Proposed policy changes could lead to upgrades of much-maligned motel rows, such as on West Columbia Street in Sahali, but raises questions about what might happen to long-term residents currently living in those areas.
The city is consulting with the public on plans to expand its revitalization tax exemption bylaw.
The program is used by the city to incentivize certain types of development through the temporary waiving of municipal taxes on property improvements.
Currently, such exemptions are provided for residential and commercial development downtown and in North Kamloops, with residential units and commercial developments like The Hive rising in the wake of the policy.
The city is now looking to expand the program, including tax-exempt incentives to redevelop motel and hotel properties throughout Kamloops into multi-family residential or mixed-use development.
Simultaneously, the city is also in the process of adopting a new zoning bylaw, which would see Columbia Street West rezoned from highway commercial to general commercial, removing a hurdle and paving way for the area to transition to residential.
City planner Stephen Bentley said the rezoning would not legitimize current (and illegal) long-term stays in motels and hotels because conditions around site improvements would be required to meet residential standards.
Should both policies be adopted, the motels and hotels could be updated for residential use or redeveloped entirely.
Manga Basi, owner of the Star Lodge and Desert Inn on Columbia Street West, said he would be interested in the revitalization tax exemption and planned to speak with the city, after he was contacted by KTW.
He said he owns three properties that take up significant frontage on the Columbia Street West corridor, noting his family considered rezoning them for multi-storey residential. Once the zoning bylaw is adopted, he won’t need to rezone.
“You know Landmark, right in front of the university?” he asked. “Something like that, we are thinking.”
Social advocate says some residents are in 'perilous' situations
Glenn Hilke, local advocate for the city’s marginalized, said people are currently living in poverty in motels in Kamloops.
He said they obtain a room on their own, due to a lack of affordable housing options, or go through an agency like the ASK Wellness Society or others with BC Housing subsidies.
Hilke described their situations as “perilous.” From week to week or month to month, he said, people don’t know how long they will be able to stay.
Technically, people aren’t supposed to stay in Kamloops motels or hotels for longer than 30 days, but it is a rule that is difficult to enforce — and has not been enforced — due to housing affordability and availability issues in the city.
While the motels are not ideal places for people to live, Hilke said they are better than being on the streets. Asked what would happen if motels and hotels currently occupied by long-term tenants were eliminated right now, Hilke said it would create a “major crisis.”
“Forget about the housing crisis we’re going through right now,” he said.
Kamloops Mayor Ken Christian said the city’s inventory of motels is very old and has suffered. He said the city wants to see, particularly on Columbia Street West, redevelopment, noting the revitalization tax exemption would provide a carrot.
“We’re hoping that when the bylaw is changed, that would be enough of an incentive to create interest among the private sector to turn that into higher and better use, more multi-family, a little more density, longer stays,” he said.
On the issue of possible displacement of current tenants, Christian said the city is hoping BC Housing comes forward with multiple projects to address shortages across the housing continuum. He said there is need for shelter space, supportive housing and subsidized rental housing in Kamloops.
Christian said it is difficult to utilize old motels for shelter because of the number of access points, allowing people to come and go and paving way for nefarious activities, like prostitution or drug transactions.
“That’s just not a good place for a lot of those high needs social-housing clients, so it just doesn’t work,” he said. “You see things like the police call volumes go up and you see things like the nuisance bylaw being invoked and stuff like that.”
The city previously placed a number of Columbia Street West motel properties on its nuisance property list, due to the amount of emergency calls to the area drawing on resources. A number of high-profile police events have also occurred in the area.
Development? Yes, but not at the expense of displacing residents
Sahali resident and Beattie elementary parent Tara Bondar said she would like to see redevelopment of the Columbia Street West area — but not at the expense of displacing people.
Concerns were raised last year about hold and secure measures at Beattie elementary due to police incidents at nearby motels. Beattie is at Columbia Street and McGill Road, right around the corner from motel row.
During one such police event, Bondar said a family from the school indicated after the fact that they lived along that motel row. In addition to families and B.C. Housing clientele, seniors and Thompson Rivers University students also live in the motels.
Bondar said she would like to see the city provide, as a caveat to redevelopment incentives, requirement to include subsidized housing. She doesn’t want to see that Beattie family pushed to the pavement as expensive towers rise.
"I’d love to have kids in our neighbourhood and, if we keep just building fancy housing, our families are going to get pushed out,” she said.
Coun. Sadie Hunter said that, while the city does not want to displace motel residents, another factor to consider is that people are living in unsafe conditions.
She said many hotel and motel rooms do not meet BC Building codes nor public health standards.
Hunter said the city is trying to strike a balance between health and safety and housing affordability.
“Any future development that might occur there will definitely occur working hand in hand with those owners and trying to ensure there is still a number of spaces that are available, so people aren’t displaced,” she said.
Long-term solutions sought
Coun. Bill Sarai said the city is trying to create more attainable housing for every income level. He said the city needs to understand the direct impacts of the proposed policy decisions. He added that BC Housing is a “major player” in housing units in Kamloops and across the province and he wants he agency at the table engaging in long-term solutions.
“We see a lot of short-term solutions,” Sarai said. “A lot of temporary, temporary, temporary. We need to get to long-term, long-term.”
Hunter chairs a committee that has been looking at the revitalization tax exemption changes. She said the policy previously led to construction of the Sandman Hotel on Lorne Street, across from Riverside Park.
Hunter said the city is looking at changes to expand the downtown tax-exempt zones — the proposed expansion would include incentives for residential and commercial development along Victoria Street West and east downtown, as well as incentivizing new day-care facilities citywide.
Hunter said a shortage of day-care spaces in Kamloops won’t be solved by incentives to build new day cares, but it will help.
“It’s kind of the chicken and egg issue, similar to a lot of other ones we’re facing,” she said. “If we don’t have the facilities, there’s definitely no spaces, but along with the need for more spaces, we also have a need for more accredited early childhood educators and business operators to operate licensed day cares.”
Hunter said she also wanted to see incentives for accessibility improvements to buildings. However, staff indicated the tax break would not work because property values do not increase as a result of accessibility improvements.
Christian said another issue with the revitalization tax exemption is shifting the tax burden from developers to other taxpayers. Hunter, however, said long-term benefit over time for something like new day cares far outweighs any benefit to developers in receiving the tax exemption.
Hundreds of students, seniors and families living in motels, hotels
ASK Wellness Society CEO Bob Hughes said his educated guess for how many people are living in hotels and motels in Kamloops is between 500 and 750 students, seniors and people on lower fixed incomes.
KTW reached out to BC Housing to inquire as to how many people it subsidizes to live in motels and hotels in the city, the potential impact upgrades or redevelopment of such properties could have on its clients and whether it would consider buying such properties, following its recent purchase of the Fortune Motel in North Kamloops to use for social housing.
In a statement, senior communications advisor Sophie Carrigan Gray said BC Housing is not aware of plans by the city to incentivize redevelopment of motels and hotels.
BC Housing’s Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters (SAFER) and Rental Assistance Program currently have an untold number of people living in hotels and motels in Kamloops.
As of Sept. 30, those two programs served 741 people in Kamloops (589 SAFER and 152 RAP), not exclusive to hotels and motels, but overall.
While the number of people currently living in city hotels and motels could not be provided, Carrigan Gray said 46 BC Housing clients are currently “sheltering” in motels and hotels.
“Hotels and motels are integral to BC Housing’s ability to provide temporary affordable housing to people who access our supports, including rent subsidies, shelter spaces and COVID-19 isolation spaces,” Carrigan Gray said.
“Preserving affordable housing stock is one of our top priorities. If we learn that a building that houses people with low incomes is looking to sell, we always explore a potential purchase, as the loss of affordable housing can have a significant impact on a community and lead to an increase in homelessness.
“While we do not currently have any plans to purchase additional hotels or motels in Kamloops, we are working closely with the city to boost the supply of affordable housing in the community.”