Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Salt Spring Island's housing crisis pushing out longtime residents

SALT SPRING ISLAND — Judith Wells, 71, stands in front of her ruby red Chevrolet and points to a thin mattress and a pillow laid flat in the trunk of her car.
“This is it as of next week,” she says.
Wells has rotated among short-term rentals, couchsurfing and sleeping in her car for seven years. In the absence of family she stays on the island to keep connected to friends. But an eviction notice given to a friend means she will again be living in her vehicle in a matter of days.
“All this time, I have been under care for my heart,” she says, holding back tears. “The other day I was told I could have heart failure. As a 71-year-old person who has worked all their lives, to find themselves left with no resources, it hurts tremendously.”
On the surface, Salt Spring Island holds a reputation of being a paradise getaway painted with orange-barked arbutus trees. But a chronic housing shortage affecting the lower and middle class, paired with a surging homeless count and a lack of resources, paints a starkly contrasting picture.
A soaring number of illegal short-term vacation rentals — when a property not zoned for commercial use is rented for less than a month at a time — and rising real-estate prices have pushed many long-time residents off the island or toward homelessness.
While 0.04 per cent of the population is homeless in Greater Victoria, 1.25 per cent of Salt Spring Island’s population were identified as homeless in this year’s count — which means 131 people. It’s a 58 per cent increase since 2016.
“And that’s undoubtedly a conservative number,” says Kyla Duncan, the Housing First coordinator for Salt Spring Community Services, adding that many feel ashamed of their situations and avoid being counted.
For three years, Duncan has been working with landlords to help people find housing. But the situation has been deteriorating.
“I used to be able to find housing for these folks, but I can’t anymore, it’s become almost impossible. Even working professionals aren’t able to find houses,” she said. “If they’re calling it a crisis in Vancouver, it was beyond a crisis here on Salt Spring before that.”
The centre runs the only homeless shelter on the island, although it only operates between November and March. Located in a 83 year-old house, it consists of a living room, where mats are used as beds.
The island has a limited housing thanks to restricted resource base, particularly potable water. Land use and zoning density are controlled by the Islands Trust, which by mandate exists to preserve and protect the ecosystem and often blocks developments.
Last September, residents voted against becoming a municipality, which would have brought zoning questions under local councillors. Salt Spring Island remains under the control of both the Islands Trust and the Capital Regional District.
“We were lucky enough to even get in there at this point,” Campbell said. “It’s been 5½ years of bouncing around. The longest we’ve been somewhere is for 13 months. They either sell their house or they ‘Airbnb’ it.”
“Sometimes people’s response is ‘just leave.’ We have our lives here, this is our home. My daughter is working here, she’s got a boyfriend here, my son is in school and has his best friends here. I don’t think the answer should be to just push us off the island.”
Chelsea Jones and her husband, Forest Jackson, who were both born on the island and have lived here for more than 30 years, also feel they are being forced to leave. They have six children and haven’t been able to get rental accommodation for eight months, two of which they spent in motels before moving into her sister’s three-bedroom house.
“We’re using one room and the living room,” Jones said. “It’s the first time in my life I’ve felt that we’re going to be homeless. And it’s not that we can’t afford it, it’s just we’re never given a chance with any of the places we find.”
The problem came to a boiling point in April when a public meeting was filled at capacity with more than 100 people. Residents complained about illegal vacation rentals, empty seasonal cottages not permitted for long-term residential use, and horror stories of competing with nearly 100 other respondents over a single for-rent ad.
One man who spoke, Brett Taylor, said his family was evicted from their home by new owners, in order to use it for vacation rental.
Taylor, who’s story was detailed in Salt Spring’s Gulf Islands Driftwood newspaper, moved into a yurt on a friend’s property, but was warned by a bylaw officer that his family was living on the lot illegally.
Taylor’s story provoked frustration as residents openly questioned whether bylaws were being enforced on those operating illegal short-term rentals.
George Grams, one of three Salt Spring Island trustees on the Islands Trust, says politicians are taking action.
“We’ve been aware of it, and we’ve responded to it. We’ve instructed our bylaw officer to take proactive enforcement,” he said. “There is a possibly of expanding the rental housing market by ensuring the illegal uses of residential properties is properly policed. But that action is going to take some time to bear fruit.”
Salt Spring’s bylaw enforcement unit estimates they have recently sent out 80 letters of notice about short-term rentals in the past six months.
“We think there’s more than that,” bylaw enforcement manager Miles Drew said. “We look for them, we don’t wait for a complaint.”
But he said it can be a lengthy process. A first notice becomes a second notice, which eventually can turn into legal action.
“For sure, bylaw enforcement will be recommending legal action. We just haven’t yet decided on which one,” Drew said. “Local bylaws were created after consulting the community, and they deserve to be complied with.”
Like other part of B.C., the housing crisis has become a leading topic on Salt Spring ahead of the upcoming local elections in October, in which Grams is not seeking re-election.
On July 26, local MLA Adam Olsen held a meeting involving trustees and the B.C.’s minister for municipal affairs to ask the province for a task force dedicated to finding a way to improve local governance and service delivery while respecting Salt Spring’s decision to remain unincorporated.
Grams also said Salt Spring’s three Island Trust trustees are reviewing bylaws with an eye to allowing residential use of seasonal cottages.
“But in making those existing buildings available, we have to ensure we respect the mandate of the trust, and that the preservation and protection of our environment will not be compromised,” Grams said, adding that he supports the idea of putting a cap on how many people can live on the island.
“The island should determine its carrying capacity. What is our build-out rate? How many dwellings can we sustainably support within the confines of the natural resources? And that (determination) has never been done.”
For Duncan at the Salt Spring Community Services, the fragmentation of local government on the island means that non-profits carry the load of pushing for changes more so than elsewhere.
“Maybe it’s out of sight, out of mind,” she said. “But there’s people in serious need of more housing.”

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