Lauren Simpson was excited about the possibility that she might soon be able to move into an affordable apartment of her own in south Surrey.
That’s why the 26-year-old, who has Down syndrome, took the big step of calling into Surrey council late one evening this week to plead personally with council members to approve the new non-profit development near her parents’ house that would provide her and many other disabled people with a permanent place to live.
Five of the eight council members voted turned that project down around 1 a.m. Tuesday, including Mayor Doug McCallum, not giving any reasons at the time but indicating later that the density of the six-storey building was their concern.
“I was upset. A lot of people were upset. If Harmony doesn’t get built, I will have to stay with my mum and dad. Where is there for me to go?” said a discouraged Ms. Simpson. “To me, it is a safe place I would like to call home.”
She is not the only disheartened person. More than 6,000 who signed a petition in favour of the 91-unit apartment building being proposed, the 54 who called in to express support, and the non-profit group trying to get the Harmony project built are also baffled and dismayed.
“I am really quite shocked,” said Bill Simpson, Lauren’s father. He and his wife have been trying to figure out a permanent housing solution for Lauren for when they’re gone.
It’s a troubling decision for BC Housing, the provincial agency that funds social housing and had committed $10-million to the development.
“We are disappointed this project is not moving forward,” said the agency in a statement to The Globe and Mail. “We know there is a housing crisis in this province, including in Surrey, and we need to build more affordable housing. Governments at all levels must take bold action.”
It’s another setback for the province’s aggressive efforts to get more social housing or affordable rentals built, as Surrey joins an informal club of suburbs in the last three years that have turned down or wobbled over approvals for that kind of housing, including the District of North Vancouver, White Rock and Port Moody.
Those suburban turndowns stand in stark contrast to Vancouver, whose council is not at all unified on many issues but has approved social-housing or rental projects even when there have been 100 people out to oppose them.
The Surrey council vote was also labelled as “devastating” by Doug Tennant, the chief executive officer of the non-profit coalition of groups called UNITI that had been working on the Harmony project with city planners and the community for the last three years.
“This was going to be a benefit for the entire community. I feel so sorry for the people who desperately need housing.”
He said the society’s plan now is to simply wait for a new council that will have a different attitude.
“We not going to waste our time dealing with this council. We’ll wait for one that is very supportive of affordable housing.”
Councillor Brenda Locke, who is planning to run for mayor in next year’s election, said she couldn’t understand why Mr. McCallum and the four other councillors in his party voted against it.
“I know that if you’re a parent of a person with a disability, you’re so frightened about what’s going to happen to your child when you’re not there.” This project would have given comfort to many families in that situation, she said.
Mr. McCallum said he voted against it because local residents in the single-family area were concerned about the building being at six storeys. They felt four would be better.
“The majority of council listened to the residents. That’s our job,” he said. “I fully supported the use but not the form. When I worked on projects like this over the years, any type of facility you do build needs to fit in.”
The Harmony project was proposed for a 2.2-hectare parcel of land already planned as a part of a town centre for the Semiahmoo neighbourhood in south Surrey. A recent community plan that council approved envisions buildings of four to six stories in that area, which has a small commercial strip and a transit line.
There are currently 52 townhouses on the property and an 18-unit apartment building, run by the Peninsula Estates Housing Association, which is part of UNITI. The plan was to demolish 17 of the townhouses in order to accommodate the new building, which was set as far away from single detached homes as possible.
But opponents from the area, largely homeowners in the immediate vicinity, said they were concerned about the height and the potential for additional traffic. They also worried that allowing one higher building would kick off a cascade of other large structures in the area. Some called the project “experimental,” because it would house a mix of people with developmental disabilities and others who simply need affordable housing. UNITI already has a similar apartment complex elsewhere in Surrey, called Chorus, that has been successful since it opened in 2016.
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