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People attend a rally on June 21 to protest a proposal for supportive housing to be built in the Kitsilano neighbourhood in Vancouver.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver’s city council has approved one of the city’s largest social-housing buildings in the expensive west side neighbourhood of Kitsilano, after one of the most contentious and lengthy public hearings it has ever had.

Council voted 8-3 on Tuesday evening to approve a project that would include 129 apartments in a single building for people who are homeless or at risk of experiencing homelessness.

The building in Kitsilano is part of an agreement between the city and BC Housing to fund and build 300 apartments that come with supports, ranging from medical to vocational to psychiatric. There are currently 425 planned for five sites, two of which have now been approved.

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The vote followed 28 hours of public hearings over five days, with nearly 300 speakers addressing council. The project, which would be at a scale not been seen in Vancouver beyond the Downtown Eastside, faced opposition by a local group that complained of a lack of information and what it described as a flawed process from BC Housing and the city that made it difficult to figure out how local residents will be affected.

“It’s not just about this one site,” Cheryl Grant, a spokesperson for the Kitsilano Coalition said. The Kitsilano Coalition is the main group opposing the project.

“People have to start questioning what is being done.”

BC Housing has been mandated by the NDP provincial government to aggressively build housing and deal with the province’s escalating homelessness, which has become a major issue for many B.C. cities large and small.

Councillors spent 5½ hours on Tuesday questioning staff about the project and adding amendments to try to build in more city control over how tenants will be selected, what mix of tenants there will be, and what kinds of supports will be provided.

Cheryl Grant, a spokesperson for the Kitsilano Coalition that is opposing the social housing project, says 'people have to start questioning what is being done.'Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

The Kitsilano Coalition group argued that packing so many people with challenges into a single, large building was a bad housing policy and that the project should be smaller and with a mix of tenants, with special preference for the many women with children who need housing.

In particular, it said BC Housing should focus on putting those who are homeless or with severe challenges in “scattered sites,” where they would be no more than 10 per cent of the population of a particular apartment building.

Supporters of the project said there’s a massive housing crisis in the region and providing new studio apartments for 129 of the kind of people most likely to be homeless – singles – was desperately needed.

Supporters argued that many people who have been homeless or poor would rather form a community with people like them, rather than be forced to mix with better-off people.

BC Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay appeared at council to make an emotional appeal for support, the first time he has ever appeared at a council public hearing in his 22 years at the agency.

“Do we support this development and save the lives of our neighbours by putting a safe secure roof over their head or do we kick the can down the road in the name of NIMBY-ism – right project, wrong location?” he said on Tuesday. “And that is largely based on fear, ignorance, and discrimination.”

Mr. Ramsay was confronted later in the evening when some opponents outside council chambers scolded him for calling them ignorant NIMBYs.

City manager Paul Mochrie and others de-escalated friction between Mr. Ramsey and opponents of the project.

Mr. Mochrie and security accompanied Mr. Ramsay back to council, where he and opponents of the project remained for the rest of the evening without incident.

In the end, eight council members, including the mayor, voted in favour of the project. Opposed were NPA Councillor Melissa De Genova; TEAM Councillor Colleen Hardwick; and ABC Councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung, although her two party colleagues supported it.

Ms. Hardwick criticized her fellow councillors for trying to improve the project through various amendments, saying it was a flawed concept and they were trying to put “lipstick on a pig.”

Green Party Councillor Pete Fry said he was supporting the project because it was clear to him that people want to see more of this kind of housing – but with some oversight to make sure it works, which he believes the city process will provide.

“We have an opportunity to see things happen really differently on this location,” he said. “This is a time to call on the faith that we can work together.”

OneCity Councillor Christine Boyle said it was clear to her, after working in a church shelter in the Downtown Eastside, that people wanted options beyond that neighbourhood.

“People need and deserve choices.”

Council approved an amendment to have the city work with BC Housing to change the types of units and the proportion of tenants who require additional supports.

Mr. Ramsay warned that any such changes could jeopardize provincial funding for supportive housing.

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