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Longtime North Shore housing advocate stepping down

Don Peters has been front and centre in the push for more affordable housing for 16 years
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Don Peters, chair of the North Shore Community Resource Society’s Community Housing Action Committee, stands in front of an affordable housing project in Delbrook. After 16 years, the housing advocate is stepping down. | Paul McGrath / North Shore News

For the last 16 years, if it had to do with affordable housing on the North Shore, Don Peters was front and centre.

Now, the 81-year-old chair of the North Shore Community Resource Society’s Community Housing Action Committee is stepping down.

The committee was founded in 2002 on the premise that every community should be able to house residents who aren’t wealthy.

Peters began volunteering for the group soon after, “not knowing affordable housing from my elbow,” he says.

One of his first assignments was going to the three municipalities as a representative of the North Shore Homelessness Task Force. He remembers a particularly frosty reception from one District of West Vancouver council member, telling him he had “some nerve” raising the issue in West Van.

But Peters persisted, building relationships with a range of politicians, planners, developers and non-profits. Peters has often been among the first to sign up to speak before the three North Shore councils whenever a project or policy is on the agenda that could move the needle on affordability. But much of the work is done behind the scenes to ensure new developments and policies have affordability built into them before they even land on the council agenda.

Controversy

Speaking up in favour of more housing and cheaper rents hasn’t done much for Peters’ popularity, he admits, especially when so many of his peers aren’t themselves in need of affordable housing.

When District of North Vancouver council members were considering a six-storey below-market housing project on the parking lot of the Delbrook Lands, it was close to home – quite literally the lot next to his own building. His neighbours resented him for urging council to vote in favour.

“They wouldn’t speak to me, they were so goddamned mad,” he said.

Council voted the project down in 2018.

Each of the North Shore councils has made decisions that have made him proud of CHAC’s lobbying as well as decisions that have left him with regret.

In 2019, District of North Vancouver council voted to cut its core funding for CHAC, which Peters said was political retribution for CHAC’s advocacy on the redevelopment of the Lynn Valley townhouse complex Emery Village. The debate over the project centered mainly around demovictions. Peters said CHAC’s support was for the inclusion of new rentals and below-market homes, which at the time were hardly ever before council. Looking back, he wishes more had been done for the existing tenants. Advocating for compensation and relocation support for tenants is now a big part of what CHAC does.

“I wish we could turn back the clock on an Emery Village but we can’t. It’s a deep regret of mine that we were just at the beginning of understanding really how bad it was out there,” he said.

Redemption

Two years after they rejected the proposal for the Delbrook parking lot, district council voted to rezone it for affordable housing and in 2021, they inked deals with a non-profit developer and the province which kicked in capital funding. Today though, it’s still a construction site.

“It’s a bloody shame that we had to go four years or five years … when we actually could be operating it right now,” he said. “It’s not only a success story, but it’s a failure story.”

Giving credit where it’s due, Peters praises the same council members for their unanimous vote to build a six-storey supportive housing building on Keith Road, despite steep community opposition.

“That took guts,” he said.

Housing for all

Mostly, Peters has reserved CHAC’s advocacy for the developers and decision makers who need to hear it, but the intent has always been to benefit the North Shore as a whole, even those who don’t agree.

Like a lot of his golfing buddies, Peters has had to watch his adult children move their families away to other parts of the province in search of housing options they could afford.

“It breaks up neighbourhoods. It breaks up families. And when these young people have to move away, they take with them all of that stuff that they carry with them, what they’ve learned, and what they’ve become as people,” he said. “That kind of mini tragedy here happens a hell of a lot.”

That’s what’s kept him driven doing the job into his 80s, he said.

Home prices are higher than they’ve ever been. Housing laws are changing. More people are coming. North Shore Community Resource Society is now looking for someone younger to continue Peters’ work as chair.

Executive director Murray Mollard said they’re hoping to find someone who, like Peters, understands what’s at stake and knows when to use quiet diplomacy and when to use more force.

“Our job is to make sure these relationships pay dividends for people’s homes, ultimately,” Mollard said.

It's a paid position, although not high enough to buy a home on the North Shore.

brichter@nsnews.com
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