City council greets housing authority manager with questions on security

North Battleford city council members had questions for the manager of the Battlefords Housing Authority this week, having heard complaints from within the community about conditions faced by tenants, especially seniors, and neighbours.

General Manager Denis Lavertu, made a presentation to council Monday on the organization’s activities, presented under the heading “Transforming to Serve,” outlining a transformation seen by the organization in recent years.

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Historically, there had been separate North Battleford and Battleford Housing Authorities, but those have now consolidated into a single authority with a single board. The combined entity is now the largest standalone housing authority out of 24 in the province, with 629 units on 191 properties, contributing to $1 million in property taxes, according to Lavertu. Their assets are owned by Saskatchewan Housing Corporation, with BHA operating as an agency with its own board.

Lavertu also said to accommodate the consolidation of operations, BHA has moved to the new central location on 831-104th Street which will also house their shop and some other operations. It opened to the public Feb. 16.

The housing authority has faced mounting building security issues over the past couple of years, most notably at Valleyview Towers II, with reports of disorderly conduct, addictions and damage within the building.

During his presentation Lavertu acknowledged community challenges including violence and gangs in their neighborhoods, domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, increased property traffic and loitering, needles found on private and public property and incidents of damage. Public health orders over the past year have been a challenge as well, he said.

Lavertu also cited challenges for landlords including incidents related to alcohol and drug abuse, anti-social or offensive behavior, harassment and bullying, non-compliance with household composition, loud and disruptive behavior, malicious damage to property, non-tenant or unauthorized building access and misuse of laundry facilities by visitors.

When Mayor David Gillan opened the floor to questions, there was no shortage of them.

Echoed later by other councillors, Len Taylor touched on the lack of communication from the housing authority to council in recent years.

Taylor said he appreciated Lavertu providing an update, noting that “for some reason in recent years communication has not been very good, and as a result the city receives some phone calls, sometimes complaints, which we are unable to answer because we have very little information.”

He took Lavertu’s attendance as an indication he would do this again, and “help to ensure that public dollars, whether they’re provincially collected or municipally collected, are spent in an accountable manner for the people of North Battleford.”

Taylor peppered Lavertu with questions on the situation at Valleyview Towers. He pointed to recent news coverage and asked for an update regarding the response to complaints there.

Lavertu responded by saying he couldn’t speak to specific instances, but said “we definitely have responded to all the complaints that we’ve received today. I think we’ve done so in a way that has been swift.”

He also pointed to some things done over the last few years regarding security, referring to a memo he provided to council dated Feb. 22.

In that memo Lavertu had outlined a number of building security improvements undertaken at their properties in recent years including access controls, door-ajar alarms, exterior lighting, video surveillance and onsite security.

That memo also noted that commissionaires and security contractors have been used to assist in resolving incidents at a number of buildings. In 2019, a three-month contract for onsite security was approved and in 2020-21 onsite security was contracted three days a week over Christmas holidays, and that was approved to continue for an additional eight weeks for seven days per week.

Another challenge Lavertu cited is the burden of proof needed in the evictions process, which is carried out in a process through the Office of Residential Tenancies.

“If we don’t have that or if tenants are unable to come forward or are in fear of any type of retaliation or something, you don’t get that burden of proof.”

Taylor also asked what safety protocols were being put in place for BHA tenants. Lavertu pointed to the investments made and also pointed to the city’s CPTED — Crime Prevention through Environmental Design — which includes things like ensuring the exteriors of buildings are well lit.

The BHA has also very recently updated their “compliments, complaints and appeals” policy to make it more clear for tenants to be able to provide them information when there are occurrences or complaints.

Councillor Thomas ‘Bill’ Ironstand noted a couple of questions he always gets are whether Valleyview Towers were meant to be for seniors only when they first opened, whether the policy had changed to include a more diverse group of tenants, and could they go back to seniors only.

In response Lavertu noted the Valleyview Towers have been dedicated for years to house seniors through their social housing program. “And it still is that today.”

But, Lavertu noted, the response from Sask Housing when there have been vacancies has been to allow them to place “non-seniors” through a policy where they could dedicate specific buildings in the province that could house non-senior tenants. Lavertu said they didn’t implement that policy to its full extent, because “the mix, the tenant mix, would not work.” He acknowledged there have been placements of mentally or physically challenged clients based on a “best fit.”

(The News-Optimist has received several letters from tenants of Valleyview Tower II complaining about non-seniors being housed in the building, creating re-occuring instances of partying, violence and damages, and causing some seniors to move out and even away from the community. Their complaints to the authority, the letters have said, have seen little result.)

In her remarks, Councillor Kelli Hawtin said she had received complaints not only about Valleyview Towers but also about duplexes on 101st Street.

Hawtin noted those duplexes have chain link fences and bright lights on at all hours of the night; she received complaints about lights shining into neighbouring yards and houses.

Lavertu acknowledged they did receive complaints about the lights and made adjustments in response; people can contact them if there are concerns.

New building

Councillor Kent Lindgren asked about the new central office on 104th Street being rented by the Housing Authority. That had an impact on operational costs, Lindgren said, and asked if that was a local decision or a decision by Sask. Housing Corporation.

On the relocation of the office, Lavertu said there had been operational reviews done by Sask. Housing that identified the existing office located at Valleyview Towers as “insufficient for long term needs for the Housing Authority.”

Since joining the organization, Lavertu said, among his tasks was developing proposals around the office and shop relocation.

“One of the ideas behind it was a consolidation of our services. And so we have a regional body that is one of the nine offices in Saskatchewan and they’re in North Battleford, so they are our main branch and they are having another lease. We have a shop that needs a lease as well, currently, and we have housing technical operations ... they have an office here as well. The consolidation made sense and we do receive, we are subleasing that space to our other partners, I guess you could say.” The shop will be transitioning to this new building as well, he said.

The process had taken about three years. Lavertu added they had considered proposals for within the Valleyview Towers, but essentially the “space wouldn’t work for what we were looking at.”

There were really only two sites available for them. One was city owned while the other was privately owned. The latter “made more sense” for them because it was a corner lot location.

The final decision came from Sask. Housing Corporation, through a proposal that was sent to them with all of the options; they approved the lease on the building as well.

When asked by Mayor David Gillan about whether there was a net profit or loss with the move to the new central location, Lavertu said it would be difficult to measure, but he did expect a change in new lease costs.

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