CBRM Council Approves Rapid Housing Project

Let’s focus on the good news: CBRM council has approved a project for funding under the federal government’s Rapid Housing Initiative (RHI).

Council took time out of its budget discussions on April 5 to approve a joint proposal from New Dawn and the Ally Centre of Cape Breton to build 24 supportive housing units on the corner of Charlotte and York Streets in the North End of Sydney. The units are intended for people with mental illness and/or addictions issues.

The application was one of four submitted to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) for vetting by council, which, let’s not forget, voted on March 7 to reject staff’s recommendation that it approve a joint proposal  from New Dawn and the Ally Centre of Cape Breton to build 24 supportive housing units for people with mental illness and/or addictions issues.

An artist's rendering of a housing project.

Sketch of New Dawn/Ally Centre RHI project by DORA Construction.


Initially, the development was proposed for Stuart Street off Mira Road which triggered immediate “not-in-my-backyard” alarms in the council chambers although it also, as New Dawn CEO Erika Shea told the Post, represented a less-than-ideal location for its future residents, given its distance from the downtown core. (Shea was clear, though, that it was chiefly the NIMBY backlash that prompted the change in location.)

The four applications received by the CBRM were from New Dawn/Ally Centre, Halifax-based Soul’s Harbour Rescue Mission, Glace Bay’s Town House Citizens Service League and Joneljim Construction. The order in which I’ve listed them is, as it happens, the order in which they were ranked by the CMHC in terms of meeting RHI criteria. CBRM CAO Marie Walsh said no one project met all the program criteria but the New Dawn/Ally Centre’s proposal came the closest and will now be formally submitted to the CMHC as the CBRM’s chosen project.

Council continued its tradition of withholding basic information from the public during that April 5 meeting—District 2 Councilor Earlene MacMullin tried to have the CAO give a run-down of the pros and cons of the four proposals, as per the CMHC’s review, but this wasn’t permitted, apparently on the grounds that it didn’t qualify as discussion on the motion.


Real pros

And that brings us to the bad news, which is that council doesn’t seem to have learned anything from this experience.

Consider Councilor Eldon MacDonald. He voted for the project on April 5 but not before informing us that “every single call” he’d received after the initial negative vote was “supportive” of council’s decision. (Mind you, he did not say how many calls he’d received.) He then asked Planning Director Michael Ruus that burning question, when dealing with housing your community’s most vulnerable residents: will the new project be in keeping with the North End’s designation as a “heritage district” and is it “mandatory” for the proponents “to follow the heritage design concepts and embellishments or design standards?”

Ruus said he didn’t believe the property was registered as a heritage property and therefore such “standards” would not apply.

I looked up the relevant information and discovered that back in 2004, when the CBRM began discussing the creation of a Heritage Conservation District in the North End, the Congregation of Notre Dame, “owners of a convent, school and other properties located at 170 George Street,” wished to be excluded from it. This opposition “by the Congregation and its supporters” intensified to the point where, in 2006, council passed a Secondary Planning Strategy for the North End but scrapped the plans for a heritage district. Work began again in early 2007 and on 19 February 2008, the heritage district was approved after the boundaries were altered:

…so as to exclude the Congregation of Notre Dame property at 170 George Street and several properties that were within the proposed District in May, 2006.

According to the amended Secondary Land Use Plan for Sydney’s North End, these properties now sit within the Arts and Culture Centre (ACC) Zone in which “apartment buildings” are actually the only form of residential construction permitted.

I was going to ask why councilors never seem to just look things up, but of course, this was not Councilor Eldon MacDonald seeking information, this was Councilor Eldon MacDonald being seen publicly raising “concerns” fed to him by some of his constituents.

Councilor MacMullin voted in favor of the project but took the opportunity immediately afterward to address these very stern remarks to the gallery:

Madame Mayor, I am going to take this opportunity to say that [pause] I am very happy that a housing unit is coming, I’m very happy that you guys [apparently referencing New Dawn and the Ally Centre] are ready and it’s shovel ready. I’m ecstatic that that is going to take place and I thank you for all your work. At the same time, I do want to make an acknowledgement that I personally, and I will not speak for mayor and council, but did not appreciate behaviors that were shown over the last couple of weeks in particular at our last meeting. I found those behaviors to be ignorant and unprofessional and I will not tolerate them again and I just had to put it out there because I sat silent for a couple of days, a couple of weeks, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed, the behavior that took place in chambers, in the media, and I just want people to note that sometimes decisions are made… and they’re in the best interest of the people and that’s who continually will take first place in the decisions of this council and the community. But I think on a go-forward, professionalism is extremely important. And I just wanted to put that out there.

The real victim here, as always, is our poor, misunderstood council, which has been giving a master class in professionalism these past few weeks—really, newly elected officials across the province should be made to watch that March 10 meeting during which councilors blamed everyone under the sun (“Shame on CMHC“) except themselves for their inability to cope with a $5 million windfall.

But I think the most disheartening comment of all came from District 1 Councilor Gordon MacDonald who said “we’re hoping there’s more [funding] coming, whether we ask for it or not, it may fall in our lap.”

I’m going to go ahead and predict that no more funding will be “falling” into our councilors’ “laps.” I think they’ve made it abundantly clear they are unable to cope with that.

But council might, you know, get its ducks in order and apply for RHI funding for these other projects. The mayor seemed to suggest this was a possibility, noting that the “good thing” about this episode was that “we know there are tons of organizations in the community that are doing this good work and we can work with them to prepare for the next round as well.”

If only they had made that discovery in say, 2020, when the RHI program was launched.