By RON WRIGHT
The lack of affordable housing for long-term renters is a serious problem.
Online booking sites such as Airbnb have plundered Salt Spring’s rental stock. It was also a big mistake for the BC government to exclude these islands from its empty home and speculation taxes. The 2021 census shows that nearly a thousand Salt Spring homes — or one in six — are either vacant or used only part-time. Houses owned by off-island investors are standing empty while working islanders can’t find anywhere to live.
Unfortunately, our trustees Laura Patrick and Peter Grove, whose term of office runs out in just 12 weeks, have cobbled together a hasty and dangerous new bylaw that not only won’t fix the problem but threatens to unleash a host of new ones. Bylaw 530 would allow thousands of new “secondary dwellings” to be built by most landowners on the island, including most properties currently restricted to one dwelling for water and sewage reasons. This is not mere tinkering. When built out, this new zoning would almost double Salt Spring’s population and density. We are already growing at twice the national average. The bylaw makes no mention at all of affordability, even as it tears up key parts of the Official Community Plan. And the covenant provision that might have ensured new dwellings are for long-term renters only has been axed.
The likely result is not housing for locals but a surge of unlawful holiday rentals and haphazard construction that will further overwhelm the island’s services, environment and rural character. We can expect ever more land clearing, suburban sprawl, clogged roads and ferries, water shortage and septic pollution. Our best efforts in fighting climate change will be for nought. In short, Bylaw 530 grossly contravenes the Islands Trust founding mandate to “preserve and protect in perpetuity.” Many rightly fear that its main effect will be an end-run around the Trust Act’s core mission to save these lovely islands from overdevelopment.
I and many others have raised these concerns with our trustees by phone and email. When asked why they’re in such a hurry to pass this far-reaching law in the last days of their term, both told me: because we have to do something. Amazingly, both also told me not to worry because few people will act on it anyway. It seems that the appearance of a solution, not a true one, is their top priority. So why do it?
Bylaw 530 has already run through two readings, and could get its third and final stamp on Sept. 6, a month and a half from now. Despite the sweep of new zoning that would change the island forever, most islanders have barely heard of it. Before third reading, B.C. law requires a full public hearing. People were expecting one to occur on Thursday, July 21 at Meaden Hall, but according to the Trust website, we are instead being offered merely an “open house” by Zoom on that day. Now, just hours before this Driftwood went to press, there’s word that a real public hearing will be held after all, on Thursday, Aug. 18. All concerned islanders should mark this on their calendars and be sure to attend in person bringing questions and objections. It is likely the last chance. Meanwhile, they can email their trustees, copying in staff and Trust chair Peter Luckham.
There are much better ways to free up rental housing. Why not crack down effectively on illegal Airbnbs, of which there are already hundreds on the island? Why not bring Salt Spring within the empty home and speculation taxes? Why not use proceeds from those taxes to build homes in places where services, shops and public transport are in place? These are all proven ways with far less risk of wrecking the island for future generations and visitors alike.
The writer is a Salt Spring resident and author of A Short History of Progress and several other books on history, travel and of fiction.