Housing crisis? What housing crisis?

So, here we are, April 2011, and the affordable housing crisis on Salt Spring continues.

Over the past couple of years I have bitten my “public tongue” to the point of it now being raw, waiting, patiently for the most part, for some indication the Trustees understand we have a housing crisis and are prepared to do something about it.

Having just spent another 5 1/2 hours at an LTC meeting, my tongue is beginning to become calloused.

So, here’s an update on what the Trust is doing about affordable housing on Salt Spring – in a nutshell – effectively nothing.

I know that sounds harsh, what with all of the rosy reports which have sprung from the Trustees, about how they are making wonderful progress, but please, hear me out, it’s been awhile.

Last month, at the end of a marathon 8 hour LTC meeting, and after grappling with the “illegal suites and cottages issue,” for two hours, the Trustees decided to formally split this single issue into two issues – the “illegal suites issue” and the “illegal cottage issue,” which has now fallen off the table for the present.

As of Thursday, here’s what is currently being proposed –  Option 1 – potential “legalization” of suites on about 20% of the properties on Salt Spring (which would leave the other 80% of suites illegal), or Option 2 – legalize about 50% of the suites on the island.

This “cup is half-empty (or 80% empty) solution” is meaningless, and will not likely generate an iota of new affordable housing. (Thursday’s Staff Report – “…it is reasonable to assume that any bylaw changes to allow for legal secondary suites will not result ‘in a [significantly] larger island population”).

In fact, if passed into law, the changes could easily, and significantly, reduce the amount of affordable suites, since 50-80% of suites would not only still be illegal, but, those outside of the proposed “pilot areas” would be subject to greater scrutiny by neighbours and the “legal” suite owners within the “pilot areas.” Who wants illegal competition?

Would the Trust enforce against the other 50-80% of the existing illegal suites? Trustee Ehring publicly asked himself that question back in January, and has yet to publicly answer his own question.

However, let’s take a look at the recent (and unreported by the Trust) record for indications. Last summer, shortly after the release of the study showing Salt Spring is in a housing crisis, the Trustees took a property owner to court to force her to discontinue the use of a 700 sf cottage as affordable housing, in the process evicting a young single mother. No one in the neighbourhood had complained. The cottage had been built to CRD building requirements including water and septic.

Doesn’t it stand to reason that if the Trustees are going to “legalize” suites in only 20-50% of the island that they would start enforcing against illegal suites in the rest of the island? Otherwise, what’s the point in “legalizing” a “pilot area” in the first place? Is this some kind of untried social experiment to see how people will react to new bylaws? Will the number of complaints increase, decrease, or stay the same (virtually zero.)

Given the fact the Trust is now proactively taking Westcoast Vacation Rentals to court for…wait for it…the crime of advertising illegal suites, cottages and homes for rent, is the next step in the process going to be the bylaw enforcement officer being directed by the LTC to search for illegal suites being advertised outside the proposed pilot areas? Again, if not, why not legalize them all?

The recommendation from the consultant, Tim Wake, who was hired by the LTC to twice give advice on the creation of affordable housing, was that the LTC should just legalize all illegal suites and cottages and get on to the bigger challenge – providing entry level home ownership possibilities. In other words, in effect the consultant was gently saying “stop wasting your/our time, energy and breath on trying to come up with a fancy ‘pilot area’ approach and just legalize them.” Don’t try and create regulations about how they are to be legalized. Don’t worry about a flood of building permit applications for more suites and cottages, because it hasn’t happened in any other jurisdiction which has blanket legalized suites and cottages. Listen closely – just “L-E-G-A-L-I-Z-E” them.

With all due respect to the “good intentions” the current Trustees evidently have, the good citizens of the island, who are suffering because of their inactions, are tired of walking on that road paved with them.

Now, with virtually no time left in this term, another 3 years has been wasted accomplishing next to nothing on the real problem, other than further identifying a problem anyone with a modicum of intelligence knew about ten years ago.

I have expressed to the Staff and Trustees, on numerous occasions, my opinions, ideas, solutions and concerns regarding their direction on this matter. It is plainly obvious to me, at this juncture, they haven’t listened to me, or the consultant who said the same thing. I can live with that.

But, now is the time they need to hear from you. You, the renters, who are displaced on an annual basis. You, the middle to low income earners on this island, looking to the future. You, the young families, trying to get a foothold in the real estate market.

This is your community and the Trustees are your elected representatives. You outnumber them several thousand to two.

Please, tell them what you think. I just did…again.

Eric Booth

Former Salt Spring Islands Trustee (2002-2005)

Note – This posting may be copied and pasted into any social or news media on the condition it is reproduced in its entirety and unedited. – Copyright 2011 Eric Booth

One Response to Housing crisis? What housing crisis?

  1. Donn Tarris says:

    Good posting Eric!
    I especially like the part about “providing entry level home ownership possibilities” being a necessary part of process. Without providing renters with equity in the community, we will never be inclusive.

    Speaking from experience, I have paid close to $150,000 into other people’s housing (called rent) on Salt Spring since moving here just over ten years ago and am still only a temporary resident. I say temporary because every time I have to move for one reason or another I usually am forced to consider off island due to the shortage of affordable housing here, whether to rent or purchase. The down payment required to purchase ensures that most renters cannot easily make the jump to being home owners. Renting does offer the freedom to leave a community with almost no notice – this is NOT stated as a positive aspect, especially for the community.

    If I am forced to leave the island, all the time invested in this community is lost. The services I provide are gone, as is my presence as a loyal customer/consumer of local businesses. We need to encourage families and entrepreneurs to live on Salt Spring, we cannot be sustainable with only retirees, tourists and consumers. We need people who move here to bring their ingenuity and production with them, instead of merely arriving and looking for non-existent jobs and non-existent homes. We need jobs other than store clerks, cooks, waiters/waitresses, construction and gardeners… we need businesses and jobs that produce exportable (off SSI) products and services, ones that bring money to the island economy on a year round basis. We need to sustainably grow those kinds of businesses on Island.

    I would say legalize all currently available suites and cottages with the provision that they be inspected for safety as any home is/should be. This would be a good first step in a transition that would ultimately move away from rental properties to where everyone is able to earn equity in the community through joint ownership of properties that currently provide suites.

    To landlords on SSI: if the people renting your suites/cottages are merely viewed as income to help you own more property, you actually do a disservice to the community at large. The people you rent to are part of the community, they work here, shop here, and something rather strong keeps them here in spite of how expensive it is. What is it worth to you to ensure that these people remain here as neighbours? Are you willing to form alliances with your renters to allow them to build up equity? I’m sure that we could figure out a shares program to use in conjunction with rental agreements that would see renters able to build up equity in the community. Can you afford to own your properties without the financial help of a renter? If not, then let’s move towards recognizing that fact and begin to look at renters the same as any other investor. I know this will make many landlords quake in their boots, but that’s only because they are heavily indoctrinated in a failing economic system that favours a landlord/tenant relationship over a cooperative one.

    I think that people need to understand that the Trust is not government. The organization is more like a provincial police force that is meant to protect property on behalf of the citizens of BC. The concept of the trust actually creating bylaws for a community is a rather silly one for me. By all means, remain as the provincial hit squad on behalf of the environment, but please demand to be fully funded by the province instead of behaving like a community organization/government that is working on behalf of your “constituents”. The fact that trustees are elected is actually a ludicrous idea considering that the mandate doesn’t change with who possesses the office. This differs greatly from any real democratic organization, which is free to change its complete agenda based on the will of the voters – as can be witnessed first hand in our provincial and federal governments. When we have a better system than “first past the post”, we are able to change the entire game. This would never be allowed with Islands Trust, it is not a true democratic body.

    Imagine if everyone now living in “illegal” housing on SSI just packed up and left. Along with that, imagine if everyone else abides by the economist’s view and tightens their belts – no more dinners out, no more meeting at the local coffee shop, no going to movies or renting dvds, no new clothes; nothing but the absolute necessities until we get out of this recession… A community relies on interdependence, a system of fair trade if you will. Our current BC provincial government and our federal government have lost sight of this. They want to cut back on services in their supposed rush to pay off debt that they ignore the inability to produce. While they may pay off the debt in the short term by forcing everyone in Canada to sell off all assets to do so, no-one will be in a position to do anything once the debt is paid off. I know that you understand this Eric, from your work with the monetary foundation.

    I’m rambling now, so will sign off. Time for the fair housing advocates to hit the streets!

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