Is this #GoodbyeSaltspring?

Life for most of us here has been pretty hard since the pandemic.

Particularly for many who were just barely making island life work before Covid, the combination of forces that smacked into the whole world has made life even more difficult for many on Salt Spring.

"I am living in a mobile home with my two kids for $1,700 a month. I can barely afford gas and food, and I work more than full time hours. I barely get to hang out with my kids because I am working so much just to keep a roof over their head."

In the past 3 years of working on the issue, I’ve come to learn more about the drivers of our housing crisis than I ever really wanted to. From the wider trends of what happens to desirable communities when market forces are allowed to run without any controls, to all the ways the Islands Trust, CRD, North Salt Spring WaterWorks, and even private homeowners contribute to our very local version of the problem here.

“We have moved nine times. Lived in a one room vacation rental with three kids once, a tiny basement apartment for a year until we finally found something else. Have lived with mould, rats, bugs, and bad water. Took us eight years to find stable housing.”

At the start of the summer, the Islands Trust, one of our local governments that can do something, was finally set to take action. Well sort of action. Trustee Laura Patrick formed a “Housing Task Force” to make recommendations, and attempted to get housing and community to become official priorities of the new Trust Policy Statement, the long term vision for the Trust.

Then something unexpected happened - backlash.

Led by what seemed to be conservation minded people - mostly from the smaller islands but also from some prominent Salt Springers - voices started to argue that the Trust had no business addressing housing at all. The Trust should only focus on protecting the environment, they said. If we have housing, people will flock here, ruining our environment, was their argument.

And this being Salt Spring, argue they did: at Trust meetings, directly lobbying Trustees, posts on the Exchange and all over social media, in the pages of the Driftwood, and even in the Victoria paper.

“Moved away after 41 years. Too expensive. No affordable housing. Worked three jobs to raise my kids. Nowhere I can afford to live now. Everything is too expensive.”

To many of us these well meaning “environment only” arguments smack of privilege, classism, and selfishness. For an island already seen by many as pampered and elite, this is not a good look. It’s certainly pretty far away from climate justice.

But even taking our “pull up the drawbridge after I get in” mentality aside, you have to start to ask yourself: in the face of a worsening social crisis that our island has ignored and avoided over decades now, what kind of community do we expect to remain here, when few of the islands’ working people can afford to make it work much longer?

“I work at Lady Minto hospital and we currently have a critical staff shortage and are at a crisis point due to limited staff being able to stay here long term. Many of our staff are struggling to stay due to the housing crisis. We have lost countless staff just in the time I have been here.”

So this summer we decided to do something about it. The quotes interspersed with my words in this article are all real stories submitted by members of our community. And they’re heartbreaking.

In July our organization, Salt Spring Solutions, asked people who were considering leaving the island, or who had already left, to share their stories. By the end of the summer, we had received an incredible 58 stories.

It turns out our hunches were true: residents of Salt Spring from many walks of life, many of whom have lived here for decades and serve as the lifeblood of the community, were leaving.

“There is nothing for the average working family. We work full time, my partner works in the trades. He is paid well. We have no options if our current rental were to go away. We feel stuck, we feel scared for our children’s future.”

The first step in finding a solution to a problem is acknowledging the problem exists in the first place. And friends, our community has some work to do on this front.

So as befits an arts loving community, we have created an exhibition: quotes, excerpts, and photos from these stories have been made beautiful by a talented local designer and posted, in a quilt like fashion, on the (generously donated) windows next to Salt Spring Coffee. It’s a powerful display of what’s going on in our community today.

Come on down in the month of October and check it out. Talk about housing solutions with your friends.

“I'm worried that community - which is the major driving factor of wanting to live on Salt Spring - will be gone and replaced by the ultra wealthy, with many unoccupied homes. Then what's the point in staying?”

We believe that once this smart and compassionate island sees what the housing crisis is doing to our fellow community members, that arguments against finding environmentally friendly ways to keep our diverse workforce living here will start to fade away, and we can get to work on real solutions.

Jason Mogus
Salt Spring Solutions

October 5, 2021 4:23 PM

  • w101 says:

    One thing is for sure.. -government is NOT the solution. Please don't ask any government entity to get involved or pass yet more laws/rules governing peoples property, lives and freedom. *The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen.* -- 50 years ago a person could move to Salt Spring Island and likely find a piece of land and build a home without 13 environmental surveys, and a 2 mile thick roll of red tape and permits all designed in the name of "safety"... (as if homes people built were falling down in large numbers) Those who built homes, and bought land back in the day when it was doable for the low income/middle class are now the benefactors of the current restrictions created by the current bloated bureaucracy. Their real estate is now worth a fortune due to the free market not being able to get a foot in the door any longer. Young people don't have a chance against the "the man"... 🙂 Of course these monster mortgages are tied to the cumbersome codes so the solution is.. --Tiny Homes behind trees where authorities can't see them. --So there. 🙂

  • stormking says:

    Thanks for doing this. Important work.

  • "In the past 3 years of working on the issue, I’ve come to learn more about the drivers of our housing crisis than I ever really wanted to. " In 3 years you haven't learned much if you think the IT task force will do anything for housing opportunities even if it has no opposition. What is needed is a real government, with accountable leaders who have the authority to do something. The CRD Regional Housing, which we pay into every year is sitting on 5 acres of land with proven water, IT reports, IT bylaws and consultant plans that we paid 185 thousand dollars for. Real solutions include speculation tax, empty homes tax, limiting house sizes, banning non resident ownership, becoming a municipality. Real solutions are possible by "lobbying" the right department, like Parks and Rec who control locally owned real estate on Kanaka that are vacant and zoned for density housing.

  • minoa65 says:

    It's a top down problem. For example; Our colonialist government has been pushing multiculturalism for at least 30 years now, all the while abusing indigenous people. Also, my Indian friend (sorry, that I have to stress of Indian decent, not indigenous) who was born and raised in Trinidad encounters systemic racism in the workplace continuously. I pointed out to an acquaintance of mine, who's mother is indigenous, that the government who came up with the Day of Reconciliation is the same government who has been stealing children from indigenous people's families. I'm leading up to the fact that this traditional white, male dominated system has been providing the general public with songs and dances and not providing real information and using our tax dollars to do it. We are being brainwashed to this day. It's time to open our eyes and trust our intuitions and not just what our government allows the news to tell us. This system is capitol driven: capitalist. In a conversion I had with my Trini friend while she was expressing disdain toward it, I asserted that the problem with capitalism is that there is no CAP. It allows individuals and special interest groups the ability to gain power and influence over our government with their wealth. I'm putting this out there, because, I believe that this is largely the reason for the pressure on low income people and their ability to even exist. I've been there. I've have been lucky enough to overcome. Call it white, male privilege. I can say that I have somehow found a way to circumvent this game (sytem) is stacked against me for reasons that I won't go into here. The baseline (I stress, in my opinion) is that this system is stacked to pressure anyone who doesn't comply with it. We can't let this system pressure out of existence our indigenous people, because it can and most likely will be used against all of us. This write up isn't going to help anyone in the immediate future. My hope is that the concepts I've presented might be propagated and spread. I hope that the Exchange will not be affected to the point that they will censor this very long response. I apologize. I can't be glib about this.

  • AdrianSelby says:

    I have heard that many communities throughout BC Have an empty homes tax. For some reason Salt Spring, where an empty homes tax would be especially helpful, does not have one. Does anyone know why, and what we can do to implement one? I heard that Adam Olson was the one who exempted Salt Spring. Is this true?

  • Sofie Hart says:

    Well said, thank you !! "The Trust should only focus on protecting the environment..... If we have housing, people will flock here, ruining our environment." That is absurd, these antiquated elite and ignorant believes would only make sense if the entire island was a wild life reserve. Who is going to stock the shelves at our grocery stores, sell you a coffee at Barbs or make the beds at Harbour House - if there is nowhere to live?
    IT shut down my little guest house, rented by a lovely girl, that had been there for 2 years. because no one can sleep or cook there - it does not comply with my land size. To have a rentable second dwelling, we need 5 acres!! I can use the guest house as my office they said.....
    I am speechless beyond words. Change has to be coming soon !!

  • Danielle Savich says:

    I'm with you!
    I'm a 50 year old woman that just arrived on the island. I would love to stay here and make a new life for myself. I got a lot to give back to a community. But there's no place to stay.
    And you see all those big and expensive houses all empty.
    This is sad and have no sence.

  • Douglas Baker says:

    Every time I read articles like this I have to shake my head in confusion, not because of the information in them, which is valuable, but in the situation as a whole. Articles like this and the comments that accompany them make the assumption that we, as Salt Spring Islanders, have the ability to affect change within the existing system.

    This assumption is wrong.

    The system we currently have consists of two administrative bodies (the CRD and the Island Trust). The CRD has 24 members on the board, one of whom is from SSI and the Island Trust Council has 26 members, two of which are from SSI. With numbers like this, anyone who thinks that SSI has any real say in its own future is dreaming. Yet, when twice been given the opportunity to create a governance system that could begin to give control of SSI to islanders, the people of Salt Spring Island have overwhelmingly said NO.

    My confusion is that everyone wants change but nobody wants to change the system that is hindering the change.

    I think that the people of Salt Spring Solutions are doing great work - it's just that the governance tools aren't there for anything you want to get done and the people of SSI don't want the tools.

  • Deb Bennett says:

    Yes, there needs to be much more affordable housing on Salt Spring Island for these people. I have investigated myself for friends who love this Island and want to stay here...but housing costs are truly shocking.
    It's time for some protests against this lack of humanity.

  • Marlowe Whyte says:

    I well understand the assumption (even the conviction) that incorporating into a municipality will bring greater agency over community needs; it's natural to believe that the absence of local governance is the missing link in resolving any number of critical community issues. I have not yet seen this borne out on Bowen Island (inc. in 1999), however. If you haven't done this already, I'd strongly recommend some deep reconassaince with BI affordable/alternative housing reps and see how they feel. I do know, that when I lived there, many Boweners had serious doubts (if not outright regrets) about incorporating. Some were hoping to reverse the process. I witnessed frustratingly impenetrable barriers towards acheiving concensus on critical issues (like housing, use of community lands, etc) and the added layer of the Muni seemed only to add tangles of red tape to the already bloated rubik's cube of beaurocracy. Depsite Bowen's reputation as being a bedroom community for West Van 'elites' there is actually greater unanimity on the urgent need for affordable, even social housing. And yet, with this greater concensus on Bowen (than appears to exisit on SSI, for example) towards fair and just housing for the people who actually keep our precious island communites functioning, Bowen Island seems mired in complexity. The Council has always 'appeared' to be on board (especially before any elections of course), but a nubmer of their desicions contradict this stance. But DO check with folks there - I left in 2017 - so perhaps the Muni has managed to accompish some progress on housing issues in the meantime. One can only hope.....

  • Sam Lightman says:

    Sadly, a hugely complex problem with no easy answers.

    I am in complete agreement with those who feel the housing shortage here needs to be addressed, for all the reasons already discussed. We desperately need all those people who help make the island livable and contribute so much to the vitality of the community. Who should do the addressing, and how, however, is really the crux of the issue.

    Some years ago, when I was on the local Trust Advisory Planning Commission, it occurred to me that we could put a dent in the housing shortage by going up one story in Ganges, putting apartments over the existing retail and office spaces. It’s done everywhere else, so why not here? So I asked, and the answer came back, no water. So water is one constraint, no matter what else we try to do.

    But the Trust might contribute by changing the cottage rule from 600 to 1000 square feet and reducing the size of the lot required for that second building. I think lot owners would respond to that. It would be a start, and you don’t have to change the Trust’s object to do that.

    When I came here 50 years ago, you could live in the house you were building, which meant i didn’t have to pay rent to live somewhere else while I paid the mortgage on the lot plus the cost of materials to build the place. No more. The guy who complained about the oceans of red tape and regulations surrounding owner-built construction got that right. But it’s a mishmash of provincial and regional regs. Maybe our Director could petition the CRD to carve out a space in their regulations for rural communities like Salt Spring, because the cost of building is already prohibitive. At least that would be a start. Between the regulations and the costs, a young family has with two strikes against them before they even start.

    Rental accommodation certainly needs to be addressed. The province is not particularly kind to small landlords, lumping the owners of on-site cottages or one or two investment properties in with the major high-rise players. The result – small owners pull their accommodations off the market and convert them to short-term rentals. I know of at least two landlords here who pulled their accommodations after renters trashed their places and whom the landlords were unable to evict in a timely fashion. This is deadly for the responsible renters who treat their places with respect. But this is a provincial problem; I don’t know what you could do for SSI specifically. Adam O?

    Foreign ownership is a provincial or maybe even a federal jurisdictional problem. It needs to be addressed, but it may be well too late for us here. An empty house tax might help, but probably not much. Municipal government comes with its own basket of problems, and anyway that ship has sailed. We need to do the best we can with what we have, which is admittedly not much.

    So many facets, so little room to move. Count me on Jason’s side. Let’s develop solutions and get on with implementing them. Let’s pester the powers that be to help rather than hinder us in this effort. It’s true there will never be enough affordable housing on Salt Spring – or in all of southwest BC, for that matter – to meet the demand, and I used to think that was a good reason not to try. I’ve changed my mind about that.

  • Steven Barer says:

    I think that one of the possible paths forward is to encourage, (rather than the current discouragement) private property owners to have mini homes, trailers, cabins and the like on their land.even on small property like an acre or so... instead of affordable housing projects, just encourage anyone with property to have a tenant on their land, and suddenly the opportunity for dozens of affordable homes becomes viable... yes, it should be done with an eye on safe septic and available water and all those other considerations - but it should be done. my $.02 worth. presently its stonewalled with endless regs that prevent real affordable housing from emerging.

  • DoloresBG says:

    I think the Salt Spring Solutions group has a LOT of great ideas and I think they would be excellent at leading changes on the island. I guess the question is "Is it easier to implement change as elected officials of a municipality or within the existing governmental framework?"
    I guess a good test would be to see if they selected one project, say an affordable housing complex. Could it be planned (in a water rich location), re-zoned, funded (through community and/or government investment), designed using environmentally sensitive processes (mass lumber - look it up! It's great for all the right reasons), and constructed through either system? Probably, but which would be quicker and involve the least red tape?
    The big catch is that this type of work cannot be done off the corner of a volunteers desk. It requires full-time dedicated planners and governmental agents (or people working with governmental agents), to make it happen. That means either local governance (as in a municipality) or Salt Spring Solutions becoming a non-profit agency that gets support from the community to make things happen. I would vote for either of these options and support it with $, because these people have great ideas and need some sort of leaver to make things happen. Any ideas on how we can we give them the power to enact change?

  • Toby says:

    I agree with all the solutions you mention. Creating and encouraging affordable housing options for the people we need for this to be a year-round community and not a vacation haven or enclave for the wealthy is not going to happen by itself. I just don't know how it can happen.