The environmental and social merits of ADU Bylaw 530

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By RHONAN HEITZMANN 

Salt Spring Solutions + Housing Action Program Task Force

I am writing this article to hopefully clear up any confusion about the environmental and social merits of Bylaw 530, permitting accessory dwelling units (ADUs) for full-time occupancy on more properties on Salt Spring Island. 

First of all, everyone I know advocating for this solution recognizes that this is not the only answer to our complex housing problems, but merely one important step to address a portion of the wide spectrum of desperate need for housing on our island. Allowing full-time dwelling suites not only within principle residences, but also accessory buildings such as garages, shops, studios and even as small cabins or cottages is standard planning practice that is often adopted as a first step to address housing shortages in communities all over North America, and indeed in our region and islands. 

For me this is well framed by being a featured solution in the Islands Trust’s own 2003 commissioned report, Options for Affordable Housing: New Solutions to the Housing Crisis in the Islands Trust Area, by Normandy Daniels. 

She writes: “Perhaps the most readily available, and inexpensive, source of rental housing stock would be that created within existing buildings and residences on private land throughout the islands. As in larger or more urban communities (where legalization of suites is becoming more popular), secondary suites, garden suites, garage apartments, and the like are a way to increase human density without increasing development pressure on the land or requiring additional infrastructure.”

The environmental benefit of ADUs are: They are low impact, small footprint, make use of existing buildings or doubling the use of planned buildings. It is cheaper to retrofit existing buildings than build new ones, requiring less new raw resources and energy to operate. No new subdivisions, no new roads or clear cuts required. Secondary infill is the opposite of rural sprawl, it adds a layer of flexible, low impact housing within existing infrastructure without changing the character of properties and neighbourhoods.

Housing locally the people needed to serve our community is necessary for community resilience. We need to be less reliant on a commuting workforce…and, for those of us concerned about climate change, this reduces the significant and growing carbon impact of commuters, not to mention the strain on our already overburdened ferry system.

Water: sufficient water must be proved for occupation permit: no water no ADU. Rainwater harvesting is an option but there is an extra cost associated so still represents a barrier. Long-term occupants of small dwellings use less water, especially compared with vacationers, irrigation and the waste leakage of community water systems’ failing infrastructure.  A recent Salt Spring Island Watershed Protection Alliance study showed that average household use in Salt Spring’s community water systems is around 230 litres per day. That is approximately the volume of a 50-gallon rain barrel. Please end the fear that allowing a few extra small dwellings is going to somehow drain our aquifers dry. 

I have a unique perspective being the person people call when they have a water shortage. I can tell you that no one has ever ordered water because their well has been negatively affected by a neighbours tenant’s use. We need to be careful in some areas, yes, but no one is more acutely aware of protecting their groundwater than those who have a low yielding well. Full-time occupants living with limited volume systems are the most frugal and conscientious users. It is unconscionable to try to place the burden of protecting our aquifers on the backs of the young families we need to support our community.  

The merit of ADUs as a part of the solution to our housing crisis is proved by the fact that hundreds if not thousands are already housed by suites and cabins of some sort all over this island, despite the current nonconforming status. Smart planning recognizes what people are already doing to solve a problem, and we should empower this solution to be more broadly accepted and safer. If nothing else this bylaw will protect those that are already housed this way, and this is significant.  

It is true that the cost of building will limit the creation of new rentals, and not everyone wants to be a landlord. This is why in order for this type of permission to be successful it should be extended broadly to all properties equally, in order to capture all those who are willing and able to participate. We need to end the fear that this bylaw will result in an environmentally destructive overrun of our population capacity. We would be lucky if we achieved 10 per cent uptake of new units over time. In order to be a more effective solution, we as a community, can also encourage more uptake of this style of housing once it is legally permitted by supporting would-be but nervous landlords with a landlord tenant matching service (to help support positive landlord tenant relationships) and advocating for the return of the right for landlords to have a fixed lease so that they can see how their relationship with a tenant goes before being essentially locked in forever.  This is a significant barrier to the creation of private rentals that is often underestimated. We need to advertise publicly, engage our friends and neighbours that we are in a deep crisis and we need everyone to pitch in if we have any hope of salvaging a functional and resilient community capable of serving our own needs.

If we were to be included in the STV tax area, the stick of the tax could now legally become a carrot to incentivize vacant property owners to save thousands of dollars per year by housing someone legally in a “caretaker” ADU. Additionally, we could advocate for a tax credit incentive for property owners who provide a long-term rental.

Also often overlooked is the fact that ADUs are not only about providing rentals but also allow for multi-generational living, and retiring and downsizing in place on one’s own beloved property. They are also mortgage helpers that assist a family on the verge of home ownership to be able to afford to get into the market.

Speaking of affordability, there seems to be concern that ADUs will not offer “truly” affordable rentals. Let’s clarify this point. Affordability is a relative term that, according to CMHC, is defined by 30 per cent of gross household income towards shelter. On Salt Spring Island, every household earning under $200,000 per year is in the same boat of not being able to qualify for a mortgage on an average starter home. This means there are plenty of working families, who can afford to pay higher rents, but there is next to nothing available, which puts pressure downwards on the whole spectrum of housing needs. Encouraging private owners to rent out a space is not meant to equal government subsidized housing for the lower income part of the spectrum. This is market housing, and in order for market housing to be more affordable there needs to be sufficient supply to meet the demand. If we have enough adequate housing there will be less profiteering of outlandish rents for substandard housing.  

The proposed bylaw clearly states that these ADUs cannot be used for short-term rental, so the fear that this will somehow further add to the proliferation of illegal STVRs is unfounded. Regulating legal B&B businesses with a licence system would greatly ease the efforts of enforcement against illegal vacation rentals and will allow us as a community to decide how many beds we want to have rented out for tourists on a given peak day, an important control for those concerned about the impacts of vacationers on water use and infrastructure, while still sustaining a reasonable amount of tourism for the economy.

Permitting ADUs is just one first step of many recommendations to be proposed by the Housing Action Program Task Force, which together are designed to find a balance of housing a diverse and healthy population with minimal impact per capita on the environment. This is not achieved by arbitrary figures of how many people someday may live here, but by transforming how we all live so that collectively we live with a smaller ecological footprint.

We also need multifamily purpose built rentals close to village centres. But the challenge is that we don’t have any local government agency taking responsibility for building such complexes. We depend upon non-profits who have been putting in valiant efforts to recently bring the Salt Spring Commons and Croftonbrook projects to fruition. But these efforts have taken a long time and are very costly. At the rate of less than 10 units per year of effort, it would take over 60 years to fulfill the housing need of 600 Units identified in the CRD 2020 housing needs assessment (based on 2016 Census data, thus already sorely out of date). 

Please recognize the small but essential contribution that Bylaw 530 might have to contribute desperately needed housing options to our community. Please email the Islands Trust at ssiinfo@islandstrust.bc.ca and express your support.

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