1055 Ellis St.

The City of Kelowna and province of B.C. plan to build housing for the homeless on Ellis Street, but are not allowing public comment or a rezoning hearing.

Construction of a three-storey downtown Kelowna building to house homeless people will proceed without a rezoning or a public hearing.

In an unusual move, the NDP government and the City of Kelowna have agreed to eliminate the opportunity for members of the public to comment on the project.

Doing away with the public hearing is said to be necessary given what's described as the urgent need to get homeless people into stable housing during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has reduced capacity at shelters.

Provincial and municipal officials essentially say the need to provide housing for the homeless is more important right now than the need to follow normal city procedures.

"The provincial government is using its legislative authority to move this much-needed project forward, without it going through the normal development process,” Mayor Colin Basran told The Daily Courier on Wednesday.

"City council supports this, given the current circumstances we are living in are anything but normal," he said. "Bypassing normal procedures will allow the project to be completed much quicker and, in light of the situation, council feels this approach is appropriate."

The two properties, at 1055 and 1063 Ellis St. in the downtown north end, are currently zoned Industrial 4. Housing is not a permitted use in this zone.

However, the properties' future land use is classed as Mixed Use (Residential/Commercial), a zoning that would allow for the kind of three-storey building with 38 self-contained suites that's being planned.

The two properties are currently vacant.

Use of the properties as a building site for what is described as a "supportive housing project" for the homeless, with on-site services geared to their needs, would likely arouse some opposition among area residents given the reception accorded similar projects in the past.

Critics have expressed concerns about the potential of the projects to stigmatize their neighbourhoods and increase crime.

Last year, 13,000 people signed a petition against a similar project on McCurdy Road in Rutland. At the city's suggestion, the government eventually changed that building's operating model so homeless people chosen to live there would have to agree to stop using illegal drugs as a condition of their continued tenancy.

But other supportive housing projects, where residents can continue to use illegal drugs, have been approved with little opposition. Supporters say the buildings are well-run, help people to change their lives, and don't increase area crime.

Together, the two vacant properties on Ellis Street have an assessed value of $1.5 million, according to BC Assessment.

The City of Kelowna bought the two properties on March 18 of this year for $1.8 million and is providing the land at no cost to the province for the new housing complex.

The NDP government asked for the city to "expedite" the necessary rezoning by not holding the usual public hearing process.

"We are working quickly and urgently with our partners to protect all British Columbians during the COVID-19 crisis, including our province's most vulnerable - because when people have housing, it's good for everyone in the community," Housing Minister Selina Robinson said in a release.

In a subsequent email to The Daily Courier, BC Housing also cited the pandemic as a reason for fast-tracking the project.

"We are in the middle of a health emergency and we need to act quickly to provide people with their own private space and help prevent the spread of the virus," the statement read.

Despite the cancellation of the public hearing, "We are working closely with the City of Kelowna to ensure all municipal codes and regulations are adhered to," the BC Housing statement added.

The city's purchase of the two properties in mid-March was a "strategic land investment", Basran says.

In the short-term, he says, the city helps address the homeless situation by providing the land, in the form of a 10-year lease to the government, for construction of the new supportive housing complex. The building will be run by the  Kelowna branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, which manages similar facilities.

After the expiration of the 10-year lease, Basran said, the site can still be used for as-yet unknown city purposes.

"In addition to being close to downtown, this property is ideally located adjacent to existing municipal park space and could fulfill many different city objectives after expiry of the lease," Basran said.

After the lease for the supportive housing complex expires, Basran says, a public hearing and rezoning could be held depending on what use is proposed to be made of the two properties.