Let me start at the end of my story: only a municipality can bring together Salt Spring’s various agencies, coordinate and provide solutions. Disjointed problem-solving creates interminable delays despite a consensus that something be done to help young families establish themselves here.
A new beginning
in the fall of 2012, my partner and I decided to try something radically different. Like many before us, we were going to move to Salt Spring Island and reinvent ourselves. I had recently quit my job as a senior researcher with the B.C. Government in Victoria and had aspirations of becoming a Chef. My partner had close friends on the Island that could give us the lay of the land and provide short term accommodations while we searched for a suitable rental. I had a small pension payout that would cover most living expenses for a year and after that we would re-evaluate our situation. In short, that was the plan.
We managed to stay for 5 years, had many different types of employment, started a business and learned a lot more about Island “politics” than one could ever have imagined. When people ask why we left SSI, the answer is straightforward; “Salt Spring is a wonderful place to live if you can afford it.” At some point, we grew tired of sacrificing economic opportunity for the lifestyle of living on the Island. Outlined below are some of the challenges we faced during our five years on Salt Spring.
It was mid- September when we started looking for rental that we would call home for at least a year. I had started my new career as many aspiring chefs do; washing dishes. The pay was terrible but I knew I had to start somewhere, and having a small bit of savings from my pension afforded me to ability to work to learn rather than to live. With the busy tourist season mostly behind us, I was told that finding a place to live wouldn’t be that difficult. A co-worker had told me about the Salt Spring Exchange, and the search began.
The first thing I noticed was the lack of available rental units on salt spring. I also quickly learned that most of the secondary suites were technically illegal, although any regulations pertaining to them were vastly unenforced. Over the course of the next few weeks we set appointments to view every and anything that was available. What we noticed was 90 percent of the available suites were simply not suitable for us. Some were disgusting and mold infested, some were simply too rural, but mostly, anything decent was overpriced. A basic lesson in Economics; supply and demand, and supply was in short order.
We did eventually find a suitable place (illegal suite) with a reasonable landlord but without my savings we could not have afforded it. And that’s the thing; no one I knew could have afforded it either. I’m talking about my co-workers in the restaurant business making close to minimum wage. What I learned was that they mostly rented rooms in shared houses, lived aboard derelict boats, or even in tents where they could set up until told to move by a CRD officer. It became abundantly clear that Salt Spring had a shortage of affordable housing for the working poor; the service workers who make your coffee, pour your beer and make your meals were priced out of the local housing market, and in just under one year we would be too.
Being a pragmatic person, I knew that if we wanted to stay longer than a year on SSI, we would need to formulate a plan to survive economically. The first part of this plan was to start a food based business, and downsize into a cheaper rental. Problem was; there was absolutely nothing available at a rate that would allow us to start and grow our food business. We decided to do what many other have resorted to; buying a trailer and finding some land to put it on. If not for some very good terms on the trailer, land, and the purposely overlooked fact that we technically were not allowed to live on our plot “year-round, we would not have been able to stay and start our food company.
Starting a Business
Starting a business is a lot of work. It takes dedication, time and money. A whole lot of money. I compare starting a business to a game of whack-a-mole; problems arise and you must quash them quickly. This “game” is considerably more complex trying to operate a food based business on Salt Spring Island. For starters, did I need a business license? What regulations do I need to follow? Who do I even ask, and where do I start? It all became as clear as mud when I looked to the Island’s Trust Master Plan for guidance. After a few days of attempting to decipher that antiquated document, I decided to do what many other business people do on island; move forward and ask for forgiveness rather than permission. We followed all VIHA regulations pertaining to food production and that was good enough for me.
After six months, we had built a thriving little food company that supplied stores on Salt Spring and Victoria. We struggled with the problems of how to grow and scale our company and needed two things; more money and a proper production facility. We were able to secure private investment and started to look for commercial space for our company. We quickly discovered that we were up against the same problem as when we were looking for affordable housing. There simply was not enough commercially zoned property on the island for a small company to rent at an affordable rate. I deemed this to be a failure in zoning more than anything and after much frustration we decided to put our business on hold as we did not have the space to produce our product. Changes need to occur when a growing and profitable small business has to shutter do to a highly unfavourable business environment.
With all the struggles that we endured, there is still a very warm spot in my heart for the Island. Especially for the people who are fighting for positive change. My hope is that this change is embraced for the benefits it can bring to its residents rather than feared as a boogeyman that will transform the island into an unrecognizable “capitalist wasteland” If there is anything to be learned it is that tradition is the antithesis of progress, and the island needs to progress. Change needs to start locally and directly through democratic means. The Island needs to incorporate and become a municipality who can serve its citizens; all of them, especially the working poor. Through good land use policy, an economic strategy to create high paying jobs, and a plan for affordable housing, salt spring could end its failed 1960’s soviet style central planning model and shift to a more responsive and democratic governance structure. Until that time, I will continue to love Salt Spring Island, but as a visitor and not a resident business owner.