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Advocate for the homeless seeks second term as Victoria mayor

Victoria city Mayor Dean Fortin in front of one of the city's revamped hotel for the homeless called the Queen's Manor located at Queens St. and Douglas St. Tuesday October 4, 2011.

Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail/Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

The Queen's Manor, at the gateway to downtown Victoria, isn't much to look at. The former motel's grungy white stucco is cracked, and rough new balcony railings are nailed above the old rotting ones.

But Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin is beaming as he stands on the boulevard. This is a triumph of his campaign against homelessness.

The city bought two motels – part of a bankrupt chain – to convert to supportive housing for adults who were living on the streets or in emergency shelters. It was one of the biggest gambles in his term as mayor – the city spent $6-million to buy the two properties without any guarantee that provincial and federal assistance would come. "We had originally opened 70 cots on the floor in a church – no-one was going into them," Mr. Fortin said. "So we took that money and opened this. We went out on a limb."

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Today nearby businesses are still fuming over the decision – they don't appreciate their new hard-to-house neighbours who live in the 36 units at Queen's Manor. But according to the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, more than 1,500 people have been housed since "Dean's team" swept into city hall in 2008 with six of nine council seats.

Now Mr. Fortin is seeking a second term as mayor. Like Gregor Robertson in Vancouver, Mr. Fortin's left-leaning slate – an alliance of greens and progressives – represented a sweeping change at city hall. Like Mr. Robertson, homelessness was one of his top priorities.

But Mr. Fortin is not facing an angry post-riot mood among the electorate, nor are his opponents clucking about chicken coops and bike lanes.

Mr. Fortin's main challenger is Paul Brown, a consultant who wants to champion open government. Mr. Brown's last foray into Victoria civic politics was a failed bid for a council seat in a by-election last year.

Mr. Brown says he got into that race because he was "irritated" over city hall's plans to replace an 87-year-old swing bridge – imaginatively known as the Blue Bridge. Mr. Brown placed sixth in the by-election, and Mr. Fortin won the referendum, held at the same time, on the bridge replacement plan.

Mr. Brown is now running for mayor with a slate of candidates under the banner of "Open Victoria."

"You can call us a political party but we don't have political leanings," Mr. Brown said in an interview. "The one thing that binds us is a desire to see more openness at city hall."

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His campaign has an 'end the gravy train' flavour to it, like Toronto mayor Rob Ford's pitch to voters, accusing city hall of overspending on salaries for both politicians and staff while deliberately keeping taxpayers in the dark about where their money goes.

Mr. Fortin says that residents are expecting more from city hall without having to pay higher taxes. "The biggest challenge is managing people's expectations. There is the demand for greater services, to take on more issues that have traditionally been a federal or provincial responsibility."

His solution is to grow the tax base by encouraging development, and later this week is expected to roll out an economic development plan to explain how he'll do that.

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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