A two-year process culminates in an agreement to bring Syrian families to Oak Bay, happily announced on World Refugee Day (June 20).
Oak Bay partnered with the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society and a plethora of volunteers to provide housing at municipally-owned homes at 1531 Hampshire Rd. and 1538 Monterey Ave.
“Partnership with the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society has taken some time but it really is exciting that it’s come to fruition,” said Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen. “It has been a community coming together to do an act of charity, generosity and love.”
“We are absolutely delighted that Oak Bay is partnering with VIRCS to create a housing resource, and we are incredibly grateful to our amazingly generous corporate partners who are volunteering their time and resources to upgrade homes for our refugee families,” said David Lau, executive director, VIRCS.
In early 2016 residents led a charge to clean up the unused home on Hampshire and provide potential refugee housing, arranging in-kind donations to start the process. Council supported the effort “in principle” but required commitment of a suitable community group to officially lead the project.
“It started as a community grassroots initiative,” Jensen said. “Since that time council has been working to identify the right partner.”
Renovations are expected complete soon with a family moving in this summer.
“It’s been quite humbling to see the number of people volunteering to provide safe and supportive housing,” Jensen said. “It really speaks to the generosity of our community and the kindness of Canadians.”
Julia Schenck, Aryze creative director, volunteered providing project management, site labour, organized materials, coordinated resources and extended the opportunity to our network of sub-trades. More than 100 volunteers have put in beyond 600 hours.
“Refugee initiatives like Hampshire House and Monterey House help shape our neighbourhoods for the better,” said Schenck.
In the coming weeks, renovations are expected to begin at 1538 Monterey Ave. which is slated to serve as the Welcome House co-ordination point where a VIRCS staff member will live and manage day-to-day operations of both properties. The Welcome House is to be hosted by a mix of staff and community volunteers who are experienced with resettling refugees, trauma, language acquisition and other situations commonly faced by refugees.
“It will still take us several more months, significant effort and partnership to get both houses up and running, but we are heartfully pleased that the municipality and especially the council has enabled us to solve a problem in a way that will be a source of local pride,” said Lau.
The district will receive $900 a month rent on the smaller house, Jensen said, noting it has received “tens of thousands of dollars in upgrades.” The home has been unoccupied for years, but upgrades to the roof, electrical and things such as stairs make it habitable again.
Oak Bay bought the Hampshire property in 1990, acting as a landlord for the single family residence since. It was considered by council for a parking lot in 2007 and discussed again in 2012.
“The community made it clear they had a different vision of what should be there,” Jensen said.
Oak Bay bought the land at 1538 Monterey Ave in 2016. They paid $1.7 million for the site that includes two residential lots with a single-family home. Both municipally-owned houses will be part of the community conversation when Oak Bay envisions its future for that corridor, Jensen said.
He called this a “short-term” partnership with VIRCS, knowing “we will have a community conversation” about a vision for the village. While that isn’t currently on the council strategic plan, it is on the mind of some local business owners.
“We reluctantly accept that this decision has been made, but we want (council) to commit to keeping this use short-term, no longer than 24 months, and agree to honour the commitment made to Oak Bay businesses to use these properties to enhance parking in the Village when the time is up,” wrote the owners of Penny Farthing, Pharmasave, Engel & Voelkers and Chef on the Run.
The Penny Farthing, and other businesses in the village, paid into a parking fund and say they were told the lot behind the pub was intended for future parking.
The businesses say they need the parking in order to support the businesses and maintain a thriving village.
“There is almost $1 million in the parking fund and our fear is that it will be used for other uses under the Transportation Act,” said Matt MacNeil, owner of the Penny Farthing. “We want that dialogue front and centre and out there publicly.”