Incumbent Mayor Doug McCallum’s announcement that the Harmony Apartments development will now be approved by Surrey council led to jeers rather than cheers at an all-mayoral candidates meeting Wednesday night in South Surrey.
That may have been because McCallum’s comments at the forum – hosted by the South Surrey and White Rock Chamber of Commerce and Peninsula Homelessness to Housing Task Force (PH2H) at Gracepoint Community Church – came after other mayoral candidates had an opportunity to speak on the issue.
The eight candidates present – McCallum (Safe Surrey), Amrit Birring (People’s Council), Sukh Dhaliwal (United Surrey), Gordie Hogg (Surrey First), Brenda Locke (Surrey Connect) Jinny Sims (Surrey Forward), Kuldip Pelia (independent) and John Wolanski (independent) – had been asked by PH2H whether they would approve the non-profit Harmony housing development proposed by UNITI, given the pressing need for below-market rental homes in Surrey.
All of them said they would approve the project.
The six-storey, 91-unit building, planned for the 15100-block of 20 Avenue was to have combined inclusive, affordable and close-to-market-rate units, but was voted down by McCallum and the Safe Surrey majority on council in July of last year.
The project has since been the subject of a documentary film, ‘Lauren’s Story’, which documented the disappointment felt by housing activist and disability advocate Lauren Simpson following the 5-3 vote against the project.
Locke in particular went on the attack about the circumstances of that rejection, which followed the public hearing on Harmony.
“I was there (that) night,” she said.
“It was quite a long public hearing. There (were) passionate speakers, one after another wanting this project to move forward, and for no apparent reason the mayor and his four councillors voted against it.
“This is an absolute disgrace,” she said.
“It was such a disgrace…it had a light shone on it right across this country. It is a wonderful apartment building that is going to be for all kinds of people, and in a great location. It is a tragedy that they have been postponed this long…we must move it forward for Lauren.”
Laughter, from among a crowd of some 400 people, greeted McCallum when he stated, “I have always supported these types of projects,” citing work with the Lions Club.
“I’ve been in extensive negotiations with the chairman of Harmony over the past couple of weeks to try to solve it, and I can tell you tonight we have solved it – the project’s going ahead,” McCallum went on to say.
“We’re trying to get it on the (next meeting of council) next week.”
He noted that Harmony might not make it onto that agenda, because there was some information the provincial government needed to provide Surrey concerning the project.
“(But) it will pass – we’ll have it up and operating as fast as they can build it in the next year,” he said.
In rebuttal, Locke responded that she was happy that McCallum had changed his mind.
“I don’t know what brought him to his senses, but maybe he can reconsider some of the other bad decisions he’s made – like getting rid of the RCMP,” she said, to loud applause.
Hogg said that Harmony’s precursor, UNITI’s Chorus Apartments, showed the concept of such inclusive buildings worked.
“It is a very healthy, positive place and I look forward to the same thing happening with Harmony Apartments,” he said.
Birring said he could only speculate why people had opposed the building.
“I think some people living in that area might think they do not want poorer people in their neighbourhood,” he said.
“It’s a stereotype and it’s very bad of them, to live in their house and deprive other people.”
“We can be a force of good in people’s lives,” Dhaliwal said. “Particularly the ones with disabilities. That’s where this project is going and I certainly support it and am inclined to work with the community and work with UNITI to support this project moving forward.”
Sims, on unpaid leave from her position as Surrey-Panorama MLA to run for mayor, said she was in Victoria when news circulated that the Harmony project had been rejected.
“When I heard this project had been turned down, I was literally gob-smacked,” Sims said.
“I made some phone calls straight away as to what the rationale was for this. Well, there is no rationale. This project will be built, period,” she said, adding that the model should be repeated throughout the city.
“(We need) more housing, different kinds of housing, not (refused), as a previous mayor has said, because it’s in the ‘wrong part of the city.’”
“We need more organizations like this,” Pelia commented. “We’ll also ask BC Housing to create more affordable housing units in Surrey.”
Wolanski said he had also been impressed by the documentary featuring Simpson.
“Mr. Doug McCallum, you may have broken Lauren’s heart, but you didn’t break her spirit,” he said.