Temporary housing for recently incarcerated Newfoundland women caught in zoning snag

MOUNT PEARL, N.L. — The future is uncertain for a Newfoundland transition home for formerly incarcerated women and its five residents as a zoning dispute plays out in provincial Supreme Court.

Steve Saunders bought the Riverwalk Hotel in January, and he has a contract with the local Elizabeth Fry Society allowing the group to use the rooms for women who are recently released from incarceration.

He insists the building in Mount Pearl, N.L., just outside St. John's, is still being used as a hotel, which lines up with the area's zoning regulations. But the City of Mount Pearl disagrees.

Mayor Dave Aker says it's actually a transition house, and that requires different zoning. The city issued Saunders and the Elizabeth Fry Society a cease-and-desist order, giving them until May 20 to quit their operations.

In an effort to block the order and save the residents from eviction, Saunders filed for an injunction with provincial Supreme Court. The case is now scheduled to go before a judge on June 14.

"Some of these women have nowhere to go," Saunders said in a recent interview. "For years, that place was one of the seediest spots in the city," describing the new use as a complete turnaround.

He has also contested the order with the regional appeal board, run by the province's Department of Municipal Affairs.

The Elizabeth Fry Society is a national organization with chapters across the country aimed at helping women in the criminal justice system. Saunders said he's worked with the organization before — he owns about 35 properties in St. John's that he rents to vulnerable populations and the organizations serving them — and he figured the group would be a good fit for the hotel.

He bought the building in January, and the first Elizabeth Fry clients moved in that month, he said.

The women use the hotel for "short-term" stays, he said, pointing to an extended-stay hotel in St. John's used exclusively by the province's eastern health authority to house patients as an example of the kind of arrangement he feels he's struck with Elizabeth Fry.

He said he worries the City of Mount Pearl is being "elitist" in trying to shut the facility down.

Aker insists the city doesn't want to kick the women out of their temporary homes. However, city staff and lawyers have agreed the building isn't being used as a hotel, and Aker said the zoning needs to reflect that. Ideally, that change would have been made through the city's formal application process before anybody moved in, he added.

"Clearly as a city, we'd lose all credibility if we threw our regulations out each time and didn't follow them," Aker said in a recent interview. He said the owner was given ample notice, "and so now we'll have to wait out the court process."

Any discussion about changing the zoning is on hold as the issue makes its way through the appeal board and the court, he said, declining to say whether the city would be receptive to a future zoning change.

"There is a path forward, but we can't go much further," he said. "We're in a standstill right now."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 30, 2022.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press