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The Top 2 of the Top 10 stories that grabbed Victoria's attention in 2007
by Jack Knox

As printed in the "Times Colonist" - Sunday, December 30, 2007

1. The Streets

Here's an uncomfortable question: Do we really care about the plight of Victoria's street population, or are we just tired of stepping over them on the sidewalk? If they were tucked away out of sight, would there still be the same clamour for change?

The growing sense of frustration and weariness is almost palpable, the public having run out of patience with government's unwillingness/inability to address the ever-worsening problems plaguing downtown. People wonder why you can spend a day in Times Square without seeing a panhandler, yet you can't make it half a block in Victoria. A police survey showed six in 10 Victorians feel unsafe walking downtown after dark. Beset by after-hours bad behaviour, fed-up neighbours want the Cormorant Street needle exchange closed. The citizens of Victoria have grown increasingly frustrated with the homeless problem in the city's core and the government's apparent inability to deal with it.

We tend to lump all the issues under the handy umbrella of "homelessness" -- and indeed, this spring's homeless count found more than 1,200 people without a roof or living in unstable housing -- but that's just one ingredient in the cocktail. Four in five street people suffer from addiction, mental illness or both; this is nothing new, but neither has much been done to address the reality. The revolving door that shuffles people from cop car to court to hospital to the street still spins; police have identified 324 individuals who accounted for 23,000 incidents over 40 months, at a cost of $9 million.

The answer isn't as complicated as it is expensive: more money for housing, mental health, addictions and policing. In October, the mayor's task force came up with a plan that includes 1,550 new housing units over five years; Victoria Mayor Alan Lowe vowed to find places for 50 of the hardest-to-house within four months. If it seems pricey, so is the consequence of doing nothing, whether you measure the cost in terms of the impact on the city's economy, or the lives of the people about whom we profess to care.

2. Hot Housing

Here's the flip side of homelessness: Homes that cost $596,586, the average for a single-family house in Greater Victoria in November. That's terrific news if you paid off your mortgage in 1992 and plan to retire to Cache Creek, but an impossible dream for young families trying for a toehold in the market. In November, there were seven local properties on the market for between $15 million and $28.5 million. At the other end of the scale, the cheapest Greater Victoria house on the MLS in mid-December was listed at $360,000. And if you can't afford to buy? Sorry, the rental vacancy rate is under one per cent.

Look at it this way: In 1985, the average house cost $93,865, less than twice what was then an average family income of $51,000. Today, the average house costs nine times as much as the average family brings in. Is this sustainable?