Small dwellings for working families not the eco-villain

Most people on this island have a lot of passion for protecting the environment, but unfortunately a small minority of conservationists continue to apply their time towards slowing or stopping progress from finally happening on our workforce housing crisis.

Whether it’s in numerous Driftwood articles, presentations to Trust Council, postings online, articles penned for the Victoria Times Colonist, and even letters written to prominent conservation organizations who have taken a stand on people and housing issues, a few people on this island are working tirelessly to spread misinformation and fear about housing and the environment.

Last week in the Driftwood, one of these people, Maxine Leichter, made a number of strong yet false statements. I hate to call people out by name, but when you put yourself out there in the community so prominently, you become a fair target for criticism (which also of course applies to me, I’ll look forward to the comments on this post!).

Maxine’s Driftwood article suggested our island’s environmental protections are “a mirage”, that Trustees “favour development over environmental protections”, that thousands of small suites are about to be built and thus people set to pour onto our shores, and that Salt Spring is “enabling rather than limiting development”.

Are we living on the same island? Let’s unpack these falsehoods.

First, every housing advocate I know, and every Trustee, is a pretty passionate environmentalist. All trustees take protection of our island seriously, as does the unique conservation mandate of the Trust Act, which has world-regarded protections built into its core. Suggesting Trustees and the Islands Trust are anti-environment is flat out false.

Second, our island’s population has barely grown since 2000 (2001 population: 9,279. Today: around 11,000). Raising fears about thousands flooding our shores is a tired trope almost as old as Salt Spring, but for a variety of what should now be fairly obvious reasons - hello housing crisis and extremely high cost of living - exponential growth is simply not happening.

Third, small suites and cottages are not being built en masse. Rather, hundreds have left the rental pool to become short term vacation rentals, or have deteriorated into mouldy uninhabitability. With the cost of building so high, along with severe water considerations, even the Trust’s recent first step into legalizing more small dwellings is hardly going to lead to “thousands” of new dwellings, as she claims.

Small dwellings are not only not being built, they are also not the environmental villain here. The real development pressure on this island today is the insatiable demand for more new-build large-footprint high-end homes, usually on cleared land, far from town, with water intensive gardens. Why no outrage or letters about this?

The island’s embattled workforce is not going to ruin Salt Spring Island, and advocating for regular people to be able to stay in the place they call home is no threat to any of our deeply held and shared environmental values.

I sometimes wonder if those who continue to see villany in sustainably housing our modest workforce are themselves so overwhelmed with climate grief they are blind to the complexity of the issue. People should get help for their legitimate trauma at the state of the world, but stop taking it out on our small community. We are literally fighting to make ourselves more resilient to the many oncoming disasters we will continue to face. I shudder at the brittle and lonely place we will become with no on-island workforce left.

January 25, 2022 4:31 PM