On Queensborough

This is going to be a bit of a lengthy post on various thoughts I have on Queensborough and the recently passed Temporary Modular Housing project.

On Yes In New West’s role

Yes In New West is a loose group of New Westminster residents who came together a couple of years ago to push for more choice in housing options, particularly those in the missing middle — townhouses and rowhouses. We’ve done a few small campaigns since then, an all-candidates meeting here, a letter-writing campaign there, but nothing that large.

During the process for rezoning the land on which the Temporary Modular Housing (or TMH) would be built, a group of Queensborough residents formed to try to stop it. They attended the Advisory Planning Commission meeting about the project and were unsuccessful at stopping it there.

Right around that time I made some modifications to Abundant Housing Vancouver‘s letter-generator program, and then launched a campaign to send letters of support to New Westminster city council. I was expecting maybe a couple dozen letters of support. I had asked AHVancouver how many letters they’d sent for various campaigns. They had put together a similar campaign supporting TMH in Vancouver’s Marpole neighbourhood, and another one for TMH in Richmond. These campaigns sent 119 letters in support of Marpole and 137 in support of Richmond. I thought we’d be lucky to get to fifty.

Then the New West Record put out an article about us. In our first day we had 30 letters of support. In three days we broke a hundred. After ten days we hit 138 and broke AHVancouver’s record for letters of support for a TMH project. A week later, and just an hour before the start of the public hearing, we sent our 196th letter.

The letters came from every single neighbourhood of New Westminster. They came from Sapperton, which has similar housing supplied by the Elizabeth Fry Society, in a building that faced similar opposition six years ago and is today hosts people that are a valued part of the community. They came from Brow Of The Hill, which has Westminster House and Last Door Recovery Society housing, whose residents volunteer at community events across Metro Vancouver. They came from Downtown New West, which has Genesis Society and Salvation Army housing near Qayqayt Elementary School, which have no problems coexisting.

And 25% of the letters that had addresses came from Queensborough. Queensborough has only about 10% of New Westminster’s population, so the Queensborough TMH had greater support there than from anywhere else in the city.

I was overwhelmed at all of the support Yes In New West was able to shine a light on. YiNW can’t take the credit, the 196 letter writers are more than deserving of all of the applause. We merely unlocked their support to let the city see how compassionate and welcoming they are.

On Queensborough

I like Queensborough. I think that it’s been dumped on in the past, but it’s getting better. The streets aren’t that great, there aren’t as many amenities as there should be (but it does have more park space per capita than the city average), the transit sucks, the sidewalks are crappy or non-existent, but it’s a nice community. I’ve been to the last two Queensborough Children’s Festivals, and they’re always full of energy, full of life, and full of community spirit. The last one I was at it was filled with people wearing shirts that said “Queensborough, Community With Heart”, and I still feel that that’s the truth.

Queensborough is filled with kind and welcoming people. Despite the efforts of the Facebook group Queensborough Residents for Responsible Community Planning (QRRCP), I cannot think of Queensborough residents as being unwelcoming. I believe that they’re just lacking the experience that others have when it comes to living in a community with housing for people who may have been living on the street, or are fleeing abuse, or are aging out of foster care with nowhere to go.

Acceptance often comes after exposure. We here in Brow of the Hill have been living with recovery houses for so long that they’re a fabric of our neighbourhood. We’re accepting of a wider range of people from a wider range of socioeconomic situations because we have that exposure. Queensborough residents don’t, so they can’t build up that acceptance and are more likely to believe in strawman arguments (“our kids will be playing in parks strewn with needles” or “mentally ill women will break into our schools with axes” or even “our property values will go down”) that have no bearing in reality. It’s only after exposure that the acceptance will come, and I’m very confident that Queensborough will accept these women as fellow neighbours and not as outsiders or others.

On Queensborough TMH

The Queensborough Temporary Modular Housing will provide shelter for 44 women who are either without a home or are at risk of losing their home. This isn’t a drug recovery centre, this isn’t a mental illness facility, it’s for women who do not have a place to live. That’s an important distinction, because being without a home does not mean you’re a drug user or have mental illness challenges. They could be teenagers turning 19 and aging out of foster care. They could be seniors on fixed incomes facing increasing rent and medical costs. They could be women fleeing domestic violence. All of these women — and those with other issues that were either caused by or the cause of losing their housing — have a right to a safe place to live.

So to hear fear-mongering from the Port Royal Mom’s Group or online petitions about vague “dangers to our children” is disheartening. Those same vague “concerns” in the QRRCP petition (which I will not link to) show up:

Queensborough Residents For Responsible Community Planning (QRRCP) is a group of local residents who are concerned with the precise location of this project, given its close proximity to large groups of children accessing school and community services.

…the current site is in direct proximity to over 680 students and hundreds of additional children who are potentially at risk to harm from exposure to active drug use, a potential increase in local drug trade/associated criminal activity, and, individuals exhibiting high risk mental health behaviours.

Of course, these concerns are largely unfounded. Qayqayt Elementary School has three recovery houses closer than this project is to Queen Elizabeth Elementary or Queensborough Middle School, and they coexist just fine. And tarring an entire group of vulnerable people with “active drug use” or “criminal activity” or “high risk mental health behaviours” is just plain scare-mongering. What about the 18-year old who’s transitioning out of foster care? What about the 75-year old woman who’s on a fixed income and cannot continue to pay her ever-increasing rent? What about the woman fleeing domestic violence? Why are you tarring these women with such fearful words? It’s almost as if they’re cherry-picking horror stories to drive up people’s fears to get them to oppose the project.

Nowhere in the petition does it mention the loss of parkland, which you’ll seen see was a theme of the majority of the speakers at the public hearing. I don’t know why they made this shift of narrative.

On The Public Hearing

It was disgraceful, and the overwhelming majority of that disgrace falls on the group of people who came out in opposition to the project. They were rude, they were disrespectful, and they created a hostile environment for everybody involved. The only raised voices I heard from anybody who was supporting the project was asking the loud opposition crowd to be quiet.

Women who had been given assistance through similar projects came out to speak in favour of housing, and a number of them bravely shared incredibly personal and heartbreaking stories. A lot of people from Elizabeth Fry and other similar organizations spoke about the massive benefits of projects like this, not only for the people involved but also for the community. I spoke, yes, but the brave women who shared their stories are the ones we should be focusing on.

And then there were the group of people in opposition. With threatening words towards council like “we’ll be watching” or “November, guys” (pro-tip: if you’re going to threaten politicians about an upcoming election, get the month right) and the clapping and shouting after anybody in opposition spoke, this group made City Hall feel like a riot was going to break out. Two women who were going to speak in favour were intimidated by this behaviour into leaving before they could speak. The safe and welcoming place that City Hall is meant to be was completely transformed by the intimidation of the opposition group.

Queensborough-Richmond MLA Jas Johal was in the lobby, but unfortunately did not speak about the project. After I spoke in favour, I passed him in the audience and he gave me some kind of a smug smirk. I learned afterwards that he was seen chatting and laughing with a group of people in opposition who were being loud and intimidating. This is poor behaviour from someone who is supposed to be a leader in the community.

None of the bullying came from people in support of the project. None of the intimidation came from people in support of the project. If someone in opposition to the project felt bullied or guilty because they stated their reasons for opposing the location, maybe that’s their conscience making an appearance. If you feel guilty because you’re opposing a project because it’ll take away park space when women who lived on the streets and could have died without projects like this speak up, then maybe it’s your conscience making you feel guilty that you place park space above housing a vulnerable neighbour.

I urge everybody to watch New Westminster City Council’s statements made after the Public Hearing as they voted in favour of the project. If you only have 15 minutes, skip to 30 minutes into the video and listen to Jaimie McEvoy’s heart-wrenching story.

On being heard

This group kept saying things like “we want you to hear us” or “yes to the project, but no to the location”. This sounds reasonable on the face of it. People want to be heard. But if you want to actually have a conversation, you have to do some listening as well. The people in opposition to the project stated that they wanted the project moved to another site such as a location on nearby Fenton Street. The city heard this request and did a detailed look at the site before determining that it would not work for this project. The money from the provincial government to build the building has a time limit on it, and the Fenton Street site required more work than could be done before that time limit, so it could not be moved to Fenton Street.

The city reported this, yet the people in opposition didn’t hear it. They continued to say “no to the location” even when they were told that the other locations would not work.

And the “yes to the project, but no to the location” argument is a typical (and here’s where some of you are going to get on me for using the word) NIMBY argument. It’s used to show some kind of sympathy, to show that you are actually in favour of housing vulnerable people, but for whatever reason the location just won’t work. “We’re in favour of townhouses, just stick them on busy arterials instead of our nice street.” “We’re in favour of towers, just not where they block our view.” “We’re in favour of temporary modular housing, just not so close to a school because we’re concerned about the safety of children.”

Well, guess what. If you’re opposed to the location you’re opposed to the project. The location is part of the project. You can’t separate them. Every location has its flaws; I can almost guarantee that if the Fenton Street site was the first choice of the city, these people would still come out and come up with excuses why the location is no good for the project. It’s next to single family homes, maybe, or it’s too far from transit, or some other excuse.

The only grace I’m willing to grant them is the loss of park space. Yes, the lot is currently covered in gravel, but it would not take much to throw down some grass and have it be a bit of a grassy field in a few months. The city should have come out right from the start saying “we realize that there will be a loss of green space, but the T in TMH means ‘temporary’ and the building will be gone in 10 to 12 years, after which we will restore the site to a much better quality than it is now.” Guarantee that the park space will be restored to the community and show that you’re listening to them on this point as well.

On The Future

The future is in Queensborough’s hands. It could go two ways:

One, the people in opposition rally in opposition to the project and protest on site when construction starts. The notice of public hearing sign was lying in the dirt when I went to the Queensborough Community Centre on Tuesday, and I’m hoping this wasn’t because someone was pissed off and knocked it over, I’m hoping that for whatever reason the city took it down and just left it there instead of hauling it away. I’m hoping that this wasn’t the start of larger protests. This reaction would obviously be a negative one, and definitely wouldn’t shine a great light on Queensborough.

The other way this could go is people welcome their new neighbours to their community. There are a number of people who have expressed interest in helping EFry with things like Compass Cards, or welcome packages. I’m hoping that kids from the two schools create gift bags for the new residents, similar to kids in Marpole. I’m hoping to see an overwhelming amount of support and compassion and empathy for our new neighbours and new members of our community.

After all, what did that wise man once say?

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.

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