The Capital Regional District (CRD) has published a housing strategy for the Southern Gulf Islands, with 22 actions ranging from advocacy to funding to setting up a rural housing program.
The strategy, made public on June 14, recognizes the dire housing needs in the electoral area that includes Galiano, Mayne, Pender, Saturna, Piers and other islands as well as the unique position of the CRD in guiding development, with the Islands Trust governing land use and the provincial and federal government in charge of much of the major funding and policy questions. Among the 22 strategic actions identified in the report are funding pre-development studies and site preparation for affordable housing and setting up a fund for individuals to build accessory dwelling units, such as cottages or secondary suites on properties already zoned to allow them.
“The social and affordability crisis on the islands is buried in the back forty of large rural properties, in trailers, converted sheds, and other inadequate or unsafe housing conditions,” the report noted. Drawing on a 2018 housing needs assessment and a 2022 update, the report found the gap between income and cost of housing had widened in those four years and that the rental situation is “desperate” and adversely impacting service delivery and the local economy. Renters face a limited rental stock with many renting in the secondary market, precariously housed and without proper tenant protections.
The housing required, as detailed in the 2018 report and based on 2016 census figures, is a range of options with a median purchase price of $295,000 and median rental rate of $1,351 yet also over 500 units of rental housing at $625 or lower. Since the 2016 census, housing prices rose between 35 to 137 per cent. Rental rates have increased between nine and 27 per cent between 2018 and 2021.
Other concerns are the needs of a growing seniors population on the island, inadequate family and workforce housing, as well as only 51 per cent of homes in the area occupied year-round.
Due to the unique character of the islands, which are low density and growth constrained, solutions in urban areas like concentrating growth in commercial centres and building multi-family housing could have negative impacts. Instead, the report stated that distributing density “is more sustainable for the freshwater carrying capacity of the island” as is allowing only some multi-family development in certain areas.
As land use planning rests with the Islands Trust, whose local trust committees (LTCs) are in charge of governing land use through official community plans and zoning, the report does not focus on land-use tools to support affordable housing. The CRD is responsible for administering the BC Building Code (BCBC) through issuing building permits and ensuring compliance with it, and a range of actions in the affordable housing area, including housing agreements, collaborations and investment in affordable housing.
The plan sets out strategic actions around data gathering and monitoring, collaboration, funding, increasing capacity within the CRD and support to groups who want to build housing on the islands. Some actions also focus on advocacy to higher levels of government, including for funding and for regulatory and policy change.
A key impediment to advancing projects on the islands is getting them to the point where they can access grants and financing, as these funding options usually favour larger, multi-unit projects. One strategic action set out in the report is to explore setting up a rural housing program that will include the Southern Gulf Islands. Another is to look at the CRD’s surplus land and see what land could work for affordable housing.
In addition to supporting groups in financing their plans, the CRD’s actions include identifying funding for pre-development and site development costs for affordable housing developments. Funding for professional studies is all the more important on the islands, with concerns over environmental impacts, water availability and archaeological considerations. And site development costs are high on the islands, as development is often starting with bare land and needs roads, septic capability, clearing trees, drilling wells and other work.
Another strategic priority is focused on keeping housing affordable by the CRD adopting and administering housing agreements.
The CRD also wants to look into developing either a “fund or granting program to support the development of accessory dwelling units by existing residents” on properties zoned for this use. The housing strategy stated that this could help median income families with the otherwise prohibitive cost of building as well as providing a mortgage helper once the unit is built, or could support lower income seniors who own their home, with some seniors able to move into the smaller dwelling, which may be more suitable for senior living, and to rent out the main home — opening more housing for families. Another action point is developing building plans for garden suites and cottages that maximize affordability.
The CRD also wants to look at ways to approve buildings that vary in their design but are still allowed under the BCBC. As well, the CRD plans to advocate to the province to allow more affordable housing and small dwellings under 600 square feet, such as tiny homes, to be built and financed.
A special section of the housing strategy acknowledges the historical and continued importance of the area for Coast Salish peoples and specifically the SENĆOŦEN and HUL’Q’UMI’NUM speaking nations. The report noted the existence of reserve lands including a “SȾÁUTW̱ (Tsawout) /WS̱ IKEM (Tseycum) (jointly held) on Saturna Island; a WJ̱ OȽEȽP (Tsartlip) reserve on Mayne Island, a Penelakut reserve on Galiano Island, and a WS̱ IKEM (Tseycum) reserve on South Pender Island.” First Nations on Vancouver Island, the report noted, have in recent years sought opportunities to build housing on and off reserve lands and have acquired more responsibility over developing housing. While the strategy does not include “the traditional uses or future housing opportunities of First Nations” in the area, the CRD expressed support for “opportunities for affordable housing that is inclusive of First Nations’ rights to live throughout the region.”
The housing strategy is also guided by the CRD’s overarching regional housing affordability strategy and its goals of building housing supply across the housing spectrum, protecting rental housing stock, creating community support for affordable housing developments, and working regionally to address the needs.
To make the strategy work, the CRD recommended further community engagement. And while the recommendations in the report are for the CRD, it stressed the need for work by governments at the federal, provincial and local level as well as partnerships with residents and the non-profit sector to take on the shared responsibility of housing.