Affordable housing (letter to the Driftwood)

There is increasing pressure to “do something about the lack of affordable housing on Salt Spring”. It is a matter I take very seriously.

First of all it is important to understand that the supply of affordable housing is a Provincial matter. The Premier has made announcements recently on the Province’s role and how they are addressing the issue, primarily through the Capital Regional Housing Corporation. Adam Olsen also spoke on the subject acknowledging the government’s responsibility, noting that it has set up a rental housing task force of which he is a member. Among other things they will be looking at recent changes to the rental act, implemented to assist renters but which have made it less attractive to be a landlord, with negative consequences to the supply of rentals properties and possibly an increase in the proliferation of Air B&B’s. I am hopeful that we will see a solution to that particular problem.

While the Province and the CRD deal with the development of affordable housing on SSI, the Trust deals with zoning and land use. The current Local Trust Committee has been very receptive to CRD plans and to those of individual land owners who wish to develop affordable housing. It is important to understand that the Trust is not in the position to develop or manage such housing and must rely on the CRD and/or the private sector for such development. Bear in mind that most land on SSI is privately owned and so our community is largely dependent on individuals stepping forward making their land available, as Fernando and Tammi dos Santos have done so admirably with their Dragonfly project. The CRD has been actively supporting and financing projects such as Drake Road, Croftonbrook, and the Cedars.

The good news is that there are currently over 250 units of affordable housing at various stages of development on our island. Progress is slow as each deals with its own particular needs, but they are nevertheless moving ahead. The issues which provide challenges for such developments include potable water availability, the building code, Islands Health (particularly regarding the use of rainwater catchment in multi residential developments), First Nations interests, funding, available land and some aspects of the OCP. I am hopeful that the province will amend its regulations to make it easier for multi residential developments to use rainwater catchment for drinking water, but this will take time. The OCP has not been reviewed for some 10 years and it is high time it was updated to reflect current realities regarding climate change and community needs. It should also reflect the community’s position regarding B&Bs and STVRs, including, possibly, the requirement for licensing of those activities so that they can be monitored.

But none of this deals with the immediate needs of those who cannot find an affordable home. From the teacher recently employed by the school board who is couch surfing to the bus driver who is living in a car. What is being done to assist these essential and valuable community members?

The Trust’s bylaw enforcement officers are dealing with, what appears to be, the proliferation of short term vacation rentals (STVRs) which are not legal on SSI except in specifically zoned areas (commercial accommodation) and which may very well be affecting the availability of rental housing. While B&Bs are legal in most areas, as a home based business, using bedrooms within the main house or a legal cottage, the rules are clear that they are to be used for sleeping purposes only and that full kitchens may not be provided. When those rules are not adhered to they may become STVRs. Although not necessarily always the case, such accommodation could be used for long term rentals. Bylaw enforcement officers are now taking a more proactive approach in dealing with this issue which may begin to address the supply of affordable housing.

Suites are now legal over more than half the island, including ALR lands and the pilot project implemented by LTC some years ago. I am hopeful that this will be expanded to include the entire island, with some restrictions in watersheds and areas known to have water issues.

LTC has, on its top priority list, the legalization of seasonal cottages for long term rentals. While this brings with it a number of challenges it could certainly go some way to easing the housing crisis. I am hopeful that we will be able to move ahead with this matter before the end of our current term, and we are pressuring staff to make it so.

Many of the letters we receive are critical of, what appears to be, a heavy handed approach by bylaw enforcement officers dealing with illegal housing on the island. However by-law enforcement officers must respond to complaints made. They do not simply turn tenants out onto the street as has been suggested. In fact they typically work with landlords by providing them with options to making their accommodations legal. Clearly, where issues of health or safety are concerned, action must be taken.

To conclude, the current situation is not acceptable. Here on Salt Spring the shortage is having a devastating effect on many islanders and businesses which cannot attract staff if there is no housing. It affects us all. It is up to all levels of government to do what they can to improve the situation. It is also up to each and every one of us who are fortunate to have roofs over our heads to help where we can, by making suites, cottages and houses we are not using available to those in need. We are all responsible for the wellbeing of our community.

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