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  • Gayle Baker

Salt Spring's Housing Council Changes Direction to Focus on Business-Built Worker Housing

September 15

Nine welcomed Robin Williams, new chair of the Housing Council, to this ASK Salt Spring gathering. After our Territorial Acknowledgement, Robin began by telling us what excites and delights him: lovingly-renovating homes that others would demolish. He shared pictures of a home on Long Harbour with extremely-serious foundation issues. After a complete renovation, including an extensive seismic upgrade - requiring lifting the home, digging 20 feet to bedrock to anchor the foundation, and backfilling the basement 15 feet - this home met all building codes and was ready to occupy. Pictures of the now-lovely home with charming additions were shared. Not an easy task, requiring 72 yards of concrete and five cement pours, Robin is pleased that his efforts to rescue this home proved fruitful.


No stranger to building, he learned skills from his father and renovated his first home at the age of 17, soon moving to spearhead a multi-million dollar campus building at the age of 22. Having spent his career in the technology industry - allowing him to retire early - Robin moved to Salt Spring a decade ago, free to return to his passion of renovation as well as volunteering. Currently occupied renovating a particularly-challenging home - a hexagon! - Robin also wears a number of hats including Windsor Plywood employee, one of 50 voting members of the Hospital Association, Fire Trustee, and - just announced - one of three members-at-large of the HarbourWalk Steering Committee.


Focusing on the Housing Council (https://saltspringhousing.ca/), we began by learning a bit of a history of this nonprofit organisation. It was established over a decade ago with the hope that it would be the group leading our housing efforts. Enthusiasm for its potential surged in 2017 when Kisae Peterson accepted the position of chair, calling regular meetings of this group that expanded to include all of our local housing leaders as well as elected officials. This revitalized Housing Council provided an important service by getting local housing leaders together on a regular basis to share invaluable information. Unfortunately, all members were so focused upon their organisations’ individual housing projects that they had neither the resources nor the time to also take on either the strategic planning aspects of housing leadership, nor the role of managing extra projects.


They did , however, lead a number of successful projects. During the years between 2017 and now, Housing Council members completed an impressive number of new affordable housing units, including


Despite these successes, we learned that the term affordable housing (https://www.homelesshub.ca/solutions/housing-accommodation-and-supports/affordable-housing) has a specific definition. While addressing the needs of many, this list of successful projects does not address the housing needs of those workers making salaries of $100,000 but still unable to enter the local rental or purchased housing market. Part of the reason is that federal, provincial, and CRD funding has, to date, not focused on housing for this Missing Middle.


As the result of pressure to continue its informational role as well moving forward to address the housing needs of this Missing Middle, a recent decision was made by the board of the Housing Council: The informational aspects would be the responsibility of Salt Spring Solutions (https://saltspringsolutions.com/). The Housing Council would reconstitute its board, focusing attention upon creating more worker housing on Salt Spring.


It is Robin’s opinion that depending upon government funding for worker housing may not be the best route. He gave us two stories to make his point:


  1. Some years ago, he proposed a CRD HarbourWalk Steering Committee. It took nine months to even get approval of this committee by the CRD Board.

  2. When Windsor Plywood burned, a team was immediately-deployed and, within two weeks, it was operational and serving customers.


Robin suggests that, instead of depending upon government and nonprofit organisations to provide the full-range of the housing we need, businesses should be encouraged to also address this gap. Already stepping up through necessity, Robin estimates that local businesses are already expending $10 million for housing for its employees, ranging from hiring housing coordinators to acquisition of homes, trailers, etc.


Already working with local real estate agents and making connections with developers, Robin is convinced that the land, financing, and will to build this worker housing is plentiful on Salt Spring. He is committed into tapping into our rich local resources to pull together the team of financiers, land acquirers, and builders, funded by local Investment Trust Funds (https://www.wallstreetmojo.com/investment-trust/)


But, while land, money, expertise and will may be plentiful, that elephant in the room is water. Dragonfly Commons(https://dragonflycommons.com/) is a good example of worker housing for that Missing Middle with 30 purchased homes. This project has struggled - despite strong support from our current elected officials - for eight long years due, largely, to water concerns.


It took years to get provincial approval to just use its plentiful well water. Then, the provincial requirement of an expensive water utility stalled Dragonfly Commons for more years. Happily, CRD appears to have given renewed life to this project with its almost-signed agreement to operate the water utility built and funded by Dragonfly Commons. Confidence is high enough to begin shopping for pre-engineered homes, possibly even including a just-designed Salt Spring model. When completed, these small homes should sell for under $300,000 with a Housing Agreement limiting increases in the value of the land and, hopefully, slowing price increases.


Can our Dragonfly Commons experience guide us to more quickly completing other worker housing initiatives? Robin believes that the answer is Yes, and he intends to expend a great deal of effort proving just that. Citing a number of available properties, ranging from centrally-located to more far-flung ones and also including an Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) property, Robin and his Housing Council will soon focus their efforts on the most promising of these properties and proceed, using a market-driven business model.


When a builder who has recently fallen in love with Salt Spring asked whether the problem moving forward quickly was rooted in our zoning laws, the answer was mixed. Some felt strongly that the challenges were not created by our Island Trust. They asserted that recent and current Islands Trustees had done everything asked of them to pave the way for affordable housing projects presented to them. Seeking to avoid large developments like Pender Island’s Magic Lake Estates (https://www.magiclake.ca/), it was the opinion of many participants that the Islands Trust has done an admirable job protecting us from sprawling housing developments while also approving projects as needed.


A different view was that the problem - and solution - lies with the pervasive Islands Trust Salt Spring zoning that only allows single family homes on large acreages. A participant, well-versed in housing options in urban areas, challenged us to change our island-wide zoning to allow multiple families in our large, underutilized homes. Without this change, it was this participant’s observation that more and more multiple families will populate single homes - they just won’t tell, doing what is needed despite the law.


As 1:00 was approaching, Robin told us that he believed that most changes are made when a community reaches what he calls an Uncomfort Zone. In recent years, many on Salt Spring were relatively-comfortable with their finances and the direction of our community. Robin believes that now, fueled by looming climate emergencies, rising costs, and the growing awareness that we simply do not have the workers to meet our basic needs, we are entering that Uncomfort Zone. He is convinced that this unease will fuel some big wins with worker housing. . .and he is determined to be part of this needed solution.


As we began folding up our chairs, we thanked Robin for his optimism, willingness to tackle complex problems, and determination to do the work required to quickly create worker housing. (Thanks. Robin!)

Please join us this Friday, September 22, 11-1, in the SIMS Lobby to welcome Janey Rowland, of Housing NOW (https://www.sgicommunityresources.ca/housing-now-home/), introducing Salt Spring’s brand new Home Share program.


What would you like to ask her?

  • What is a Home Share Program?

  • What do you do to support those seeking to share their homes or find one to share?

  • Are there challenges or liabilities those sharing homes should know?

  • What successes have you had so far?

  • What do you see as the biggest challenges?

  • What do you need from Salt Spring to be successful?

  • And?


Please join us Friday to welcome Janey!

Big News:

ASK Salt Spring now has ongoing funding! A heartfelt THANK-YOU to the Institute for Sustainability, Education, and Action (I-SEA) and its Executive Director, Peter Allen !!!


***New fundraising option***

You can now give the Return It change you earn from your bottles to ASK Salt Spring: Account #230.

Any question, anytime: ask@asksaltspring.com


Want to see reports from all the ASK Salt Spring gatherings,

monthly schedule of upcoming gatherings?

asksaltspring.com. Want to listen to interviews of our special guests?ASK Salt Spring Answered


Want to help? ASK Salt Spring now has a Save-a-Tape box at Country Grocer.

We love your receipts! Remember: #15


Our Partners. . . .

Institute for Sustainability, Education, and Action (I-SEA), Country Grocer through Save-a-Tape and Gift Cards and Island Savings’ Simple Generosity grant.

A heartfelt Thank-You!


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