A Métis-led non-profit planning a large affordable housing project in Saskatoon's Blairmore suburban centre is reacting to concerns it's moving too fast with the development — as well complaints it believes reflect an "antiquated view" on race and inclusion.
Camponi Housing Corporation is proposing a complex at 727 and 803 Hart Rd. that would include more than 150 affordable rental homes and necessary supports, including a daycare, retail stores, Wi-Fi hotspots and spaces available to the wider public.
Homes would range from ground-floor units accessible for seniors to other units with as many as four bedrooms — not five, as previously indicated on the project website.
While priority would be given to Métis applicants, units will also be available for other Indigenous people as well as non-Indigenous people, according to Camponi executive director Toby Esterby.
"It's a very ambitious project," Esterby said of the $42.7-million development. "We've been preparing for it and building our capacity to be ready for this for many years. [It's] essentially building a neighborhood rather than just a bunch of houses everywhere."
The corporation is hoping to drive piles into the ground this winter, before freeze-up.
The property needs to be rezoned first, though.
Council vote on rezoning scheduled for Monday night
On Monday night — during their last public hearing before the Nov. 9 municipal election — city councillors are scheduled to vote on Camponi's rezoning request, which has the blessing of city staff.
Letters of both support and concern have already streamed into council. The Métis Addictions Council of Saskatchewan wrote that Camponi has provided "affordable, safe and healthy homes" since 1973.
Ashley Green, who has been a resident of nearby Parkridge for all of her 35 years, wrote that she's so concerned that she will put her own family's home up for sale if the Camponi project proceeds.
"Is there any specific reason why Parkridge/Blairmore has to get Camponi housing in our neighbourhood?" she wrote.
"This is going to decrease the values on homes significantly, especially all the new builds, and bring in more crime into our neighbourhood (which already is not the greatest as we had a home invasion two years ago)," her letter says.
"Why can't one go up in Brighton or Aspen Ridge [on Saskatoon's east side]? … There is plenty of room over there."
In an interview with CBC News, Green said she only learned of the project two weeks ago, on Facebook. She said she was concerned the buildings would block the view of a pond. She described them as "bright-coloured Métis housing."
"My thoughts are, oh my God, the crime is going to go up," she said.
"We had four Indigenous grown men break into my house when my husband works out of town."
Dee Kirchmeier, another concerned Parkridge resident and letter writer, wrote that she had only learned of the project last Monday.
"I think it is such a big development and the density issue is a big one for me," Kirchmeier wrote. "So many children, and do they really have the recreational areas for these kids? They will be living in apartments and will be so bored. Will they play in the Walmart parking lot? My concerns are that they could get hurt."
Esterby was asked how he felt about the comments about crime and "so many children."
"That is an antiquated viewpoint that unfortunately is attached to affordable housing and more specifically, it's attached to Indigenous housing, and we view that concern as one that does not have a place in this discussion," Esterby said. "The notion of more crime because [we] have families that have more modest means is one based on hatred of others. It's not a fair stigma to put on the families that will move into these houses.
"Those types of concerns, they're not based on anything other than judgment."
"It's 2020," Esterby added, echoing the words of Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Mark Arcand last year, when residents expressed concerns about a proposed STC-run daycare in the city's Montgomery Place neighbourhood.
The Métis Nation-Saskatchewan, which is not with affiliated with Camponi, said it supports the Camponi project, adding the location is very strategic.
"Tenants will have their basic needs and amenities within walking distance," said Christena Konrad, MN-S's director of housing. "MN-S supports diversifying neighbourhoods to help strengthen the overall health of our communities."
Esterby also said the first phase of the development would have ground-floor outdoor spaces for each unit, as well as play space for the daycare.
"Phase 2 design is not finalized," he said.
'So many unanswered questions'
A third area resident and letter writer, Hunchul Park, dubbed the proposal a "Saskatoon city social welfare centre with Camponi housing," while raising concerns about traffic and building height, among other issues.
"I anticipate there will be a lot more letters coming forward on Monday," Ward 3 Coun. Ann Iwanchuk said.
Monday night's public hearing will be her last: she's announced she's not seeking re-election.
Iwanchuk said most area residents are concerned about the project because of its pace and due to a lack of adequate consultation.
"The community support is not there right now because there are so many unanswered questions," she said. "Questions about security, about parking, about traffic, about buffer zones, having a four-storey condo-type of building overlooking your backyard. Those kinds of things."
The views expressed by the early letter writers are "the minority view," she added.
Iwanchuk said only 16 people attended an online public meeting about the development on Sept. 10. Interaction was limited, given the online format, she said.
The 18-day window between that meeting and Monday's rezoning hearing is "unusually fast … probably about a month faster, I would say, than typical," according to Iwanchuk.
"With something that is controversial within the community, I think we need to make sure that we do a really, really good job of answering people's questions and taking the time to alleviate concerns that have been raised."
For that reason, Iwanchuk said she plans on Monday to ask for other councillors' support in putting off the rezoning decision to a later, post-election date.
Esterby said Camponi has gone "above and beyond the city process" in consulting the public. He said Camponi opened a Monday-to-Friday project storefront in August in Blairmore, and that full details of the project have been available on Camponi's website since then. The city sent notices about the project and the Sept. 10 meeting, he added.
Esterby said there's urgency behind the project, and not just because some funding avenues being sought may not be available later.
"[We're] driven by an intense and growing need for adequate, sustainable housing," he said. "Any delays mean those delays are passed down the timeline to a family in need."
Iwanchuk said the public notices should have gone to a "wider swath" of people near the proposed site.
She said Camponi is a good company and that she has no objections to the project itself.
"I have huge concerns, though, about the process that has occurred," she said.
Ward 3 candidates offer their views
Given Iwanchuk's impending exit and the potential for the rezoning decision to fall on the shoulders of the next city council — which will be sworn in on Nov. 16 — CBC News reached out to Ward 3 candidates for their views on the project.
Five responded, with one candidate, Chris Sicotte, saying he is in favour of the Camponi proposal as is.
"COVID has forced us to change and adapt in ways we never thought we would," said Sicotte, a Métis man and board member of the Provincial Métis Housing Corporation.
"Many issues brought forward by the citizens have been addressed by Camponi as they will be required to go through vigorous pre-screening. This is a well thought-through, innovative design that incorporates aspects of similar projects that have been completed in areas outside Saskatchewan (specifically Montreal)."
Two candidates — Bobbi Ehman and Mark Mills — confirmed they would vote against changing the current "low to medium density" zoning to "institutional," if they were elected and it fell to them.
"As a resident of Parkridge, I can tell you that Camponi's development has caused extreme concern and upset with the residents of Blairmore and Parkridge," Ehman said.
"We as the current residents of this area are very concerned for our property values, as well as the potential increase in crime rates.… Camponi stated that they have 24-hour security to monitor their residents. Well, what about the rest of us?"
Mills suggested the Camponi project would be better suited for other areas of the city, including areas farther west of Blairmore (but still within city limits) as well as "open spaces [that] would allow other builders the opportunity to buy the properties around this project for similar developments."
"The residents who have lived in this area for many years bought their homes in the area based on the types of home and amenities in the area," Mills said.
Mills also suggested land at the corner of 17th Street W. and Avenue N S.
"It is very close to St. Mary's [Wellness and Education Centre]. There would be a perfect infill project. The Camponi project would fit very well at this location."
Candidate Nick Sackville, who works as a government relations manager for the Saskatoon and Region Home Builders' Association, said there is very little evidence to suggest affordable housing projects negatively affect property values.
"If we prevent affordable housing projects from moving forward, we increase the burden on our emergency shelters and transitional housing," he wrote in a blog post on his campaign website.
Sackville also spoke against the notion the Camponi project will draw crime to the area.
"Buildings themselves don't increase crime," he said. "This project addresses the need for a safe and stable home, which is a critical part of crime reduction. But it falls on the city, our organizations and our residents to collectively support initiatives that address the root causes of crime, including homelessness, mental health and addictions."
Esterby said the site will be supported by Camponi's "wraparound services team, our tenant engagement services, and tenant community relations."
"We do have addiction supports in our portfolio, but those acute supports are more typically associated with our supported living models, which will not be part of the Hart Road site," Esterby said.
Like Iwanchuk, Sackville said his primary concern is about how many people were notified by the city. He said he would have "a tough time" supporting the project at this time.
"I am concerned that the impending election has created an incentive to move quickly and has not allowed a fulsome and transparent conversation about the impact of this development," he said
Candidate Janine Lazaro said "to support or not to support the project is not really up to us."
"The community members have the right to know, the right to participate in the discussion and have the right to express their feelings about the project," she said.
Colin Prang, another candidate, said he supports affordable housing and increasing density around commercial areas.
"However, I am concerned that the proposed development doesn't offer enough parking for the commercial component," he said.
Monday night's public hearing will stream live here. The meeting begins at 6 p.m. CST.