More than a year after rejecting it, Surrey council has reconsidered – and approved first and second readings for – UNITI’s inclusive housing project, Harmony, in South Surrey.
As promised by incumbent Mayor Doug MacCallum at a Sept. 28 Surrey mayoral all-candidates forum, the project was an 11th-hour addition to the agenda of the Oct. 3 council meeting – the last scheduled before the municipal election on Oct. 15.
The project will now move forward to appear at a public hearing on Nov. 28, set to begin at 7 p.m..
The project, proposed by UNITI (a partnership of Semiahmoo House Society, Peninsula Estates Housing Society and the Semiahmoo Foundation) for land it owns in the 15100-block of 20 Avenue, would create a six-storey building offering 91-units of below-market housing.
It is intended as a follow-up to the organization’s award-winning Chorus Apartments project, also in South Surrey. Like it, the building would house a blend of tenants – including people with disabilities, seniors and other lower-income renters.
UNITI CEO Doug Tennant said that representatives of “all levels of government” have described the inclusive proposal as a model project for affordable housing – both in Surrey and elsewhere.
But after a lengthy public hearing on July 27, 2021 – in which the majority of speakers approved of the project – it was rejected by McCallum and the Safe Surrey majority on council, with only Couns. Brenda Locke, Jack Hundial and Steven Pettigrew voting in favour (Coun. Linda Annis recused herself from the vote).
Tennant said it had been confusing that no reasons for the negative votes were given at that time, other than a subsequent statement to Peace Arch News from Coun. Laurie Guerra that she felt UNITI was unwilling to compromise on the height of the building, and that some nearby residents had expressed concerns that the plan was not in keeping with the character of the neighborhood.
Locke, speaking before the passage of first and second readings, said she was glad to see the proposal back before council.
“I’m just kind of ashamed that it took an election to get it to this place,” she said.
“I think it is unfortunate, though, and I know this massive delay has cost the good people of UNITI a great deal of money, for which some of us at this table can take responsibility.”
Tennant acknowledged the delay has been costly for the organization, but said he is confident it will be able to move forward rapidly, if the project receives final approval on Nov. 28.
“It is a process of us starting our engines up again – fortunately very little has changed in the plan since the last time,” he said.
“It’s also a matter of us reconnecting with BC Housing, who promised to hold their part of our funding until after the election, for which we’re very grateful.
“It is going to cost significantly more…but UNITI will find a way to make sure this happens,” he added. “We own the land, which is fortunate, and we have supporters who have helped us before.”
McCallum had toured the Chorus Apartments a few days before making the announcement on Sept. 28, and, said Tennant, “liked what he saw.”
That, said Tennant, was the culmination of a long and focused process of advocacy on behalf of the project – and the impact that losing it was having on potential tenants.
One of the key elements of that advocacy, he said, was the work of intellectually-disabled potential tenant Lauren Simpson – profiled in the documentary film Lauren’s Story – in impressing on people “what it is like to grow up in a community, and rely on it, and not to be able to live there any more.”
But Harmony is not just intended as housing for people with disabilities, Tennant said.
“It’s also for businesses with front-line workers who can no longer afford to live in the community in which they work, for seniors – and for younger people who want to move out of their parents’ homes and make their own lives,” he added.
A turning point in UNITI’s campaign, he agreed, was when the organization received the South Surrey and White Rock Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence award for best non-profit, in May.
“Mayor McCallum and Coun. (Allison) Patton were there at the awards and it wasn’t lost on them that it has the full support of the business community and the broader community,” he said.
“I think there’s a better understanding all around of what it is we’re trying to do.”
Ironically, Tennant said, the other element that has changed is the potential landscape around the Harmony development.
“I think there’s a stark realization that private developers have purchased property in the immediate neighborhood and are proposing eight- to 12-storey buildings for it, while Harmony is only a middle-range building of six storeys.
“It’s often the way that non-profit organizations have to be the ice-breaker – by ensuring that people have housing where they need it,” he said.
“Often we bear the brunt of opposition.”
The next focus for UNITI, Tennant said, is to make sure the new public hearing, on Nov. 28, is well attended by people in favour of the Harmony proposal.
“We’d like to encourage all our supporters to come out and make their presence felt,” Tennant said.
“We’re hoping it will be a celebration of sorts.”