Habitat for Humanity Southeast BC has announced that they have pulled out of the Multi-Agency Accommodation Project (MAAP) after learning of council’s decision to further delay the five-year lease extension. Council’s delay in offering the extension meant that Habitat lost out on funding from BC Housing, which was for transitional housing units which were to be built on top of the ReStore.
Habitat will not build a ReStore on the Riverside property without a lease extension, said Chris Moslin, board chair for Habitat.
Habitat made the announcement in a press release sent out on Thursday (March 26). The move means that the organization will no longer be involved in a partnership with MAAP partners Whispers of Hope and BETHS (Boundary Emergency and Transition Housing Society) and no longer plans to build a ReStore building on the Riverside MAAP location.
The building would have included transitional housing units and office space on the second floor.
At an earlier council meeting (March 4), council agreed to the extension from five years to 10 years, contingent on funding and the issue going to public notice.
However, at the March 23 meeting, council heard from CAO Doug Allin who told council they had the option to step back and take a look at the project and to do their due diligence.
“It’s a long-term decision,” said Allin at council. “You don’t want to be perceived as putting a Band-Aid on something…we should be considering the long-term planning.”
Council voted 5-1 on March 23 to direct staff to seek funding for further study on transitional housing. Coun. Julia Butler was the lone no vote. Michael Wirischagin was absent.
The motion from March 4 approving the lease extension, contingent on funding and public notice, became essentially null and void as a result of council delaying the extension on March 25. The delay caused Habitat to miss the deadline on the funding from BC Housing.
Allin told the Gazette that the motion (from March 4) remains in its minutes but that council has passed a motion (on March 25) to undertake a study to provide more information on their decision. “Once council has heard the report and completed the process they will consider the motion of accepting the lease extension,” he said.
Chris Moslin, interim board chair for Habitat for Humanity Southeast BC, said that the decision to pull out of MAAP was not taken lightly.
“It’s the intention of the society to carefully and with consideration withdraw from our part of the lease,” said Moslin. “We’re going to try to get as good a deal as we can for BETHS and Whispers.”
Moslin said the decision by council to delay the approval of the extension would mean the loss of thousands of volunteer hours and tens of thousands of dollars invested up to this time by Habitat and the MAAP partners.
“The larger loss to the community is that the inter-agency offices, transition housing units and ReStore at Riverside Drive and the funding that would pay for their construction has been lost to the economy,” he said.
Moslin pointed out that Habitat holds the lease for the MAAP building with the city and that BETHS and Whispers of Hope have an agreement as sub-leasers with Habitat.
“We’re going to disengage with the city on our lease (with them) on the building so the city will be dealing directly with Whispers and BETHS,” he said. “Both of those organizations have been informed of our intent but they have to decide themselves what they have to do.”
Moslin said that Habitat couldn’t be a leaseholder of a building that they have no interest in.
“It’s a liability for us,” he said. “Habitat has been looking after these two social agencies for the city and now the city will have to look after them directly.”
Moslin said that Habitat already has plenty on their plate looking after properties in several locations such as Greenwood, Nelson, Grand Forks, Castlegar and Cranbrook.
Moslin said they want to be careful as they step away from the lease because they do want to be mindful of their partner agencies.
MAAP began in 2012 as a partnership between the three agencies: Habitat for Humanity, Whispers of Hope and BETHS.
In 2013, council agreed to give MAAP the property on Riverside Drive with a five-year lease.
In 2014, the MAAP building opened with Whispers of Hope, both the thrift store and the soup kitchen, and the BETHS emergency shelter. At the opening ceremony, there was also a ground-breaking ceremony for Habitat, which planned to open a ReStore building on the location with office space above. The original plan did not include transitional housing.
“We invested a lot of time and money and volunteer energy in rebuilding Whispers,” said Moslin. “If you go in that building, Whispers has all been rebuilt with a new kitchen. BETHS has all been rebuilt. Habitat basically took the lead on that and spent money on all that with their resources.”
Moslin said the pay-off for Habitat was to be able to build a ReStore in the downtown core without having to pay big rent.
“That would be the payoff, to return those dollars to our primary purpose which is to build low cost homes for families,” he said.
Moslin said that with the decision, Habitat is now out all the money they have already invested as well as the BC Housing grant money and other grants such as a $100,000 gas tax grant from UBCM and $50,000 from SIDIT (Southern Interior Development Initiative Trust).
“When you have a project like this—basically a $400,000 project—you have half a dozen different grants with different categories and different time frames,” said Moslin. “All we were asking council to do was to go from a five-year lease to a 10-year lease. That would have put all the funding in place. The funding was already, more or less, in place.”
Moslin said that Habitat submitted a budget back in 2012 when the MAAP project on Riverside was first approved.
“Our mistake was thinking that the new council was going to check back with their old documents,” he said. “We certainly could provide a budget if we knew that was a question. But we weren’t asking for money we were just asking for a five-year extension.”
Moslin suggested that some councillors were against having the ReStore close to downtown. He also dismisses the thought that the building could easily be relocated.
“Even if they gave us land outright or with a 25-year lease, we just can’t pick up that project and move it there,” he said. “We’d have to start fundraising again. We’d be years away.”
Moslin said having the ReStore downtown provides many benefits such as having high visibility being in the commercial centre.
“The benefit to the city was that you would have a nationally recognized brand name store built green,” he said. “It would look like any other commercial buildings like Lordco or Grand Forks Realty or any other recently constructed commercial building. We thought it would be a great anchor store for that area and that it would bring traffic to that end of Market Avenue.”
Moslin said the benefits of partnering together with Whispers of Hope and BETHS would have allowed all three to save money by combining utility bills, sharing office space and administration costs, and pooling volunteers.
“You’ve got a greater social benefit too,” he said. “Each society benefits from the energy of the other societies and their volunteers. It’s very practical. And the best reason is to be able to pool grant money.”
Moslin was surprised to see that council requisitioned a study on transitional housing, when a similar study was done in 2011.
“(Coun.) Julia Butler spoke out at the council meeting and said it best when she said, ‘if you vote for this motion you’re basically killing this project,’ which they did because we can’t comply with the province’s timeline,” said Moslin. “So we’ll be turning back the gax tas money, turning back the SIDIT money, turning back the transition housing money that would’ve gone into the project. You can’t just pick up a project like this and move it three blocks west. It sends us all back to square one trying to pool resources.”
Habitat will continue to operate the ReStore building out of the rented building on Sagamore Road.
Moslin said it’s unfortunate that the transitional housing units, which would’ve been built on top of the ReStore on Riverside, are now on hold.
Jake Raven, board chair for Whispers of Hope, said he is not sure what the future will hold for the agency and the building on Riverside. He said he is disappointed in the decision of council and doesn’t know how they can trust council moving forward.
“In three and a half years our lease will expire and what are they going to do then?” he said. “Are they going to kick us out? Maybe we should be ahead of them and start looking for another downtown location from a private enterprise that we can rely on more than city council.”
Raven said for now he expects Whispers will continue with the status quo in the Riverside location.
“We’ll have our regular meeting and we’ll discuss and see what way we have to go,” he said. “If the city is flip-flopping like this now, what are they going to do in three and a half years from now? By the time our lease is done, this council will still be in office.”
Neil Muth, chair of the board for BETHS, said the society is extremely disappointed with council’s delay on the lease extension.
“Rather than dealing with the request to extend the lease, council has decided to seek funding to engage a consultant to look at transitional housing needs in the community,” he said. “As a result of council’s decision, funding for the development of the MAAP facility has been lost.”
BETHS was also disappointed with the process council followed in making their decision. “There was no opportunity provided for input on whether or not a study into the need for transitional housing in the community is required,” said Muth. “There is already sufficient evidence of the need for transitional housing and BETHS board and staff would have welcomed the opportunity to explain the need to council. BETHS board of directors believes that it is now time for action, not further study.”
Muth said that the board is saddened by Habitat’s decision to withdraw from MAAP as a result of council’s decision although they understand and respect their decision.
“They have been a terrific partner and we thank them for their vision and action in bringing a collaborative approach to addressing housing and other social needs in the community,” he said. “We greatly value our relationship and we look forward to working with Habitat in the future.”
Muth said BETHS would continue to operate the extreme weather shelter, which closed for the season as planned on Tuesday, on Riverside.
“We will continue to pursue our goal of establishing safe and decent housing units for those individuals who wish to transition from homelessness,” he said. “While we are disappointed with council’s recent decision, we would like to work with council to rebuild the partnership that is necessary to meet the housing needs of the community.”
Mayor Frank Konrad said council decided to delay the lease so they could study the issue further.
“Council and the city had the opportunity to take a closer look because grant funding was available so we could hire a professional firm to look at the transitional housing needs for Grand Forks,” he said. “So we could have a better overview. Council being newly elected, it was a bit much for us to be making decisions without proper consultation.”
Konrad said council wasn’t aware that delaying the lease extension would mean essentially killing the MAAP project.
“That was not the intention—to kill the project,” he said. “We wanted to take a step back and get it right. Too many factors happened too fast. It was a feeling that we were kind of put in a corner by the MAAP committee, and we didn’t want to thrown them under the bus, so to speak.”
Konrad said it was unfortunate that the timelines involved the grant applications for Habitat were so tight.
“It wasn’t about cancelling the project or pulling the rug out from under them,” he said. “It was more of a case of taking a better, closer, more timely look at it and getting it right the first time.”
Konrad said it was unfortunate that Habitat ended up pulling out of MAAP as a result of council’s decision. “That’s their prerogative as a group,” he said. “They could take another look at it if they wish and come back to the city once the city has another look at it. There are many options out there. I think they need to look at other options themselves rather than just concentrating on one particular place.”
Konrad said he felt council would’ve benefitted from a budget and cost analysis on the new Habitat building when making their decision on the lease extension.
“We were really short-changed on that end of it,” he said. “They made a presentation and with all due respect, the presentation really lacked a few factors. Speaking as a mayo —for the size and magnitude of this project, we were really short of information.”
Konrad said the lack of information from Habitat was a contributing reason to why council originally sent the lease extension request (from the Feb. 10 council meeting) back to staff for more study.
“This is a big project,” said Konrad. “This is something we need to envision for the next 20, 25, 30 years or longer. We can’t just look at the ends of our noses on a 10-year lease. A project like this should benefit the city and MAAP for a longer time frame then 10 years.”
In a press release from Monday, the city stated: “The decision to not extend the lease from five to 10 years was in no way intended to affect the operation of Whispers of Hope or BETHS in their current location.”
The release went on to say that the professional planning report would provide guidance on the immediate and long-term transitional housing needs of the community.
Councillor Neil Krog said that council felt it was important to get more information and look at other factors before approving the lease extension. He said that the city has received other requests from groups about transitional housing in Grand Forks.
“The reason we’re even having this discussion is because of the initial lack of information,” he said. “We’re talking about having a consultant, an arms-length company, come in and look at our community needs, which is smart planning. We didn’t do that before and that’s why that property was used.”
Krog was on council last term when the decision on the Riverside property was made. He explains that it was always meant to be a short-term solution.
“We were buying the property to follow our strategic plans, which were to acquire as much Riverside property as we possibly could,” said Krog. “The council of the day had a request from MAAP for use of that property. We offered them a five-year lease with a sunset clause in it and possibly of renewal. None of that has changed.”
Krog said council back then did not want to give MAAP a longer lease due to the value of the property.
He said he was also disappointed that Habitat did not provide any budget information on the building with their request for the lease extension in February of this year. He said he heard about various grants Habitat might receive but did not receive any concrete information.
“No information, no financial information, no business plan for how this construction would take place,” he said. “No information on the grants and what they could be used for. If you’re going to request land from council, then you should have a good business case.”
Krog said he was surprised to hear that Habitat pulled out of the MAAP project on Riverside.
“We were looking at the future of Grand Forks,” he said. “That’s why they are in that position, because it was a knee jerk reaction to locate that much-needed facility on riverfront property.”
Krog said he thought the letter/press release from Habitat about leaving MAAP was written in anger. “It said that there was no support from the city for the project and that we killed the project,” said Krog.
“We have worked with Habitat for years…for all the housing units that had been built in the city they came to us.”
Krog said the land that the city donated to Habitat was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“We spent a lot of money buying this property (on Riverside) because they said the three of them were going to work together,” said Krog.
Krog said he wondered how Habitat pulling out of MAAP would affect the other two agencies (BETHS and Whispers of Hope).
“The money they said they could get was minimal if you’re talking about the scope of a project that big,” he said. “Funds like that—there are always going to be grants available. But if want to just quit and walk away…I can’t really say anything. Sorry you’re not going to keep trying to make a project work. Again, they come to us at the eleventh hour and we’re a brand new council and they say, ‘You have to make this decision now! You have to extend the lease!’— before we even had any information on any of the grants.”
Krog reiterated that hiring a consultant would allow the city and council to make an informed decision on housing in the community.