Former jockey dorm proposed to help house homeless Edmontonians

A new three-pronged proposal to provide permanent supportive housing will be debated by Edmonton city council.

The proposal includes having temporary bridge housing on the Exhibition Lands and a scheme that many have seen as a longshot because part of the plan is to use the former dorm where jockeys used to live.

The 36 rooms would be part of a larger plan that would see a total of more than 200 units constructed. A report heading to Monday’s council meeting recommends building a temporary modular supportive housing building with 57 units as well as four purpose-built developments spread around the city for a total of 150 units built on city-owned land.

“We did look at hotels,” said Jackie Foord, the city’s branch manager for social development. “We looked at other buildings that existed, and of course they were expensive, whether you buy or lease a hotel, or whether you buy or lease some other building.

“This particular piece of property is owned by the City of Edmonton.”

The plan calls on moving ahead without provincial support. It’s part of the city’s overall plan to build 900 permanent supportive housing units by 2024.

Foord said the plunge in the price of oil and the COVID-19 pandemic left the province saying no to the funding request.

“We went in. We looked at it. If you were to build for bridge housing, this is the type of design you would have,” Foord said. “This is how you would do this. It’s got a kitchen. It’s got bedrooms. It’s got a place for an office for people to work out of there.

“We’re just grasping on an opportunity that would cost around $600,000 to bring up to use.”

Coun. Tony Caterina is worried, however, that the proposal will scare away potential developers for the Exhibition Lands, where he sees land value at $1 million an acre. He told Global News he’ll have a lot of questions at Monday’s meeting.

“It’s currently the most valuable land in the city,” he said.

However, Foord said the city has an exit strategy for the Exhibition Lands, knowing private sector development is on the horizon.

“We would put in a six-month option, so if that piece of land was sold and the developer said, ‘I need to work right away,’ we would be out of there in six months. It’s an asset that’s there. We thought we could use it and if we have to leave, we have to leave. But at this point, it’s a really good financial and physical option for us.”

“I think we’re moving the needle a little bit, and that’s tremendous,” said Coun. Scott McKeen who has long called for the province to be part of the solution for housing individuals experiencing homelessness.

“We still have a long ways to go.”

The report touts this new build form as finding a solution quickly.

“Construction of modular housing could be completed in 40 to 50 per cent less time than traditional construction,” the report says, adding there remains an immediate need to house nearly 500 unsheltered individuals experiencing complex mental and physical health issues.

McKeen said he’s listened to one pitch from a B.C.-based builder who has shown interest.

“It has a lot that can be done off-site,” he said. “Then you put up a building in no time. The promise is cheaper, faster and just as good, so it’s really interesting.

“I think we should be piloting technologies like that for sure.”

Renovations to the jockey dorm could be completed this year, with the modular construction done some time in 2021, if council approves.

The four sites have been selected around the city Foord said, however, she would not disclose the locations until city council has been briefed.

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