mike Kelloway, the Liberal MP for Cape Breton-Canso, lobbied the federal government to include CBRM in its plans for rapid housing and has suggested one solution may be to send all four proposals to CMHC and let them decide which ones should receive support.

McDougall said the emergency meeting will include that suggestion.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

Coun. Steve Parsons voted in favour of the New Dawn-Ally Centre proposal and said he was disappointed in the outcome.

He told Information Morning Cape Breton on Thursday that he supported receiving $5 million for what is a priority in the community.

"How could I say no to that? There's always terms and conditions, some that you may or may not like, but at the end of the day, that can be further discussed and negotiated."

Parsons said he had no concerns about the potential tenants.

Vulnerable people need help and the federal funding was an opportunity to do that, he said.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

Coun. Eldon MacDonald voted against the proposal, saying the process was unreasonable because the municipality didn't ask for the money and it came at the last minute with tight deadlines.

He was also concerned about the financial liability and said community consultation should have been included for the neighbours of the proposed development on Stuart Street, most of whom are elderly.

MacDonald said he regularly hears complaints from people about the current location of the Ally Centre and its clients downtown and best practices in harm reduction include integrating vulnerable people throughout the community.

"I don't believe [in] putting the whole project with just marginalized community in one neighbourhood and one spot without any community consultation," MacDonald said Thursday.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

Coun. Gordon MacDonald also voted against it, saying he has family with addiction issues and understands the need to provide them with appropriate housing.

However, the New Dawn/Ally Centre development would "disrupt that whole neighbourhood," he said.

Coun. MacDonald said NIMBY was not a factor in his decision.

"That certainly wasn't the case. There's other options and probably better communities, or better areas close to the downtown core ... that would make a better fit for this group."

'Where does it leave our people?'

Ally Centre executive director Christine Porter and health services co-ordinator Janet Bickerton said they were shocked by Tuesday's council vote.

"I'm still utterly dismayed and I still find it's unbelievable," Porter said Wednesday.

The project would have provided housing and supports for harm reduction and tenants' health, she said, adding that in her 24 years with the Ally Centre, she personally knows three people who've died living on the street.

Bickerton said several community organizations that interact with the centre's clients are also upset.

"It's really embarrassing when you see today that the very same day that the Halifax Regional Municipality has accepted $11 million from the feds for rapid housing ... they are grabbing it and going forward and what are we doing?" she said.

"Where does it leave all of our people. What about the guy that's sleeping over the grate down the road? How do you help someone get healthy or get well when they're sleeping on a grate?"

Frustrated and heartbroken

The Town House Citizens Service League in Glace Bay submitted a proposal that councillors say did not meet the CMHC criteria.

Executive director Patti McDonald said she is frustrated and heartbroken that their $1.2 million project was rejected.

It would have provided a 15-bed rooming house on Commercial Street for short and long-term residents with employment supports and services at Town House across the street.

"Everyone who is supporting people who are at the poverty line or experiencing homelessness, all of the people in our community are devastated right now," McDonald said.

However, she would have been happy for any of the other applicants to succeed, she added.

"It's not about who gets the funding. It's that people in Cape Breton have a place to live."

McDonald said she is hopeful a solution will be found at Friday's council meeting.