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The harm reduction housing debate was a process disaster

This week's Market Squared looks at how not understanding the rules let a simple idea become a major controversy.
20191105 beaumont ts
This lot at the corner of Beaumont Crescent and Sloan Drive on the city's east side is a potential home of 10 converted container homes. Tony Saxon/GuelphToday

The showdown at council this past Monday was as predictable as it was sad to watch.

You may think that’s a reference to the general idea that this was a case of NIMBYs putting their concerns ahead of people desperately in need of supportive housing, but that’s not only an over-simplification of the debate, but it’s also not the sadness of which I’m speaking.

The sadness of the meeting was that this was a case of misunderstanding process, and I’m not sure that either the media, or council itself, did a good of explaining the process.

The way the system works is that staff reports are brought forward at Committee of the Whole on the first Monday of the month. Committee, which is made up of the *whole* of council, then asks probing questions to get the information they need and feel satisfied that a staff recommendation is the best course of action.

Sometimes, staff doesn’t have information that a councillor wants close at hand, which would be a problem if the final decision was being made at committee. No final decisions are made at committee and recommendations are referred to the council meeting at the end of the month for a final vote.

In between committee and council meetings there may be more information. There may be a motion to amend or replace the recommendation, and theoretically members of council have a couple of weeks to get their ducks in a row on those initiatives. Theoretically.

So now that we know how the process works, let’s talk about how it all went wrong.

Ward 2 Councillor Rodrigo Goller proposed a motion at November’s committee meeting to have staff report to council in January about what would be involved in building 10-container homes as harm reduction housing at 106 Beaumont Cr., which is surplus land that the City owns and is awaiting a land use plane for.

That was it. Goller asked for information sometime in the next two months, and that request still had to be ratified at the end of the month meeting.

Councillor Dan Gibson of Ward 1, inside whose boundaries lay the property in question, did not like the process of this motion. He said it was sprung on Committee, even though Goller had proposed a similar motion at the October 21 council meeting.

Gibson also said that by pointing to a spot on the map, even if it’s just matter of getting information, then council would have many people thinking that harm reduction housing was going to happen at 106 Beaumont as a matter of fact.

This comment ended up feeling like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The fulfilment was helped along by the local commercial TV station in Kitchener who went to Beaumont the next day and started going door-to-door in an ad hoc census on the possibility.

From what many delegates said at the meeting this past Monday, talking to the TV reporter was the first time they heard about the motion, and since there was no reporter from the TV station at the meeting, perhaps they didn’t understood the nuance of what had happened at committee.

Consequently, people felt that there was more urgency on the file then there might have been if someone took a couple of minutes to explain the nuances of committee procedure to them. But I guess we’ll never know.

Of course, process is a problem that’s bigger than this specific example, and one that I think we’re in a constant battle to resolve. Some of the extreme divisions on this debate will never be rectified, but everyone would likely agree that in this situation, they were asked to play a game that they didn’t know all the rules for.

The genesis of all this though is the fact that Guelph has lagged in the creation of social housing for the last 20 years. Ever since the province downloaded the responsibility on municipalities in the late-90s, there just hasn’t been the money or the drive to make social housing happen. Now the problem is too big to ignore.

During Wednesday night’s budget meeting, coun. Mark MacKinnon remarked on social media that Guelph is not a province, which was a way of saying that we’re seeing the City forced to cover more responsibilities that are supposed to be in the provincial realm. Fair enough, but while governments argue about who’s jurisdiction is what, people are in desperate need of help.

This is what the original Goller motion was responding to. There was an opening to do something, council tried to do it, but their reach exceeded their grasp. At least until the County of Wellington and other partners get their ducks in a row. This was a messy process, but messy doesn’t always mean bad.

Harm reduction housing might not happen on Beaumont, but it will happen somewhere in Guelph, so let’s consider this a dress rehearsal for how we will all respond the next time.