An Empty Lot on Eric Street Holds the Key to the City

A clash between affordable housing advocates, community gardeners, & neighbours neatly illustrates the promises and perils of urban planning in St. John’s.

This week, a rezoning proposal goes to St. John’s City Council Committee of the Whole. It’s part of the Eric Street Affordable Home Ownership project, and if it goes ahead, a Habitat For Humanity housing development will be built over a community green space on Eric Street in downtown St. John’s.

The proposal has garnered controversy from the start. Some Eric Street residents are upset at losing a community space that’s hosted neighbourhood events for years, and is a rare green spot in the downtown core. There are also concerns from residents that an unidentified flooding problem in the area has been inadequately investigated by the City, and will be worsened by the development. Affordable housing proponents, for their part, are eager for the project to move forward as part of a push to increase urban density and address a growing affordable housing crisis in the city. Caught in between is a community garden, which may wind up benefiting from the proposed build, but has placed community gardeners in an awkward position between the two sides.

The contentious proposal defies easy solutions, but neatly illustrates many of the current controversies surrounding urban planning in St. John’s.

Building Affordable Homes

Habitat For Humanity NL got its start as Cabot Habitat in 1994, and in 2011 expanded to include the entire province. Affiliated with Habitat For Humanity Canada, the non-profit organization works to provide affordable housing in communities across the province.

What does that mean, exactly? The organization solicits donations of land from municipalities, and uses grants and private donations to build houses on that land. It then accepts applications from families who would not normally qualify for a mortgage. Habitat houses are not free to the families that move in—their financial capacity to pay is still reviewed and at best Habitat offers lower-cost, interest-free mortgages. Families moving into the homes are required to contribute 500 volunteer hours into the build.

“It’s not free homes,” Habitat NL Executive Director Sandra Whiffen emphasized to the Independent. “It’s homes that hard-working low-income families pay an affordable mortgage for, so it increases their strength, stability and independence through affordable home ownership.”

Habitat NL has produced 60 builds in the province over the past 25 years, with over half of them in St. John’s. They have also built houses in Mount Pearl, Paradise, St. Anthony, Labrador West, Clarenville, Happy Valley Goose Bay, Corner Brook, and Conception Bay South. Its most recent build in St. John’s was on McNeil Street.

“There’s a high need across the country,” Whiffen said. “Affordable housing has been an issue across the country, high rents and those kinds of things, so we work with the community to build homes.”

Eyeing Eric Street

In June 2018, Habitat For Humanity Executive Director Sandra Whiffen and Board Chair Colin Ryan met with Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O’Leary and Ward 2 Councillor Hope Jamieson, seeking to expand Habitat’s partnership with the City and inquire about possibilities for additional land donations. This was followed by a formal letter to the City on October 18, 2018, requesting support.

City staff identified four possible lots that might meet Habitat’s needs, which was for land “suitable for a duplex or 4-unit build.”

But it turns out that figuring out who owns land in St. John’s is not so simple—even for the City.

“The city owns all this land, but honestly we don’t know how much land we own because the city itself is so old,” Jamieson told the Independent. She resigned from Council in July 2020 and now works with the Community Housing Transformation Centre, a national not-for-profit. “So it’s a bit of labour for someone to go and identify—does the city own this? In some cases there’s been a recommendation that we expropriate from ourselves just to make sure that there’s clear title.”

The City’s Affordable Housing Strategy—a 10-year plan published in November 2018—identified the need for a land inventory, in order to determine precisely what land to which the City has title. It’s not an easy task according to Jamieson, who served as former housing lead when she was on Council.

“Doing the land inventory involved going around the city, physically looking on maps and going: well who owns that? Is it us? You would think that there would be a more robust cataloguing system, but because the infrastructure in the city is so old… nobody knows who owns it,” she explained. “So the city has to do the work of identifying that it does in fact own this land. It’s pretty admin heavy.”

The City knows which properties pay taxes, but that doesn’t offer a complete picture. Because the province doesn’t pay grants in lieu of property taxes, questions often arise about whether land belongs to the City or the province. Even once the City determines it owns the land, there are other considerations: figuring out whether the land has been earmarked for other projects, whether there are sewer or power easements that might pose problems, and other reasons that might render land inadvisable for a housing development. According to Jamieson, in the end, only the community green space on Eric Street site had clear enough title and potential for development.

With title determined, Jamieson submitted a recommendation to Council on April 11, 2019 to partner with Habitat for the Eric Street Affordable Housing Project. On May 15, 2019 Habitat submitted its partnership proposal and on May 29 Jamieson submitted it to Council. The partnership was approved to move forward. But this was just the first stage in a long series of steps.C

At this stage the City began consultations. It first reached out to the Eric Street Community Garden.

Although the 13-plot garden is located on the green space on Eric Street, most of the people using it are not actually residents of the street. Nevertheless, the City held meetings with the community gardeners, informed them about the proposal and made them a commitment to preserve the garden and invest $2500 of city funds into revitalizing it—subject to approval of the housing project.

At this stage, residents of Eric Street still hadn’t been informed about the proposal. This put the community gardeners in a difficult position.

Growing the Garden

On June 20, 2019, City staff had an informal meeting with the Eric Street Community Garden, with a follow-up meeting on July 17, where they explained the proposed Habitat build and discussed what role the Community Garden could play in the project.

The idea that emerged from those meetings was that if—and only if—the Eric Street Affordable Home Ownership Project was approved, the City would put $2500 (drawn from unused 2018 Housing Catalyst funds) into revitalizing the Garden. This would involve repairing beds, remedying the blocked sunlight that would be caused by the Habitat build, and more. The deal was that the community garden would stay and would be improved, but the remaining green space would be developed for the Habitat build. The Community Garden proposal was submitted to Council on August 30, 2019 “subject to the successful rezoning and development approval of the Habitat For Humanity Eric Street Affordable Home Ownership project.”

Andrew Harvey is one of the Eric Street community gardeners and attended those meetings. He acknowledges the difficulty of balancing out the various competing interests at play in the development.

“What I said at [those] meeting[s] was that, I’m very pro affordable housing, but I think that in that particular space, I think that everybody ought to get something out of that. The garden still ought to be able to operate there, the community should still be able to use that as an open space for kids to play and have barbecues and parties… I still haven’t actually seen any photos, I don’t know what any sort of proposal looks like.”

“They consulted us, the community garden, before they consulted people who lived on the street. So I encouraged them at that time to talk to the actual residents, which I don’t think they had done at that point. We could only give our opinions in terms of what sort of infrastructure would the garden need, which isn’t really about that [housing] development, except that it’s going to happen at the same time.”

Although Harvey doesn’t live on the street, his role with the community garden has allowed him to see how well the community uses the existing green space.

“Even during Snowmageddon it was amazing. There was a little fire pit in the middle and it was a really well used public space.”

Harvey says the Eric Street community garden has proven an exceptionally bounteous space over the years, and some gardeners have speculated whether the close proximity of the Labatt Brewery might have something to do with its fertility. In the past he and his partner have grown quinoa, tomatoes, kale, peas, corn and more on their plot. In a time of climate change and rising food insecurity, he said the city needs an even greater emphasis on community gardens.

“I think community gardens are extraordinarily important. They’re important in a community-building sense, in that they bring neighbours together. We’ve had some really cool end-of-season barbecues where we get everyone from the community to come and they’re sharing food and talking about growing food, and we’ve done seed swaps down at the garden. I think it’s really critical and that’s exactly the sort of really small-scale type of community building that also has a really important impact on individual food security, and on bringing people together and encouraging people to grow their own food and be more sustainable.”

Mary Carroll, a former resident of Shaw Street in the neighbourhood, agrees. She was so incensed when she heard about the proposed Eric Street development that she circulated a petition in the MapleWood Seniors’ Apartment Complex where she was living at the time. Having grown up in Clarke’s Beach, she says she recognized the importance of having green space nearby, especially for other seniors who grew up in rural communities and now find themselves living in supportive housing in the city.

“I lived on a farm all my life,” she told the Independent. “To me we here in Newfoundland especially have to learn how to sustain. To me it was amazing that people could go there and have their little plot and grow what they want, give it away to the neighbours and if you’re not using it, give it. That’s what it’s all about.”

Consulting the Wider Community

Having met with the community gardeners—but not residents of the street—and gotten City approval for the $2500 subject to the rest of the project going ahead, planning continued apace. City staff produced a letter to go out to residents of the street informing them of the proposal. The letter was dropped off at Canada Post on Friday, September 20, 2019 to be delivered to residents on Monday September 23, with a media release announcing the project to go out that same afternoon.

Less than 24 hours later, complaints began coming in. Some of the residents complained at not having received the letter and only learning about the project on the news. Others were upset they had not been informed or consulted at an earlier stage of the planning process.

When to involve residents in planning is one of the issues in contention. Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O’Leary, who took over as housing lead following Jamieson’s resignation, is adamant that projects need to reach a certain stage of advancement before public consultations happen.

“There’s no done deal here at all,” O’Leary told the Independent. “It has to come to council, we need to see the ramifications about this particular space before we can even make any decision on it, and so that it has to go to a public engagement. Anything can happen in these circumstances. But the reality is that we need to have all of the information before we can even have the discussion.”

What concerns some residents is the sheer amount of time and effort that’s already been invested in the project: two years of work by city and Habitat staff, surveys and engineering work, legal work, and more. They feel that with so much time and resources already invested into the project, it’s unlikely that they’ll get a fair chance to debate its future when it comes their turn to do so. It would have been better, they argue, if a discussion with them had happened at the outset before any time, money or resources were put into the project. They’re also upset that the City held multiple meetings with the community gardeners, who don’t live on the street, before even informing residents of the proposal.

“I was pretty disappointed in the way it was portrayed, as this beautiful wrapped up package with everybody on board, cooperating,” Christina Steele-Nash, one of the Eric Street residents, told the Independent. She says she first heard about the project on the news.

“I felt it was really deceptive and manipulative the way it came across and the language around it, that it was an A-plus home run for everybody, when it wasn’t everybody. It was disappointing. It felt like the community garden space were consulted and used as a way of saying the neighbourhood was all game for it, when that’s really deceptive, because the community garden people are not residents on the street, mainly, or in the neighbourhood. They’re from other parts of town. So it was a bit disheartening.”

Ultimately though it is the order of consultations that angers her.

“I think you see, even with other projects that are happening around the City, such as the Battery project, I know they’re trying really hard,” Steele-Nash acknowledged. “And there are some councillors down there that are trying really hard to make this engagement process work. But it doesn’t. It just does not work. It makes people frustrated, it feels like from a taxpayer, constituent point of view—like they have their minds made up already and they’re just ticking the box to say they’re engaging with you.”

“You can even see that in their internal flow chart—constituent engagement happens after every single other step has been gone through. It’s not engagement. It’s a veil of engagement, really.”

Faced with an unexpected push-back from residents, the City organized two back-to-back information sessions for residents: one on October 16, 2019 and a follow-up session on February 24, 2020.

Ed Moore also lives on Eric Street, and shares Steele-Nash’s concerns about the engagement process.

“We were kind of taken aback by the council,” Moore told the Independent. “We’re the taxpayers, you’d think they would [consult us]. We had some meetings, yes, with the council, but they were just meetings where they said these are the stages, and when it gets to this point—finally when the council says this is a good idea, we all like this—only then do they have a public meeting.”

“We’re saying it’s too late then! The public meeting should have been before the idea was even spun! That’s the time for a public meeting, not after all the approvals have been gone through.”

It’s a swamp basically”

Residents are also concerned about a recurring problem with flooding that’s been associated with the green space. They’re worried about the impact the development may have on exacerbating the water problem, especially if trees and greenery that presently absorb the water are removed.

They’re also worried that if the City does not adequately determine the source of the flooding and rectify it, then the residents who eventually move into the unit will be the ones forced to deal with the problem.

“It’s becoming increasingly worse,” Natalie Falk, an Eric Street resident, told the Independent. “Right now [mid-October] if you walk over in the field, you’ll probably go in up to your ankles in water on the community garden side. Earlier in the summer I reported that there was actually raw sewer coming up to the surface of the field. After about two months, and a house out here getting flooded backed up with sewer, they did fix it, but there’s still issues over there. And there’s still excess water, which the city calls standing water, but they can’t identify the source of the water.”

Water near the Eric Street Community Garden. Photo submitted by Natalie Falk.

“It doesn’t seem prudent to me that they do a housing development while there’s still issues with the field that have been unidentified,” she continued. “It seems that [the City] is gifting a dud piece of land to a non-profit organization, and they won’t do any environmental testing of the water in the field. So we’re still not sure really what the situation is in terms of potential toxins or pollutants. That doesn’t seem right to me.”

According to documents obtained by the Independent through an Access to Information request, city engineers did investigate the water complaints earlier this summer.

“It appears that this ground water issue has been ongoing for a long time and there have been several attempts to address this issue,” wrote Jason Phillips, Manager of Infrastructure with the City’s Department of Public Works, in an email on July 8, 2020. “We recommend that the site development drawings include a plan to address this ground water issue. We tested the water in the excavation and discovered that the water coming from the west side of the property contained chlorine, which indicates a possible water leak in the area. Upon investigation we have discovered a possible leak on Richmond Street however we need to conduct further investigation to determine the exact source.”

As for reports of sewage leaks, City staff reported that they had accidentally damaged sewage pipes themselves while conducting the initial investigation, and that may have been the source of the reported sewage. But they also indicated they only tested the water for chlorine, and that further investigation needed to be done.

What concerns residents is when—and if—that further investigation will be done.

“If there are water issues identified there, they would have to be addressed prior to the development happening and would be the responsibility of the developer,” says Deputy Mayor O’Leary. “So in this case it would be Habitat for Humanity. Unless it’s something city related. But if there’s issues in particular on that property, that would have to be addressed in the build, and in the reconstruction, because it’s of no benefit to leave that if the proposal were to go through. How would that be a benefit to Habitat for Humanity, to be building houses for people who are in need of affordable living, to be building houses that are going to have water issues? That doesn’t make sense really.”

“This is still in the planning department,” she continued. “So once that comes forward to the committee of the whole, then we will have all that information that has been submitted by Habitat, the studies, the engineering studies, all the rest of that information. So we can have a healthy discussion about any impact, and then, once we have all the information gathered, then we go to public consultation.”

The proposal has gone to Committee of the Whole this week, but it’s unclear whether the water problem has been resolved. Instead, the concerns have been flagged in the rezoning proposal, with a recommendation “that the developer address this issue at the development approval stage.”

According to the ATIPPed documents, City staff revised an information update on the proposed build to remove a section stating that an environmental assessment would need to be conducted.

“The City would not normally require an environment impact statement unless it’s required under the Environment Assessment Act. Habitat can complete the assessment, but it is not required,” says an editing note on the draft update.

Ken O’Brien, Chief Municipal Planner with the City, stated in an email on July 23, 2020 that “if the City felt that there might be environmental hazards here, we would carry out environmental work to determine it. At 28 Eric Street [the green space], we did not feel that there are environmental hazards.”

As part of its proposal, Habitat has requested and received permission to conduct what’s known as a Phase 1 Environmental Survey. This allows them to search through records for any indication of past or present environmental problems. But that won’t necessarily resolve the question of the flooding and standing water.

The fact that the water problem remains unresolved and keeps being pushed forward to a future stage of the project—even as the proposal itself steadily moves forward—makes residents deeply uncomfortable about whether it will actually ever be addressed to their satisfaction.

“I don’t feel that we’re getting a straight answer, it was kind of like an exercise in humiliation,” Falk told the Independent. “There’s something not right. In my opinion I strongly feel that they just want to get rid of the land and pass the buck to somebody else. Which is only going to create worse problems in the neighbourhood. Once the structures are built, it’s going to be too late then.

“If Habitat for Humanity is accountable for [the environmental assessment], they’re not accountable to me,” she continued. “So we really feel strongly that [it] should be the city’s work, and that the land should be at some kind of a standard before they gift it, and any issues should be rectified before they gift it.”

“The problem in the land is, it’s soaking wet,” Moore told the Independent. “It’s a bog. It’s not usable. One end of it is usable, but it’s a very small part. The other part is a swamp basically.”

“[Council] go to the media and everything is about low-income housing, and I’m thinking those poor people—you’re giving them a bog to build a house on! And then they’re responsible to keep it up! These are people that you’re saying don’t have much income, and now you’re going to screw them!”

Saving Downtown Green Space

Residents have flagged concerns with water, as well as concerns about the traffic implications of a build. (City staff responded that the traffic congestion impact of the build would be “insignificant.”)

But the bigger concern for everyone is losing a community green space.

“We’ve always used it for birthday parties,” Steele-Nash told the Independent. “It was always good when the kids were small because it wasn’t required play on playground equipment, it was free-range space. Now that they’re a bit older we tend to use it for playing with the dog, or volleyball, or in the winter-time we’ll do sliding or make forts or whatever. We use it as a family.”

Some of the complaint letters received by the City—accessed via ATIPP request—also questioned the rationale for paving over a green space to create affordable housing.

“One minute we are being told to save the earth, recycle, grow your own food, raise your own food, etc etc,” stated one anonymized letter. “Then the next minute we are being stripped of the little free and green space we have living in the downtown area.”

“It’s a huge loss,” Falk told the Independent. “We go over there regularly and use it as an open space. There’s a playground up the road that they’re saying we should be using as an alternate, but I mean there’s syringes up there and if you love your kids you don’t take them there.”

Falk noted the space receives use from residents of a nearby seniors’ complex as well.

“I really feel strongly that any development within the city should not come with the destruction of other places,” she continued. “You’re going to kill a lovely green space that we use all the time, and you’re going to put in a housing project when we don’t know what the issues are with the land because you won’t do the testing on it. It just doesn’t make sense.”

As soon as the project was announced, some residents formed a West End Community Association to fight it and raise awareness about their concerns. They also created an online petition which has generated 449 signatures thus far.

A “little piece of heaven”

Dinah Goodyear is a resident of nearby Richmond Street, but uses the green space regularly with her two children, aged four and five.

“My children love that space. They call it ‘the secret garden,’” Goodyear told the Independent. “It’s the enchanted garden. They’re knocking on the trees looking for fairies. That’s their little piece of heaven. It’s the perfect little space. It’s fresh air. It’s so pretty. You want your children to have that. And [the City] just want to take it away.”

“There’s other parks, but I don’t drive, so how am I supposed to walk so much further with two small children? And you can only pull so much weight in a wagon.”

She also points out that like many other downtown residents, she has no real backyard. The neighbourhood green space serves that function for her children.

“No one really has any land around here,” Goodyear said. “I don’t really have a backyard. I live in an older style home on a sidewalk with a driveway. I don’t have a lawn. That [green space] is our backyard.”

“It’s not that I don’t want the housing, but why put it there? There’s lots of other land everywhere. You’re taking something so beautiful away from everybody. Why do you want to take something away from us when we use it?”

Shrinking Downtown Green Space

While the Eric Street proposal would help advance the City’s Affordable Housing Strategy, it in fact clashes with other City initiatives like the City of St. John’s Parks and Open Space Master Plan (published in 2014). That plan used benchmarks set by the National Recreation and Parks Association to analyze the amount of green space and ‘tot lots’ by population density. Ward 2’s performance was the worst in the city, meaning the farthest below nationally recommended benchmarks for green space.

“The NRPA benchmark indicates that Ward Two’s 21,450 residents require approximately 8.6 hectares of tot lot; however, the Ward hosts 5.3 hectares or approximately 40% less than the benchmark,” states the report. “Ward Two’s community park space exists at 2.8 hectares while the benchmark suggests a 42.9 hectare requirement. This suggests that the ward community park space exists at approximately 7% of benchmark.”

The Plan goes on to note that Ward 2 developed during a period when green space was not valued, and that a greater emphasis was placed on building larger, stand-alone municipal parks. When this issue arose in internal correspondence among City staff over the Eric Street proposal, a similar justification for building over the green space was provided.

“Tot lots are being phased out in various areas where a duplication exists within the service radius of a larger scale park. There is no loss of play space,” concluded City staff in a May 14, 2020 email obtained through ATIPP. Their analysis cited other local parks—the McKay Street Open Space, Brother Egan Park, Victoria Park, and Mundy Pond Park—all existing within an 80 to 725 metre distance of Eric Street.

But for residents of Eric Street, being told to go to other, more distant parks doesn’t make up for losing their own neighbourhood green space. Steele-Nash, Moore, and other opponents of the project say that residents of other parts of the city ought to be concerned because their green spaces might be targeted next for housing builds.

“For me it’s the loss of the green space,” Steele-Nash told the Independent. “There are a million different issues, but for me I just feel that there’s no going back from that. You see Councillors going to these Save the Planet Climate Change marches and yet the next week turn around and say ‘We’re going to cut down all these trees.’ It’s just a bit frustrating, it’s very frustrating, because it feels very not forward-thinking.”

“I just want to make sure that it gets across to people that this is the very first of a ten year [St. John’s Affordable Housing] project, and if they’re coming after this green space, yours could be next.”

Steele-Nash’s concerns may be well-founded. At the September 30, 2020 meeting of City Council’s Committee of the Whole, Deputy Mayor O’Leary moved an unusual motion to amend the reporting process for the city’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee. Normally the Committee’s minutes and agendas—like those of other Advisory Committees—are posted publicly on the City website. O’Leary’s motion aimed at increasing confidentiality surrounding future affordable housing proposals by no longer posting publicly accessible agendas or minutes of that Committee.

The motion to cut off public access was unanimously approved. This means residents of neighbourhoods targeted for future builds may receive even less notice than residents on Eric Street.

“We feel there is legitimate reason to stop [reporting publicly] based on premature disclosures, intergovernmental issues, the risk to potential partnerships and policy issues,” reads the motion. “Once an initiative and/or project under the City’s 10-year Affordable Housing Strategy is ready to move forward, it will be presented to Council for approval thus eliminating any concerns [regarding] transparency.”

A Minister’s Home Turf

Tom Osborne is Minister of Education—as well as MHA for the district of Waterford Valley, which includes Eric Street. He lived on Eric Street for thirteen years, directly across from the green space in question.

He looks back on his time there fondly, and is upset to think that the community could lose it.

“The children on the street would use it frequently,” Osborne recalled to the Independent. “We had neighbourhood block parties where we would use it, every year we had a block party. There was a couple of times we had live bands playing there, and had a dance for the neighbourhood. It’s a nice space.”

Even then there was a water problem, he recalled. They dealt with it by placing wooden planks over boggy areas if they were having a block party after it had rained. He said it was important to the residents’ sense of community to have access to a large green space.

“There were so many memories there for people. So many memories from the neighbourhood.”

Osborne moved to a larger residence in the district as his family grew. These days the neighbourhood block parties have also moved to another locale in the district, since they’ve grown to incorporate bouncy castles, barbecues and other items that require larger power generators.

But Osborne feels it would be a shame for the district to lose the much-loved green space on Eric Street. He’s been treading carefully, he said, because he doesn’t want to step on the City’s jurisdictional toes, so to speak. And he’s quick to emphasize that he respects the work Habitat does.

“It’s competing interests,” he reflected. Osborne acknowledged the need for affordable housing. He tried to work a compromise for his constituents by finding an analogous-sized property that was part of the former Grace Hospital site, but the City rejected his proposal of a land swap. He said they told him that the Eric Street project was too advanced.

But very little had actually been approved at that stage. According to internal communications obtained by the Independent through an Access to Information request, city staff argued that “a land swap is not a suitable alternative and would set a precedent for all future affordable housing projects facing NIMBYism.”

But for Osborne, NIMBY wasn’t the issue.

“I didn’t want to see the neighbourhood lose that space, because it’s such a valuable space for the neighbourhood,” he said. “The other site wasn’t what I call a green space with trees and shrubs. When you lose a green space it’s difficult to replace it.”

NIMBYism? Or Saving Green Space?

This wasn’t the first time the spectre of ‘NIMBYism’ has arisen in conjunction with the Eric Street proposal.

The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH) Homeless Hub explains that NIMBY is “an acronym for ‘Not In My Backyard.'” It describes the phenomenon in which residents of a neighbourhood designate a new development (e.g. shelter, affordable housing, group home) or change in occupancy of an existing development as inappropriate or unwanted for their local area.

“The opposition to affordable, supportive or transitional housing is usually based on the assumed characteristics of the population that will be living in the development,” the COH explains. “Common arguments are that there will be increases in crime, litter, thefts, violence and that property taxes will decrease. The benefits for the residents of the development are often ignored.”

The City of St. John’s has worked proactively to confront NIMBYism in recent years. The City launched a “NIMBY Toolkit” in February 2020 and in November it launched an Affordable Housing promotional campaign that was centred in many ways on tackling NIMBY.

With a development proposal like the one on Eric Street, supporters have been quick to label opponents as guilty of NIMBYism. But is it NIMBY? Or is it a sincere desire to preserve a rare green space in a residential neighbourhood?

One of the core issues is how the community has been involved in decision-making. Residents are upset they were not consulted from an early stage. For their part, City officials say that consultation can only happen once a project is sufficiently advanced to warrant it.

There’s a clear disconnect between those who feel resident consultation should be the first step, and those who feel it’s a later part of an ongoing bureaucratic process.

Residents worry that under the current system, by the time a project is sufficiently advanced to warrant public consultation, the momentum and time and money invested in the project is such that it’s very difficult to slow down or stop it.

Hope Jamieson acknowledges that the City’s approach to community engagement needs to change.

“If I may be honest, I think we set ourselves up for failure a little bit,” she told the Independent. “The development process as it currently exists—as it’s set up in the regulations—is adversarial by nature. By the time people get a chance to really opine on a development it’s at a stage where they feel like nothing can change. It’s either a straight yes or no. Not a ‘Yes, if…’ or a ‘No, but….’”

“There’s a lot of work to be done around developers and proponents of affordable housing putting in work on the backend before any shovels go in the ground, before any architectural drawings get made, to reach out to the community and discuss with neighbours,” she continued. “Considering the development process and how that could involve the voices of community is a good way to [deal] with NIMBY. There’s a way that you can mitigate people’s responses to feeling blindsided by [being told]: ‘This is getting built in your backyard and we don’t care.’ Because I think that’s how people feel even when it’s not necessarily how things are.”

“You often hear too from developers, ‘Well we’ve already paid this much for the architectural drawings so we’re not going to change them now.’ What is the point in having an engagement process when you’re already there, and it has to be a yes or a no?”

Jamieson feels there are ways to rethink how public consultations are done in the context of development. She’s seen examples from other jurisdictions where project managers have substantive ‘kitchen table meetings’ with neighbours at an early stage and incorporate their input into the initial development proposal. She’s seen cases where developers invite community members to early visioning sessions where they ask neighbours what they would like to see in projects, and find ways to incorporate ideas that benefit the existing community.

“It’s incumbent on people who are working in this area, to try and bring people to the table early and often,” she explained. “There’s relationship building that goes on, because it’s not just that the building is built and now we’re done. There has to be an ongoing relationship because these individuals are now going to live side by side going forward, so it does behoove us all to build those relationships early and tend to them and maintain them.”

Affordable Housing: A City in Crisis

St. John’s represents a unique set of circumstances when it comes to the housing market. The vacancy rate for residential properties is the second highest in the country at 7.2 percent according to Statscan data. The national average is 1 percent, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

Normally when supply exceeds demand like it does in St. John’s, this would mean more choice for renters. But as housing prices have dropped precipitously in recent years, landlords have been unable or unwilling to offer rentals at affordable prices.

“We’re in a funny place where supply exceeds demand, but prices are not coming down,” Jamieson explained. “The market is not responding the way that we expect markets to. What we have is a mismatch of supply to demand, and a lack of housing units that meet the benchmark for affordability in our city.”

According to the City’s 2019 Housing Needs Assessment, more than a quarter of households in the City were spending over 30 percent of household income on housing, the standard measure of housing affordability. Jamieson says over 10,000 households, representing almost ten percent of the City’s population, are in core housing need.

“That’s an unacceptably high number as far as I’m concerned,” Jamieson said. “So if you think about what the potential opportunities could be for vacant land, it could be redeveloped into something that could serve the community a little better.”

A lot of the city’s affordable public housing was built at a time when the norm was large families with three or four children. Today’s affordable housing need comes mostly from older single adults, as well as single parent families. It’s difficult to adapt older housing into apartments for single adults because most of those houses have only one bathroom. Houses with multiple flights of stairs can also pose problems for older adults.

“We’re in a funny position here because what exists, not just in terms of straight affordability but in terms of the actual size and shape of the available housing stock, is so different from what the populations who are in need of affordable housing require,” Jamieson explained. “It’s a costly renovation to build accessible housing and housing for single individuals out of what we’ve got now. And it’s not just us, this is a problem in a lot of places throughout Canada… the demand far, far outstrips the supply.”

“It’s not just about units either. It’s also about supports that allow people to maintain housing once they acquire it. There’s a lot of pieces of the puzzle involved here beyond just bricks and mortar. There’s also the human elements of what allows a person to stay and have a successful life in a housing unit.”

According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), the living wage in St. John’s is $18.85 an hour. That’s defined as “the hourly rate at which a household can meet its basic needs, once government transfers have been added to the family’s income and deductions have been subtracted (such as income taxes and Employment Insurance premiums).”

“If you think about all the jobs that pay less than $18 an hour, they are many,” Jamieson noted. “Those are your folks who are finding themselves in core housing need. That’s a lot of people in your neighbourhood. It’s important to think about the people you interact with on a daily basis, like the people who work at the grocery store where you buy your food, or the people that you interact with on your walk to work, and how many of those people fall into that demographic.”

Income alone doesn’t define housing affordability, she continued. Apartments and houses located farther from the city centre are often cheaper than those in the urban core, but they require residents to have a car, with all the additional expenses that entails. That’s one of the things that makes the Eric Street location so desirable: it’s in the heart of the urban downtown core.

“That’s a major issue,” Jamieson said. “It’s not just are we meeting our benchmarks in terms of increasing the amount of affordable housing that exists, but are we increasing it in a way that increases these other costs for people? If you’re building affordable housing in a place where there’s no food and no transit, that’s going to cause some issues.”

The number of older adults, single parent families, and people with complex needs (including but not limited to mobility needs) who are in need of affordable housing continues to grow at a rapid pace, Jamieson warned.

“If you think about the age of our population and the rate at which [it] is aging, this is a tsunami of need that’s going to hit us before we know it.”

According to Jamieson, thinking urgently needs to change around whose responsibility it is to deal with the affordable housing crisis. Solutions will require cooperation at federal, provincial and municipal levels.

“Affordable housing is all of our responsibility,” she said. “The mindset is starting to shift. There are lots of people who still think that it’s a provincial responsibility, but a lot of the people we see really knocking things out of the park in terms of innovation in affordable housing in Canada right now are municipalities. There’s a big push coming from municipalities from the ground up, and an understanding that affordable housing is a fundamental part of the foundation of any city.”

“If your city doesn’t have space where people can afford to live, then you don’t have a whole lot going on, right? It’s really important for us all to recognize that all levels of government have a part to play in this.”

Given the fiscal crisis that both city and province are facing in a place like Newfoundland and Labrador, Jamieson said there’s a need to think creatively about how to meet the growing demand. That’s why she’s such a strong advocate for projects like the Eric Street development. If the City doesn’t have dollars to contribute to tackling the affordable housing crisis, it can contribute what it does have—land—to organizations like Habitat that are able to access a range of funds (including private donations) in order to build affordable housing.

“If they were going to bulldoze the community garden and build a ten unit complex over the whole thing, I would think that was a bad idea,” she conceded. “But half of that lot is going to stay as it is and remain for public use. It’s not the entire green space that is going to be lost. Some of that green space will turn into houses for people, and some of the green space will remain there for the community.”

Affordable Housing is the Foundation for Livable Communities

Jamieson now works with the Community Housing Transformation Centre (CHTC), an entity that was created out of the National Housing Strategy. Their broad-based goal is to promote innovation in community housing through a variety of funds and support the CHTC provides to community organizations.

“If you think about what it means to live in a neighbourhood, if everyone is in a place where they have safe and secure housing, then you have a community which has much more harmony within it,” she said. “If people are not in a place where they’re having to constantly fight to survive, everyone feels safer and more at ease.”

She points out there’s an economic case for affordable housing too: when people can’t afford housing, it also means they can’t afford recreational activities, dance lessons for their kids, or shopping in local independent stores.

“It’s not just about social harmony,” Jamieson noted. “When people are in core housing need, it means there’s more pressure on social services, on food banks, on all of these things that we all pay for collectively. Affordable housing is really the fundamental building block of taking pressure off social assistance. It’s so much cheaper to keep someone housed when they’re already housed, than it is to deal with the homelessness of a person.”

“I hate that we have to make the economic argument for human dignity, but if you think about the cost to each and every individual in the community, it makes much more sense for people to have affordable housing available to them than for us to have to deal with the ramifications of [the alternative].”

As Goes Eric Street, So Goes the City of St. John’s

The Eric Street Affordable Home Ownership project is representative of a dilemma the city may face more of in years to come. On the one hand is a very clear crisis in affordable housing. But on the other is a neighbourhood facing the loss of a beloved green space that’s played an intrinsic role in residents’ sense of community over the years.

The passion felt by advocates like Jamieson for the Habitat build is undeniable. But so is the passion for their community that’s driving opponents of the project.

“I’d like to retain the space and remediate the space and have a little picnic table and maybe even a swing set or something, just to add to it,” Falk told the Independent. “I’d like to do a little consultation within the community to see what they would want. It’d be really nice to have a couple of benches over there, and a garbage can for dog poop and stuff like that. But we were told by the City workers that the City has no intentions to do anything over there because they have no money.”

Moore told the Independent that if it’s a matter of money, residents would be happy to pitch in to look after the space.

“Our goal is to say to the city, why don’t you take it and turn it over to the community,” he said. “Obviously fix the problem to some point, put a drain or something in so you can walk around on the field, and leave it to the community! They don’t have to send this guy in on a ride-on tractor every week to mow the grass. The neighbours will mow the grass and rake it up. Put a drum there for garbage, we’ll pull it out to the garbage truck when it comes. The neighbours will look after it.”

“Forget about donating the land and getting your picture taken, just leave it for the community.”

Steele-Nash agrees.

“Quite frankly I don’t want houses there,” she said. “I don’t know if there’s a middle zone for me at all. And that’s not me being difficult—there’s other places to build up, we even helped them find one.”

“The community spirit that we have around here is going to be different [if the space is lost]. That community spirit will definitely disappear.”

Goodyear, meanwhile, says it’s her young children who worry most about the outcome of City Council’s decision, and that they’re following the campaign very closely.

“They worry about it all the time. It’s sad,” Goodyear told the Independent. “My children ask about it constantly: ‘Is this going to happen? Why? Why are they doing this? Where will we go? Can we still play there? Can we have picnics?’”

“No matter whether somebody wants to put a big mansion there or low-income housing, it’s still wrong and it’s not fair to any of us. I love that space. It means a lot to everybody in this area.”

Main Photo: the Eric Street Green Space. Submitted by Natalie Falk.

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