British Columbia

Confronting housing and homelessness in Canada's smallest city

Despite being Canada's smallest city by area, Duncan, B.C. faces some big city challenges like homelessness and a shortage of affordable housing — both of which are becoming issues in the upcoming municipal election.

Three out of four of Duncan’s mayoral candidates offer solutions ahead of election

Duncan is the smallest city by area in Canada and located on southern Vancouver Island. (

Despite being Canada's smallest city in physical size, Duncan, B.C. faces some big city challenges like homelessness and a shortage of affordable housing.

Both issues have become issues in the upcoming municipal election.

Three of the four mayoral candidates vying to replace current mayor Phil Kent in Duncan joined Gregor Craigie, host of CBC's On The Island, to talk about what they would do differently for the Vancouver Island community.

"[Housing] is a real problem, the vacancy rate is extremely low," said mayoral candidate Martin Barker, a chiropractor who served on council from 2011 to 2014.

Barker wants to see practical solutions such as building up more rental stock in the small city, which is just over two square kilometres in size. 

"The vacancy rate is extremely low,"  Barker said.

Right now, he said, it's hard for residents to get permission to build a secondary suite like a laneway house or basement suite to rent out. 

"We need to make it a lot easier for residents to have secondary suites," he said.

"We could consider perhaps waiving the permitting fee, which is a bit like buying a lottery ticket at the moment," he said. 

He also is pushing for more density downtown with smaller units — between 500 and 600 square feet — that are cheaper to build and rent.

Sharon Jackson, a Duncan councillor who is also running for mayor, said more incentives are needed for developers to build affordable housing.

"If someone does come in to build an apartment building or townhouse where a percentage of those would be affordable housing, we could give them fees and charges breaks," Jackson said.

The general local elections in British Columbia are on Oct. 20, 2018. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

Addressing homelessness

Dealing with homelessness, though,  is a different matter, the candidates agreed, and needs a more regional approach.

"The biggest thing that we need to do differently is actually working better with our community members, we know what is needed," said Michelle Staples, who's also a Duncan councillor and running for mayor. 

That means reaching out to residents to communicate what council is doing to address the problem. she said.

"So much misinformation is being spread," said Staples.

"There's a lot of fear happening and it's our responsibility to make sure that everyone is taken care of."

Regional approach

Jackson faced a similar situation last month when she voted with the majority on Duncan council  to oppose the opening of a 15-bed homeless women's shelter following neighbours' objections.

She heard feedback from residents who objected to the shelter because of concerns of it being too close to day-care centres in the neighbourhood.

"I could not look at those people in the face and say 'I'm sorry, I know better than you and I'm going to override your concerns,'" she said.

"This has to be a regional approach, it cannot just be Duncan's problem."

Barker agreed the future mayor of Duncan will need to work with other levels government to address homeless.

"It's going to take all levels of government and a community that goes it alone is going to find that they're going to be swamped," he said.

Daniel Helmer is the fourth candidate for Duncan mayor.

With files from On The Island.

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