Our principles are simple:
We don’t have secrets.
We have nothing to hide.
We have this website.
We put signs outside our houses.
We send letters to the editor for everyone to see.
We think the idea of appropriate affordable housing on the parking lot is laudable.
All we are asking from BC Housing, the OBUC and its development team is simple:
DON’T PRETEND. DON’T BUILD WALLS. PLEASE PUT INFORMATION OUT THERE - WITHOUT BEING ASKED.
To The Editor, The Times Colonist
Re: “Reform storm gathers steam,” column, Feb. 6.
Les Leyne’s column on extending freedom of information to the legislature made me smile. Anyone who has ever taken out an FOI request for a government body to provide what should be publicly available information is advised not to hold their breath while it is being prepared. When it does finally arrive (after a very long wait) 99 per cent could be redacted.
In a case where citizens in our neighbourhood tried to get some straightforward information from B.C. Housing, there was one little gem that wasn’t redacted in the FOI results we received. It involved a consultant telling B.C. Housing how to circumvent the FOI rules.
Simple: The client should not address anything to B.C. Housing. Instead, address it to a third party and mark it “confidential — contains proprietary information,” so it’s third-party confidential and thus secret.
Don’t think because you’d like to see what’s going on in our provincial government you can find out through FOI. You can’t, and when your large package of almost blank pages arrive, you will feel as Speaker Darryl Plecas described: You’ll want to vomit.
Read the original letter to the Times Colonist online here.
Most pages in response to our FOI requests look like this:
To: Malcolm McNaughton, Armin Amrolia, BC Housing
CC:: Mayor and Councillors, Oak Bay Municipality. Dr. Andrew Weaver, MLA Oak Bay
February 7 2019
A review of the FOI response from BC Housing (30-11318) leads to the following observations on its contents.
On 17 September 2018, just over one month after the development team for Oak Bay United Church (DT-OBUC) delivered its rezoning/development package to Oak Bay’s Planning Department, they submitted a request for further funding to BC Housing under RFP1070-1819/016.
The covering letter for this submission says “On August 2018 we applied for rezoning and development permit for 96 residential units. Of these 39 units are market rental and sale units, income from which subsidizes 57 affordable housing units. This will replace and expand an existing 9-unit affordable housing operation.” (emphasis added)
This is a surprising statement given that (a) the rezoning and development permit applications to Oak Bay Municipality did not contain this information and (b) there are several factors that make their RFP submission ineligible for BC Housing funding.
As there is a significant investment of taxpayers’ money in this project, this RFP submission raises the following concerns:
The “existing 9 unit affordable housing operation” is a building that is currently rented to and operated by the Threshold Housing Society as transitional housing for youth-at-risk. OBUC Minutes dated August 20, 2017 state that Threshold Housing Society has 4 years remaining on a five year lease with the church. Threshold provided $60,000 for repairs before moving in and their loan is being repaid in the form of $1,000 rent reduction per month with a current balance as of August 1 2017 of $47,000.
The OBUC Minutes state “the building is in good repair with the exception of the roof”. Coast Capital and other sponsors agreed to sponsor Threshold for the next five years.
It is a misrepresentation of the facts for the DT-OBUC to claim this as “existing affordable housing”.
The Minutes of the AGM of OBUC (June 10, 2018) state “It has been determined that Threshold House cannot be maintained on site while also positioning the Affordable Neighbourhood Housing on the property”
The development submission to Oak Bay Municipality shows the building will be demolished.
In OBUC Minutes (August 20, 2017) under “Background to the motion to borrow $500,000 from BC Housing for the Planning Phase of Affordable Rental Housing”, they list the following reasons for the need to borrow this money (under the guise of Affordable Housing)
“If the development is to be considered feasible for the OBUC – it has to
Require no funding from OBUC
Provide a benefit to the community
Provide approximately 5,000 square feet of replacement space for church offices and programs
Provide funding to retire the mortgage and make repairs to the sanctuary
Upgrade the kitchen
Provide on-going income of at least $100,000 a year.”
One might think that the Church’s governing body could help provide the required funds but, according to the Oak Bay United Church Minutes of August 20, 2017, the United Church of BC Conference Property Resource Team was consulted to see if they would fund a development feasibility study as they had for other congregations and they declined.
The Minutes show:
“Based on the known information at the time, PRT declined as redevelopment was considered unlikely based on zoning and density”. The Minutes then state “Not to be deterred, the congregation of OBUC allocated approximately $20,000 to hire consultant Chris Corps of Pivotal IRM and Waymark Architects to do our own development feasibility study. Subsequent work by the consultants has refined the business case to the point where BC Housing is prepared to provide an initial loan for project development funding UP TO $500,000 for the project development phase”.
DT-OBUC were permitted by the congregation to borrow a further $300,000 from BC Housing for development funding (OBUC Minutes September 18, 2018) for a total of $800,000.
On September 17, 2018 DT-OBUC submitted an RFP for more funding from BC Housing knowing that their submission failed to meet eligibility requirements. Their letter of application says that they were encouraged by BC Housing to submit this non-conforming proposal anyway.
When the proposal to build an affordable housing project on the OBUC’s small piece of excess land was first raised in the community, it was universally considered to be a good idea. Some months later, neighbours attended meetings and an open house organized by the DT-OBUC that revealed no meaningful community input was being sought. The plans were already drawn, even though the DT-OBUC had told the community (on 16 August 2017) they were working with a ‘blank sheet of paper’. Oak Bay United Church had clearly already decided what they had to build in order to generate the cash flow from such a project. The community’s suggestions of a compromise on size and density were ignored.
In December 2017 neighbours were asked to rubber-stamp one set of drawings or another, out of several alternatives none of which reflected any of the local concerns about the size and impact of this massive project on a single-family zoned block.
The DT-OBUC, having engaged a public relations company funded by BC Housing, has attempted to discredit anyone who doesn’t agree with them as a vocal minority and/or ‘an organized opposition group’
Organized? Yes. Minority? No. A quick walk around the neighbourhood shows increasing opposition to this project. The protest signs that once graced only a yard or two now appear in abundance. Again, you are invited to review the web-site www.ccn-oakbay.com
What should citizens do when their collective voice as stakeholders in the community is overlooked? Should we sit back and watch BC Housing throw money at a project that ostensibly is to provide affordable housing but where the real agenda is something more prosaic – to build a ‘community space’ to be paid for by tenants and to provide a revenue stream for an institution whose congregation is declining and its revenue base shrinking. The DT-OBUC continue to quote manipulated data from their self-created and self-serving public relations polls to push an aggressive, overreaching and inappropriate proposal.
Isn’t it time for someone at BC Housing to engage with the local community and to examine this proposal more closely?
B. G. Judson
On Tuesday, January 8th 2019, the following email was sent to the Minister of Citizens’ Services, Honourable Jinny Sims.
It outlines the way Chris Corps, consultant to the OBUC Development Committee, has circumvented the provisions of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. It raises questions like:
Who is Chris Corps to decide what is in the public’s interest?
Why didn’t Mr. McNaughton, strongly and unequivocally, refuse to buy into this collusion to thwart the FOI rules? (Maybe he did but the FOI responses do not show that).
Is the FOI legislation little more than window dressing?
In addition to sending the email at the bottom of this message (see our email here) to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, we thought that you, as Minister of Citizens’ Services, would be interested in the highlighted paragraphs.
Of particular concern is the exchange that follows.
Background: Instead of the Oak Bay United Church (OBUC) applying for development funding from BC Housing, the OBUC used a consulting firm that provided information that was NOT addressed to BC Housing to obtain a $500,000+ forgivable loan (forgiven if project doesn’t proceed). When local residents tried to get more details of this secretive project, we received an FOI response that was so heavily redacted it was virtually useless.
From FOI request #30-0518, part 2 page 300
From: Chris Corps <email via Pivotall>
Sent: November 23, 2017 3:34 PM
To: Malcolm McNaughton
Subject: RE: Oak Bay United Church Neighbourhood Consultations
Explanation: I'm sure you'll rephrase as you think will suit.
The church has not been providing any materials partly for privacy reasons but mostly, because they are highly respectful of Oak Bay's public process, which will determine the project, its appearance, sizes, etc. Releasing draft work - which in any event looked at a wide range of options - could be contrary is not to the public's interest as it provides no firm conclusion and multiple options were considered, not just one.
we ran through the spreadsheet model with you and the model itself was not provided. You can thus honestly say that you don't have a copy, because you don't. We ran thru it with you fairly extensively and also, separately with Kirsten testing numbers, to allow you to look at and test multiple scenarios, but it wasn't actually provided.
It might help to note that I was careful that the "business case" documents were not in fact addressed to BC Housing, but were confidential documents addressed to OBUC Board and which included proprietary information. The first document (provided to Shayne) was a draft. I think I'm right in saying that the only formal application documents submitted to you are a one page formal request for PDF funding from the Chair of the Project Devt Committee, plus a spreadsheet budget. You had sight of other OBUC documents, and to the model so you could satisfy yourself as to the project options and potential, but the documents are OBUC documents and are marked confidential and contain proprietary information. I'm sure your FOI colleagues can comment on the appropriateness of releasing third party confidential and proprietary documents?
Hope that helps, but if more needed then by all means call. Seeing Kirsten tomorrow.
Pivotal IRM Inc.
<phone number available Pivotal>
Should not BC Housing have insisted on a “"business case" … addressed to BC Housing“ instead of playing privacy games with developers?
We do not accept that “Releasing draft work - which in any event looked at a wide range of options - could be contrary is not to the public's interest (sic) as it provides no firm conclusion and multiple options were considered, not just one” as we would have liked to have seen the multiple options.
Concerned Citizens Network
On Tuesday, January 8, 2019 this letter was emailed to:
Malcolm McNaughton, BC Housing
with cc’s to Hon. Selina Robinson, BC Minister for Municipal Affairs and Housing
Hon. Jinny Sims, Minister of Citizens’ Services (FOI legislation)
Dear Mr McNaughton,
Re: BC Housing Ref #9444 Project Ref #7958 - Oak Bay United Church (OBUC)
Our group, the Concerned Citizens’ Network of Oak Bay, has recently received information about the above project, subsequent to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request (#30-8718).
It was noted that Michael Flanagan has reported to you on the neighbourhood’s position regarding this overdevelopment project of the OBUC site. Mr Flanagan has forwarded copies of emails from the Concerned Citizens’ Network to you. These clearly outline neighbours’ concerns.
To monitor the growing opposition, we invite you to visit our website www.ccn-oakbay.com and sign up for our newsletter.
The information received under the FOI indicates that BC Housing (Kirsten Baillie and you) reached out to the former mayor and at least two councillors in May 2018 (p 167 of the FOI response #30-8718) It is our understanding that the local representatives who attended these meetings were told to keep what was discussed in the strictest confidence. That secrecy is cause for grave concern. Good news is rarely kept private.
Perhaps you might explain why BC Housing resorted to closed door meetings, excluding the community from any understanding as to why BCH supports such a massive development project for an established single-family neighbourhood? More importantly why do these meetings exclude the people whose lives will be most affected by any decision reached?
BC Housing, as a crown corporation, holds over a billion dollars in taxpayer assets (2017-18 Annual Service Report). This position of trust demands a high standard of transparency, which is not evident in the way this OBUC project is being handled.
In the May 1, 2018 Confidential Advice to Minister, it was stated (FOI30-8718 p 134):
“Residents in Oak Bay have expressed concerns about the suitability of a proposed affordable rental housing project in their neighbourhood (originally proposed for six storeys). In response to neighbourhood concerns, the development has been reduced in height to 3 and 4 storeys.”
This is a false and highly misleading statement.
FACT: the OBUC development team submitted a proposal for a six-storey building to BC Housing in order to secure funding. (April 6, 2017 per FOI 30-0518).
FACT: NONE of the neighbours had a true idea of the size of the project as originally proposed by the OBUC. Rumours did circulate that it would be big. Only after the personal expense of time and money, were we able to ascertain that the OBUC’s original submission had been for a six-storey tower. (FOI request 30-0518, part 1, starting page 24.)
FACT: the FIRST official indication of size provided to the community was in the scaled-down plans presented in December 2017. Neighbours weren’t told these were revised plans. Contrary to the Confidential Advice to Minister, the developers did not reduce the size in response to neighbourhood concerns about the six-storey tower. The conclusion is that the minimal community engagement made before this date had indicated such an ambitious proposal would not be supported.
Further, it is also important to note that those December neighbourhood meetings, where drawings were finally tabled, were called by the developers at very short notice. Letters hand-delivered from the OBUC dated December 6 invited neighbours to meetings on December 13th and 14th, at the busiest time of year for most people. Was the short notice intended to engage as little participation as possible? Regardless, 4+ storey models that were presented to the public in those meetings were met with immediate and widespread opposition.
FACT: Representatives from the OBUC and the development team remained evasive about size and plans until the December meetings. At no time did anyone from either source mention the proposed six-storey tower as submitted to BCH in March 2017.
While the community has repeatedly attempted to engage the OBUC developers in discussion about this project, our efforts have been stonewalled. Worse still, they have been exacerbated by funding provided by BC Housing, as well as being denied access to critical documents.
The developers of this project are clever: they knew enough to establish a third-party representative to avoid disclosure and scrutiny of their plans. See the email from Chris Corps to Malcolm McNaughton, November 23 2017. (FOI request #30-0518, part 2 page 300).
As citizens and taxpayers, we ask that BCH resist this manipulation of the system by developers who seek to compromise and undermine the intent of the Freedom of Information Act. BCH should insist that principals in any projects, who hold out their hands for public money, be prepared to fully disclose their intentions to the public who fund their ambitions.
May we ask at this time, before advancing any further funding for this project, BCH require an independent mediator be appointed to find a suitable compromise. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been handed to a group who thus far have refused to deal with the community in good faith.
BCH now has the opportunity to insist the developers work with the community to reach a reasonable resolution, something the residents have been asking for since the ambitions of this group were first made public.
BC Housing has failed the community in the past. Now is the time for leadership.
Below are the names of some of the neighbours who have helped write and / or asked to have their names attached to this letter. This list is an indication of some of the local support, but it is in no way exhaustive.
Some history to the letter that follows:
Many of us have asked, on numerous occasions, for the names of the people who comprise the Development Team driving the OBUC’s proposed project.
To date, we have asked the OBUC directly, in emails, letters, and, on October 1, on Facebook on the Oak Bay Municipal Election Discussion page. Here is a screenshot of that conversation:
When that didn’t work, we wrote to the Executive Committee of the BC Conference, United Church of Canada (October 6, 2018) about this and a few other matters.
To date, the senior branch of the church has not provided the names of the Development Team, nor do they seem to have encouraged the OBUC to share this information in the spirit of transparency.
Then, on October 9th, the Times-Colonist published an article titled Oak Bay mayoral candidates at odds on housing. This piece, written by Richard Watts, repeated many of the OBUC’s favourite refrains.
Following is one response to the inaccuracies in that report. Also in this letter the question is asked again: Who is the Development Team?
The longer that this vital information is withheld, the greater our curiosity - and the more this important question will continue to be asked.
One aspect of any design application is the artist’s rendering. These are the soothing images that persuade an unsuspecting public that proposed projects will slide into the landscape with barely a ripple. They ignore shadow patterns, traffic snarls, and strain on infrastructure.
As of today’s date, the Oak Bay United Church has not shared the Shadow Study in respect to its proposed development. The District of Oak Bay still refuses to allow public access to the application file.
When Cheryl Thomas told a Times Colonist reporter that opposition to to the Oak Bay United Church’s proposal had diminished, the church’s neighbours were confounded. How had she formed this opinion? Did she arrive at it because she doesn’t live near the church and failed to see all the protest?
Maybe, like a lot of politicians these days, she thought if she said it often enough, it might come true?
Click on the article to read an online version of this letter: