As trustees prioritize affordable housing and call for volunteers to take part in a task force, have they forgotten they are up against market forces, the constraints of the Islands Trust Act and a never-ending press of humanity?
It is important to note the current housing initiative is not just about securing accommodation for local workers. Housing advocates and Trustee Laura Patrick, in particular, are aiming for sweeping changes they believe will provide more “attractive and affordable housing” for the general population.
In a recent article, Laura wrote: “We know that: Rental supply is dire, the cost of housing on the island is simply beyond the reach of a majority of islanders, that seniors and young families are particularly vulnerable to housing stress, and that too many people are reduced to living in travel trailers, accessory buildings and boats. The solution, of course, is to build a greater variety of homes, more affordable homes and with affordable, realistic rents.”
While I share Laura’s antipathy to gentrification and concern about housing, I also realize that, regardless of what the Trust may attempt, there is no bucking the price of real estate short of flooding the market with new densities which would be a gross violation of our Official Community Plan and the Trust mandate.
Last year, the average single-family detached home on Salt Spring sold for about $800,000 while the mean sale price of bare land was about $350,000. And then there’s the high cost of construction. The bottom line is that you need money to live comfortably on Salt Spring, and the situation can only get worse as more people with deep pockets buy up local real estate, sometimes sight unseen, for primary or secondary residences and investment purposes.
At these prices, there is no way property owners are going to spend a fortune building new, up-to-code accommodation, only to rent it out long term for the bottom dollar, by signing a housing agreement, for example. They will want a return on their investment, and that will likely lead to more B&Bs and illegal STVRs rather than year-round rentals.
Even if trustees waved a magic wand to create a few hundred new affordable units for some of the people currently living in substandard (and often illegal) dwellings, do they honestly believe those poorly constructed, unsafe dwellings will not be rented out again as soon as they are vacated? We have become a regional overflow destination for people seeking low-cost housing.
Pender Island Trustee Steve Wright explained much of this in a December 2020 letter to Trust Council. He offered some practical steps to improve the situation, but warned about major changes to land use policies: “For trustees to become more involved in this issue is in my opinion, driven by our emotional response to it. It would be a mistake, if not Ultra Vires the Trust Act, if we make any decisions based on the need for affordable housing over and above our primary concern for the protection of the environment. Even to give the public the impression that we can do something to create housing is a mistake, if not a disservice. We cannot hold land. We do not have the funding. We do not have the authority.”
The Trust should maximize the use of existing housing stock, with special attention to local employees, but abandon grandiose ideas of intervening in the marketplace to bring social justice to all. We cannot build our way out of this conundrum without destroying that which is supposed to be protected.