Cranbrook city hall. Trevor Crawley photo.

Local governance faces challenges responding to housing, social issues

City says province has jurisdiction on providing housing, social services supports

The road to bad places is paved with good intentions.

As the upcoming local government elections loom, the City of Cranbrook had planned to hold a press conference with mayor, council and senior staff to discuss some of the more prominent issues that are being debated in the community.

Those issues include meeting the needs of the city’s unhoused and vulnerable population, finding appropriate ways of responding to increasing mental health and substance use challenges, and concerns over repeat offenders in the court system.

The press conference, which had been in the works going back into the summer, was intended to be a forum with local media to discuss some of the current community issues with elected officials and staff, and to parse out the inter-government jurisdictional responsibilities and challenges to developing solutions.

However, that press conference was kiboshed at a recent city council meeting amidst concerns that it might provide an incumbent advantage during an election campaign where some candidates are running for re-election.

But in the context of some of the issues discussed in the community and on social media, there are complex layers of government responsibilities at play and no simple solutions.

It’s important to note the provincial level of government bears jurisdictional responsibility when it comes to issues of housing, mental health and health care, while crown prosecutors are bound by the criminal code and federal law.

This isn’t to absolve local government of its role to play in developing solutions, but there has been a failure from provincial and federal governments to adequately own up to and respond to some of these challenges.

And since local governance is the most direct form of democracy, mayors, councillors and regional district representatives are going to hear about (and be blamed for) any and all grievances.

Mark Fercho, the city’s top administrator, made that point during the council meeting on Tuesday evening, while also noting that every community across the province is facing similar issues, based on feedback he heard at a recent annual convention for the province’s locally elected officials and administrators.

“Municipal governments are your basic municipal services — roads, water, sewer, garbage, and there seems to be a public perception of a lot more authority and power bestowed on municipal governments through a lot of the chatter,” said Fercho.

“And so, what I’d like to say is the social services, housing, a lot of the laws on some of the provincial level — drug authorizations, prosecutions … those all rest with the provincial government. And then criminal law, federally regulated drugs, is with the federal government.”

“So if I could leave that one message just that when people talk to elected officials, we’re not being made to feel like these are Cranbrook-specific issues. Yes, they’ve spiked in the recent years in Cranbrook, but they are prevalent everywhere.”

While the province may be responsible for social services and supportive housing (among others), there are some examples of local governments partnering with crown corporations and non-profits to develop solutions.

One such case includes an MOU signed between the City of Kamloops and BC Housing, as the city committed to completing a land analysis for shelter sites, financial support such as tax exemptions or waiving development costs, and speeding up the municipal approvals process.

The City of Nanaimo signed a similar MOU two years ago to develop 300 homes for individuals, seniors and families, as well as new permanent, purpose-built supportive homes for people experiencing homelessness, according to a provincial news release.

That MOU led to the opening of a four-storey building earlier this year, which includes 51 self contained studio units and 14 shelter spaces. It is managed by Island Crisis Care Society, a third party organization that has staff on site 24/7 providing support services.

Housing is by far one of the biggest issues for Cranbrook and cities across the province, but crime is also prominent in the minds of voters and candidates.

On Wednesday, the province released an executive summary of a report commissioned to study repeat offenders and random stranger violence.

That executive summary included 28 recommendations in four separate categories.

Twelve recommendations were focused on addressing gaps in the continuum of care for people with mental health and substance use issues who were ensnared in the justice system.

Five recommendations were made with a focus on improving guidance, information sharing and collaboration, while six recommendations focused on better addressing repeat offenders and improving public confidence in the justice system.

A further five recommendations from the BC First Nations Justice Council focused on harm reduction, collection of race-based dis-aggregated data, and funding to design a pilot program in Prince George to to address issues of recidivism amongst First Nations people.

Many of the recommendations put the onus on the province to take the lead for developing solutions.

“Furthermore, long-term reductions in crime require that the Provincial Government invest significantly in addressing the systems-level issues that contribute to offending including systemic racism, poverty, inadequate health services, food insecurity, and housing unaffordability,” reads a key, bolded section of the executive summary.

Again, the intent isn’t to let local government off the hook, but the provincial and federal levels of government have significantly more financial resources to bear in responding to issues that are most keenly felt at the community level.

Local government can’t solve some of the challenges the community is facing, but it can be an active partner and stakeholder in developing solutions.

And there is an election on the horizon where voters will have the chance to vet those solutions pitched by candidates running for office.