Social housing project clears public hearing

The plan to build two social housing projects in the light industrial area to the east of the city's downtown drew unanimous support from city council following a public hearing on Monday night.

Slated for a 1.7-hectare (4.3-acre) site at the corner of First Avenue and Ontario Street, currently the home of NR Motors, it is to hold a building containing 50 units of supportive housing and one holding 50 units of rental homes for low-income people.

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Each building is to include ground-floor healthcare space that would house a needle exchange and safe injection site, community outreach and mental health services and primary care for both residents and the public.

BC Housing is to lead construction, while Northern Health will provide the services and the city will purchase the land for a price to be made public once the transaction is completed.

Predicated on a strategy of putting at-risk people in stable, supported housing, it is also part of a grander plan to deal with the social ills that have marked the downtown. At the same meeting, council also approved a $1.4-million package of measures aimed at addressing the issue.

In speaking in favour, council members acknowledge the concerns raised about traffic safety, the potential impact on crime in the area and generally whether it's the right site for the project.

"It's not the perfect location but there's never the perfect location," Coun. Garth Frizzell said. "What we do have here is a location where the benefits dramatically outweigh the drawbacks."

Coun. Murry Krause said he has been an advocate for this type of facility for a very long time and noted he was among the council members who traveled to Portland, Ore. in 2008 to get a look at the so-called housing first program in that city.

"I saw a facility in Portland that had a medical centre and all of the support services onsite with housing above it," Krause said. "I thought 'this is exactly what Prince George needs and this is probably what every community needs to really meet the needs of the people who live on the street.'"

In answer to a question from one person who spoke at the hearing, Ian Wells, the city's general manager of planning and development, said there should be no problem filling up the buildings.

"We have people living in shelter beds permanently that shouldn't be living in shelters," Wells said. "They should be transitioning to the next stage and that's what this about, to move them through the transitions."

The related rezoning bylaw and official community plan amendment for the site remain subject to final reading, likely to occur at the next city council meeting in two weeks.

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