Trust too slow to respond to housing crisis, says head of housing task force

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The chair of a task force set up to tackle the island’s affordable housing issue said it’s demoralizing to see work by the Islands Trust towards changing a secondary suites bylaw take so long.  

Speaking at a Jan. 18 meeting of the Local Trust Committee (LTC), Rhonan Heitzmann said Housing Action Program Task Force members were hoping to see a report by staff on updating the secondary suites Bylaw 461, which the task force recommended in August. Heitzmann said it’s disappointing that the report will be shown at a February meeting, “which will be six months after we proposed the recommendations, which was from the point of view of trying to have quick solutions to the housing crisis that the whole community is suffering from,” he said. 

Heitzmann said it’s demoralizing for the volunteers on the task force, who take time away from work and family life to do this work, to see things move so slowly. 

“The community was sceptical of this task force and this project from the beginning, seeing it as just another make-work project that leads to another report that gets put up on a shelf, that moves slowly,” Heitzmann said. “If this is how we move in response to a crisis, I don’t know if we understand what the definition of a crisis is . . . In the face of a crisis I don’t think business as usual cuts it.” 

LTC chair Peter Luckham noted there had been resource challenges with staff and other demands, yet he assured Heitzmann that the LTC does take the issue seriously. At a Nov. 9, 2021 meeting, the LTC asked staff to report back on potential bylaw amendments to allow accessory dwelling units in all zones on the island. 

“We’ve taken a little bit longer than intended, than desirable,” said regional planning manager Stefan Cermak of this specific bylaw. “And that’s because it’s difficult. We’re reviewing the legal opinions we’ve had, we’ve been trying to work with administrative staff from agencies to make sure that what we draft goes out and they move swiftly as opposed to being bogged down in the referral process.” 

Cermak said staff shared the same concerns as Heitzmann, and added that once they get to the legislative process of bylaws that is where some momentum will be seen.

Planner Louisa Garbo said the work includes speaking with the Salt Spring Island Watershed Protection Alliance, speaking with all First Nations with a territorial interest in the island, as well as a technical working group.

“And the bylaw still has some technical challenges that we need to work on. And once we feel it’s a defensible bylaw, we can bring it to LTC for their endorsement,” she said. 

Heitzmann said he was pleased to hear that work was being done on drafting a bylaw, as previously he had understood that only a report about the bylaw was being worked on.

“It makes a big difference to know there is actually work being done on drafting a bylaw,” he said. Cermak confirmed he recently reviewed a copy of the draft bylaw.

The task force also plans to reach out to the broader community. Trustee Laura Patrick said communicating better what is happening on housing is important as a lot of misunderstanding exists.

“We’re not talking about housing Canada on Salt Spring, we’re talking about housing the vibrant community we need here to maintain our lives here,” she said.  

Maxine Leichter attended the Jan. 18 LTC meeting as a delegate, urging trustees to “adopt policy that is based on analysis of data and prior experience.”

Leichter said the first step is to identify the causes of a lack of affordable housing, which she said are income inequality, cost of construction, low interest rates encouraging property investment, existing cottages and suites used as vacation rentals, and zoning restrictions in urban areas. 

“The most significant of these can only be addressed at the provincial and federal level,” she said. “If those factors are the most significant drivers of the problem, we all need to put responsibility for solutions on those levels of government.”

Leichter asked trustees what was happening with the crackdown on vacation rentals on the island. “What about enforcing that rule to stop vacation rentals from masquerading as B&Bs? There’s quite a few online.” 

Leichter also said zoning for more dense development is a solution to housing issues, yet this refers to urban areas and not to Salt Spring where water and sewer services are limited and keeping the island’s rural character is valued.

“Dense development is urban, not rural, and we have limited water and sewage treatment capacity,” she said, adding that previous efforts to rezone for more affordable housing haven’t worked. 

Elizabeth FitzZaland, representing Salt Spring Solutions, spoke at the Jan. 18 meeting and reminded trustees about the 20 years since the Islands Trust began working on the issue of secondary suites. Since then, FitzZaland said the secondary suites bylaw was initiated as a pilot project in 2012 and “then the moratorium really truncated the whole project.” FitzZaland was referring to the North Salt Spring Waterworks District 2014 moratorium preventing new hook-ups and by extension new developments on properties serviced by the district.

“We can keep consulting, we can keep doing data, research . . . but at some point we’ve got to be bold, we actually have to do something here. I think there’s broad community support for this,” she said.

Consultation and research have been ongoing for two decades, she said, and implementing a bylaw is “low-hanging fruit” and an action that can be taken now as the community works on more innovative ideas.

“This isn’t an innovative one, this is just getting to where the bar’s already been set 20 years ago,” she said. 

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